I mean welfare programs in the narrower sense of targeted redistribution to the poor, not transfer programs per se. Robert Moffitt, editor of the American Economic Review, offers some hypotheses in a recent interview:
…increased labor force participation of middle-class women was part of the cause [of falling popularity]. That transformation really changed the attitude of voters. Once a large percentage of middle-class women were working and putting their children into day care, the public began to question why we shouldn’t expect the same thing from poor women. There was no longer the support for paying women to stay at home with their children, which was the goal of the original legislation in 1935.
Another turn against welfare, I think, has to do with the changing composition of the welfare caseload. In the 1960s, the caseload was largely composed of divorced women. One could imagine that members of the middle class, while not looking favorably upon divorce, understood it because many of them were getting divorced too. But by the 1980s, the caseload started to become composed largely of young women who had never been married and were having children out of wedlock. That is a completely different group, and the middle class had a great deal less sympathy toward those women.
A final factor is that I think the attitudes among women receiving welfare changed. If you look at attitudinal studies from the early 1990s, many welfare recipients said that they didn’t like welfare, that they thought other women were gaming the system to stay on welfare, and were not really trying to improve their lives. Welfare recipients had incorporated the social norms of the middle class. And once the legislation led some recipients to move off welfare, it had a snowball effect. They began to exert social pressure on other women to find work. I think that increased stigma within poor populations made it easier to overhaul the welfare system. But it took a major shock; incremental reform would not have done it.