Hot on the campaign trail in South Carolina last week, Bernie Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton for her role in pushing to overhaul the welfare system in 1996. “I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform—strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.” A day later, former President Bill Clinton swiped back. “There’s no question that [welfare reform] did far more good than harm,” he said, but added that “subsequent events showed it needs some improvement.”
The Clintons have championed welfare reform for over 20 years—even as study after study has shown that it has severely harmed poor families, and driven a historic number of black and Latino children into deep poverty. In the early 1990s, they designed a strategy to lure white voters back to the Democratic Party: capitalize on white disgust toward “dependent” black and Latina mothers on welfare within a liberal veneer that promised them a “hand-up, rather than a handout.” As first lady, she not only cheered her husband’s goal to “end welfare as we know it,” but she also helped whip up support for the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the legislation that remade the welfare system: “I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage,” she recounted in her 2003 memoir Living History. Later, as senator, she continued to applaud it, referring in one 2002 interview to people who had left welfare as “no longer deadbeats—they’re actually out there being productive.” Even as recently as her 2008 run for president, she defended the welfare-to-work legislation as “enormously successful,” while lamenting that “people who are more vulnerable” would suffer more during the recession.
“They don’t acknowledge the number of people who were hurt. It’s just not in their lens,” Peter Edelman, a friend of Hillary’s since law school and former assistant secretary of social services at the Department of Health and Human Services, said of the Clintons in 2008.
But in her current campaign for president, Clinton, who is running as a “pragmatic progressive,” has publicly avoided the issue. At a time when many Americans are outraged over economic and racial injustice, she is quiet on the subject of welfare reform, because it tells a story of how she betrayed poor people of color and undermines her image as a feminist candidate who has been a lifelong champion for women and children.
Yet, nearly two decades after the Clintons helped make PRWORA the law of the land, welfare reform remains a defining “antipoverty” policy—one that urgently needs to be discussed. Its legacy still ripples through the country, where families remain as poor as—or, in many cases, poorer than—before, but with one crucial difference: Today, the “reformed” welfare system provides little safety net, and no hand-up. Instead, it traps poor mothers into exploitative, poverty-wage jobs and dangerous personal situations, deters them from college, and contributes to the growing trend of poor mothers who can neither find a job nor access public assistance. It is our failed social policy—not simply the recession—that is responsible for crisis-level poverty in the United States.
Statistics tell a sobering story about the persistence of poverty in the post-welfare reform era. In 2014, a record 47 million Americans—nearly one in six—lived below the poverty line that comes to $23,850 a year for a family of four. Economic deprivation is closely tied to racial inequality, as poverty rates for Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians range between 23 percent and 38 percent, compared to 10 percent for whites.
Yet, as racial and economic conditions deteriorated in the early 21st century, our nation’s tattered safety net caught fewer and fewer people. Whereas before “reform,” cash assistance reached 68 percent of eligible poor households, that figure had dropped to 26 percent by 2013. In 10 states today, fewer than 10 out of every 100 eligible families receive cash assistance, and in Wyoming, just 4 percent of poor children live in a household that receives temporary assistance for needy families. In most states, the value of a TANF check has dropped by 20 percent or more since 1996. In Missouri, where a recently enacted anti-welfare measure kicked nearly 4,000 low-income families off of TANF just this year, the average household receives $217 per month.
Indeed, data shows a sharp spike in families living in extreme poverty these days. Sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer report that, in 2011, about 20 percent of poor households with children—about 1.46 million households—were surviving on $2 or less per person per day in a given month. The authors report: “The prevalence of extreme poverty rose sharply between 1996 and 2011. This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” Extreme poverty is most pronounced for black families, who experienced a 183 percent increase during this period, compared with 132 percent for Latinos and 110 percent for whites.
Put simply: In the aftermath of welfare reform, people most in need—disproportionately families of color—fall through the shredded public safety net, making it increasingly difficult to escape poverty.
