- In the 1980s, AFDC came under increasing bipartisan criticism for the program's alleged ineffectiveness. While acknowledging the need for a social safety net, Democrats often invoked the culture of poverty argument. Proponents of the bill argued that welfare recipients were "trapped in a cycle of poverty." Highlighting instances of welfare fraud, conservatives often referred to the system as a "welfare trap" and pledged to "dismantle the welfare state." Ronald Reagan's oft-repeated story of a welfare queen from Chicago's South Side became part of a larger discourse on welfare reform.
Republican governor Tommy Thompson began instituting welfare reform in Wisconsin during his governorship in the late-1980s and early-1990s. In lobbying the federal government to grant states wider latitude for implementing welfare, Thompson wanted a system where "pregnant teen-aged girls from Milwaukee, no matter what their background is or where they live, can pursue careers and chase their dreams." His solution was workfare, whereby poor individuals, typically single-mothers with children, had to work to receive assistance. Thompson later served as Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush.
Passage of PRWORA was the culmination of many years of debate in which the merits and flaws of AFDC were argued. Research was used by both sides to make their points, with each side often using the same piece of research to support the opposite view. The political atmosphere at the time of PRWORA's passage included a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate (defined by their Contract with America) and a Democratic president (defined by Bill Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it.")