Pundits so rarely admit they were wrong that the first thing I want to say about Nick Kristof’s retraction of his previous support for welfare form is, Bravo. May it be the first of many such rethinkings on the New York Times Op-Ed page. (Looking at you, Tom Friedman.)
In his biweekly Times column last Sunday, headlined “Why I Was Wrong About Welfare Reform,” Kristof writes, “In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a controversial compromise bill for welfare reform, promising to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ I was sympathetic to that goal at the time, but I’ve decided that I was wrong. What I’ve found in my reporting over the years is that welfare ‘reform’ is a misnomer and that cash welfare is essentially dead, leaving some families with children utterly destitute.” Which brings me to my second thought: Oh, great, now he tells us. Did it really take 20 years to see where welfare reform was heading?
When welfare reform was being debated back in the mid-’90s, the media promoted stereotypes: the feckless teenage mom, families on the dole for generations, women with large numbers of kids by different men. Although most women on welfare were white, news coverage focused on those who were black or Latina. (Exhibit A was surely the notorious New Republic cover showing a young black woman smoking a cigarette and staring off into space while the baby on her lap drinks from a bottle. Headline: “Day of Reckoning.”) Kristof shrewdly centers his column on Bobbie Ingraham, a 47-year-old white Tulsa grandmother who is raising her small granddaughter Hailey alone because the child’s drug-addicted mother is out of the picture. Kristof presents Ingraham sympathetically: she adores Hailey; she acknowledges her past mistakes (using drugs, writing fake prescriptions for pain pills); she has serious health problems that make it hard for her to work. And here’s the thing: For people like Ingraham, there are no jobs. In fact, for people like her there never were. Even well-educated healthy-looking middle-aged women have a hard time entering the work force, as many a middle-class stay-at-home mother has discovered when she finds herself divorced and fending for herself. As I reported in this space, even in the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, welfare reform deepened poverty for the worst off. Not everyone is able to find a job and keep it. This basic fact was obscured by ideology: work good, dole bad. Lazy confused promiscuous women need a push. Who do they think they are?