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The story of welfare reform goes back to the early 1990s. Back then, Hillary and Bill Clinton as well as their allies at the center-leaning Democratic Leadership Council—which was famously dedicated to “innovative, non-bureaucratic, market-based solutions”—sought to take back the issue of welfare from the Republicans. Picking up misleading stereotypes of poor women of color as lazy, promiscuous, and dependent, they cast welfare as the pitfall of American liberalism—with its morally corrupt and entrapping benefits, lax immigration rules, and crippling cycle of dependency. That public derision largely focused on African-American and Latina immigrant women, though the majority of recipients were white.
Their solution was to “end welfare as we know it,” which they did in August 1996 when Clinton signed the Republican-backed PRWORA. The PRWORA was a radical piece of legislation that restricted eligibility for cash welfare (now called TANF); introduced a five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits; imposed strict work requirements while making it harder for poor mothers to earn a college degree; strong-armed states to drastically reduce their caseloads; and changed public assistance from a federal entitlement program to state block grants, giving states enormous flexibility on how to spend TANF funds. Passed in an era of rising nativism, PRWORA also barred legal immigrants from receiving major federal benefits, including food stamps and Social Security income (some of which were restored by Congress in subsequent years).
No mere bystander, Hillary Clinton played an active role in the lead-up to welfare reform, advocating “harsher polices like ending traditional welfare,” as journalist (and Nation contributor) Liza Featherstone writes, “even as others in the administration, like Labor Secretary Robert Reich, proposed alternatives.” Indeed, in 1997 Clinton took credit for pushing for a welfare bill that would more closely monitor and punish women’s “poor parenting” behavior: “I’ve advocated tying the welfare payment to certain behavior about being a good parent. You couldn’t get your welfare check if your child wasn’t immunized. You couldn’t get your welfare check if you didn’t participate in a parenting program. You couldn’t get your check if you didn’t show up for student-teacher conferences.”
It bears mentioning that Hillary Clinton’s stereotypical welfare mother differed from Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” In Clinton’s version, reminiscent of Progressive-era uplift programs, poor women are deficient mothers who need “discipline” and “training” from tough yet beneficent politicians like her.
The Clintons claimed that supporting PRWORA was politically pragmatic, a necessity to win the 1996 election and take the issue away from the Republicans. Yet, Clinton’s aides at the time did not see it as politically necessary. Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos reportedly told the president that signing the bill wasn’t necessary for his reelection, because he had a sufficient lead over Republican nominee Bob Dole to beat him in November. Meanwhile, three prominent Clinton administration officials working at Health and Human Services—Mary Jo Bane, Wendell Primus, and longtime friend Peter Edelman—resigned in protest. While the Clintons in their stump speeches talk up Hillary’s community roots at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), her former mentor, CDF president Marian Wright Edelman, told Democracy Now in 2007 that, in light of the Clintons’ support for welfare reform, Hillary “is an old friend but they are not friends in politics.”
Even after welfare reform had passed, Clinton continued to praise it in columns she wrote as first lady. Distorting feminist ideas that linked women’s independence to meaningful careers outside the home, she portrayed welfare recipients as dependents who needed to be cajoled to get a job for their own good. Picking up this theme in a 1999 column, she paternalistically affirmed: “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.” In 2000, she echoed the same theme, taking direct ownership of the legislation: “Since we first asked mothers to move from welfare to work, millions of families have made the transition from dependency to dignity.” (Emphasis added.)
Clinton did not acknowledge that most states require TANF recipients to accept the first job they are offered, regardless of the pay or working conditions, and that the vast majority of jobs accessible to former recipients are low-paying, “dirty,” or contingent jobs that have historically been assigned to women and people of color.
Moreover, Clinton’s gendered and racialized language of dependency was not accidental. Racial code words and optics were especially crucial to the Clinton’s assault on welfare, as well as to their disingenuous messaging that “reform” had empowered black women. Standing beside President Clinton at the public signing of PRWORA was Lillie Harden, a 42-year-old African-American mother from Little Rock, Arkansas, who had stopped receiving welfare benefits after she got a job at a supermarket. Harden’s presence at this ceremony, at the invitation of the White House, delivered an untruthful message: Recipients were black and would never have left welfare without the government’s push.
