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.