In her second campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to be swinging for the middle anymore. If the first few weeks of her presidential campaign are any sign, she’s staking out ground firmly on the left and setting her sights on expanding the Obama coalition. She downplayed her gender in the 2008 campaign, but this time around, she’s even taking up the mantle of feminism to say she will fight for parents struggling to make it all work.
Clinton’s leftward shift includes calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration” in a recent speech about the criminal justice system. That speech didn’t just represent a departure from a number of the positions she espoused during her 2008 primary campaign, including embracing mandatory minimum sentences. It was an about-face from the beefed-up sentencing and funding for police and prisons allocated by the 1994 crime bill, pushed for and signed by President Bill Clinton—a bill she supported at the time.
But if she wants to be the candidate who champions the needs of vulnerable Americans, of those at the bottom of the economy instead of the top, of people of color and mothers and children, then she’s going to have to wrestle with another legacy of her husband’s that, at least at one time, had her support: welfare reform.
In 1996, President Clinton signed a bill that he said would “end welfare as we know it.” And it did just that. It took the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program—which, at the time, was a cost-sharing program between the federal government and states to dispense cash benefits to poor mothers—and turned it into what we have today, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. Ostensibly, its purpose was the same, but its block-grant structure meant that the federal government would no longer share a proportionate burden of the costs. Instead, TANF today hands a given sum to the states no matter what demand might be and issues them loose guidelines on how to administer the country’s only cash-benefit program.
You can find people today who claim that this has been a success—Representative Paul Ryan is a good example. (Hillary Clinton’s husband is another.) It has certainly saved the government money. But it is hard to find a single way in which it hasn’t been a catastrophe for the vulnerable.
The federal government hasn’t increased the amount of money it gives to states since 1996, so that money has been eroded by 28 percent, thanks to inflation. Meanwhile, the few guidelines that states have to follow do little to incentivize them to help more poor people. Quite the opposite: They have every reason to try to reduce their rolls and free up more funds, which they often move around to cover things other than cash benefits. Sometimes that extra money goes to related programs like childcare and job training, but states often just use the money to plug budget holes. That means that the share of eligible families who actually get help through TANF keeps steadily falling, to the point where just 26 percent of poor families with children are enrolled, compared to 72 percent before reform went into effect.