Had the Clintons maintained an interest in Harden, they would have discovered that her “success” was short-lived. After suffering a stroke in 2002, she asked journalist Jason DeParle to relay a message to Clinton “asking if he could help her get on Medicaid. She had received it on welfare, but had been rejected now, and she couldn’t afford her $450 monthly bill for prescription drugs.” Harden died in March 2014, at the age of 59.
Thanks to an avalanche of research published before PRWORA’s passage, the White House and Congress knew that most single mothers who used cash assistance did so during short periods of unemployment, to get a maternity leave that they didn’t receive from work, or as a way to escape domestic violence and get back on their feet—in other words, to help assert their needs and independence. Studies then, like now, also showed that most recipients combined work, cash assistance, and food stamps because jobs were scarce, and that a full-time worker who earned the minimum wage still fell below the poverty line. Indeed, as poverty experts warned, legislation that did not provide educational opportunities and transportation supports to poor mothers, subsidize quality child care, improve wages, and create more good jobs was destined to fail.
In a nod to critics, Bill Clinton promised to raise the minimum wage during his second term. But no increase happened, apparently, as documents released in 2014 show, because the Clintons and his advisers did not want to lose an important campaign issue that could continue to draw in voters for Democratic candidates.
At the same time, neither the president nor Congress ordered the collection of data to track what was happening to people when they stopped receiving welfare. All the government cared to know about was the drop in the rolls—not whether former recipients had found jobs, how much they were earning, or whether families had adequate shelter and nutrition.
And yet, since PRWORA’s implementation, most studies of the effects of this legislation, including our own, have concluded that it has only succeeded in pushing people out of the welfare system—not helped the vast majority out of poverty. Even during the boom years of the late 1990s, when former recipients were job hunting in a robust labor market, research showed that poor mothers were channeled into low-wage, dead-end jobs, and that many who “timed out” or were “sanctioned out” of TANF could not find work because they needed more education and training.
In our study of the effects of welfare reform on Latina immigrants who had received public assistance after the reform (the vast majority of whom were working and married before welfare reform, but earned such meager wages that they also had to rely on cash benefits), two-thirds of the women left or were pushed off welfare, but not a single one got a job that moved her family out of poverty. But these women’s “success” at leaving welfare was used to demonstrate the soundness of welfare reform.
Moreover, the immense stigma of receiving welfare and the difficulty of actually getting on TANF mean that the vast majority of poor families are not able to access assistance. In an average month in 2014, there were more than twice as many unemployed single mothers as there were eligible families receiving cash assistance. And in 2013, even though 20 percent of all American children were living under the official poverty line, fewer than 15 percent (or 2.4 million) received TANF.
The record of the past two decades shows that the United States has gotten worse at preventing childhood poverty. Whereas welfare benefits lifted 2 million children out of extreme poverty prior to 1996, this was true for only 629,000 children in 2010. In part this is because TANF benefits are unconscionably low. In all 50 states, TANF benefits are below 50 percent of the poverty line; in 30 states, the average welfare check pays for less than half the rent.
Research also shows that federal quotas for caseload reductions pressured states to reduce their TANF rolls by any means necessary and led to further criminalizing of poor women of color. And with control of welfare now given to the states in the form of block grants, a revival of Jim Crow–like practices and exclusions have flourished, as Southern states have largely dismantled their welfare systems and pay some of the lowest benefits in the nation.
PRWORA also validated the idea that noncitizens—including those people who legally reside and work in the United States—should pay the same taxes as citizens but have fewer public entitlements and rights. Even though Congress partially restored some food stamp and Social Security benefits for noncitizens who resided in the United States prior to 1996, multiple studies conducted after this legal restoration found persistent and widespread instances of caseworkers misinforming immigrants about their rights, and denying assistance to qualified applicants on the basis of their immigration status. PRWORA also introduced unprecedented cooperation and information-sharing between law enforcement and immigration enforcement agencies, laying the groundwork for the Patriot Act and the deportation regime that have characterized the past 15 years.
While the Clintons promised reform would give poor people a “hand-up,” most TANF spending by states does not meet the program’s purported priorities. The block grant system has enabled states to use federal TANF funds to fill in for shortages in state budgets. States today spend only 8 percent of their TANF funds on work-related activities, while 15 states spend less than 5 percent of their budget on child-care subsidies for working parents who receive TANF. Given the vagaries of the low-wage labor market, where women often cobble together various poverty-wage jobs with little access to the quality affordable child care or transportation supports that the legislation promised, welfare reform further devalued and destabilized care for poor children.
While perhaps the most effective way out of poverty is a college degree, the legislation made it extremely difficult for TANF recipients to pursue higher education (four-year college no longer counted as a work-related activity that made a person eligible for benefits). And so while in 1995, 649,000 student parents were receiving cash assistance while enrolled full-time in education programs, only 35,000 full-time students received TANF aid in 2004.
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In the face of such devastating evidence, Hillary Clinton’s silence on the issue of welfare reform reveals much about her as a candidate. Like her husband, she changes her position according to political currents. The Clintons have made calculated decisions to alter their public position around other damaging policies they took during their White House years, notably with same-sex marriage (and the Defense of Marriage Act) and more recently with mass incarceration (particularly the 1994 Crime Bill). Yet, while no longer openly celebrating welfare reform, Hillary constantly positions herself as the best advocate for women and children, but does not feel politically or morally compelled to call for fixing the broken TANF system she helped to create.
Sanders’s “revolutionary” campaign for the US presidency has also been remarkably silent on the need to restore the social safety net. Despite his criticism of Clinton on welfare reform, Sanders has said nothing about improving means-tested public assistance, and only offered the goal of raising the minimum wage to $15. (Clinton has promised to raise it to $12, which would bring a full-time worker just to the poverty line.) While Sanders talks about expanding Medicare, he’s conspicuously quiet on matters related to TANF.
Indeed, while lamenting that the United States has the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, Sanders should follow the example of many social democratic nations, whose models he celebrates, that provide cash transfers to children in economically struggling households. As journalists Clio Chang and Samuel Adler-Bell conclude, “This policy contributes to the low child poverty rates found in Denmark (2.7 percent), Finland (4.6 percent), and Norway (5.9 percent). The United States, for comparison, has a child poverty rate of 19.6 percent.”
Many progressives have criticized the gendered myopia of the “Bernie bros” and Sanders’s reluctance to speak out on racial issues he deems “divisive.” Here too, his lack of advocacy for restoring a safety net raises questions about whether he, like Clinton, fears the cost among white voters of advocating for entitlements for poor people of all races. Although he has asserted that “Black Lives Matter,” he has yet to call out the racism at the heart of the framing of welfare reform that is regularly repeated in current conversations around public entitlements to the poor.
By only promoting policies that protect American workers, Sanders sidesteps the realities of the US economy, which many economists argue, is structurally reliant on unemployment, flexible labor, and underemployment. Fifteen dollars an hour falls far short if you can only get 15 hours of work a week.
Sanders’s employment-centered “New Deal” policies also disregard and undervalue the need and importance of the care work in our society, the caring for children, the elderly, and disabled that is disproportionately done by women. Many economists agree that a strong welfare state that guarantees a dignified income to everyone—including those who, for various reasons, are not employed—benefits all of society by lifting wages and reducing poverty. Improving wages and working conditions and building a robust and non-stigmatized social safety net that protects the vulnerable, supplements part-time labor, and provides income for poor women and men to care for their own families are essential to achieving a just and inclusive society—yet Sanders only advocates for making work pay.
If welfare reform marked the ascendency of the “neoliberal Democrats” in the 1990s, then restoring the social safety net must be part of the newly energized progressive movement to reclaim and redirect the Democratic Party. Twenty years after the passage of legislation that thrust more Americans into poverty, the time is now.