I HATE welfare. To be more precise, I hate the welfare system we had until last August, when Bill Clinton signed a historic bill ending "welfare as we know it." It was a system that contributed to chronic dependency among large numbers of people who would be the first to say they would rather have a job than collect a welfare check every month -- and its benefits were never enough to lift people out of poverty. In April of 1967 I helped Robert Kennedy with a speech in which he called the welfare system bankrupt and said it was hated universally, by payers and recipients alike. Criticism of welfare for not helping people to become self-supporting is nothing new.
But the bill that President Clinton signed is not welfare reform. It does not promote work effectively, and it will hurt millions of poor children by the time it is fully implemented. What's more, it bars hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants -- including many who have worked in the United States for decades and paid a considerable amount in Social Security and income taxes -- from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps, and reduces food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families.
When the President was campaigning for re-election last fall, he promised that if re-elected he would undertake to fix the flaws in the bill. We are now far enough into his second term to look at the validity of that promise, by assessing its initial credibility and examining what has happened since.
I resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services last September, because of my profound disagreement with the welfare bill. At the time, I confined my public statement to two sentences, saying only that I had worked as hard as I could over the past thirty-plus years to reduce poverty and that in my opinion this bill moved in the opposite direction. My judgment was that it was important to make clear the reasons for my resignation but not helpful to politicize the issue further during an election campaign. And I did want to see President Clinton re-elected. Worse is not better, in my view, and Bob Dole would certainly have been worse on a wide range of issues, especially if coupled with a Republican Congress.
I feel free to speak out in more detail now, not to tell tales out of school but to clarify some of the history and especially to underscore the damage the bill will do and explain why the bill will be hard to fix in any fundamental way for a long time to come. It is also important to understand what is being done and could be done to minimize the damage in the short run, and what would be required for a real "fix": a strategy to prevent poverty and thus reduce the need for welfare in the first place.
Four questions are of interest now. Did the President have to sign the bill? How bad is it really, and how can the damage be minimized as the states move to implement it? Can it be fixed in this Congress? What would a real fix be, and what would it take to make that happen?
WAS the President in a tight political box in late July, when he had to decide whether to sign or veto? At the time, there was polling data in front of him showing that very few people were likely to change their intended vote in either direction if he vetoed the bill. But even if he accurately foresaw a daily pounding from Bob Dole that would ultimately draw political blood, the real point is that the President's quandary was one of his own making. He had put himself there, quite deliberately and by a series of steps that he had taken over a long period of time.
Governor Clinton campaigned in 1992 on the promise to "end welfare as we know it" and the companion phrase "Two years and you're off." He knew very well that a major piece of welfare-reform legislation, the Family Support Act, had already been passed, in 1988. As governor of Arkansas he had been deeply involved in the enactment of that law, which was based on extensive state experimentation with new welfare-to-work initiatives in the 1980s, especially GAIN in California. The 1988 law represented a major bipartisan compromise. The Democrats had given in on work requirements in return for Republican concessions on significant federal funding for job training, placement activities, and transitional child care and health coverage.
The Family Support Act had not been fully implemented, partly because not enough time had passed and partly because in the recession of the Bush years the states had been unable to provide the matching funds necessary to draw down their full share of job-related federal money. Candidate Clinton ought responsibly to have said that the Family Support Act was a major piece of legislation that needed more time to be fully implemented before anyone could say whether it was a success or a failure.
Instead Clinton promised to end welfare as we know it and to institute what sounded like a two-year time limit. This was bumper-sticker politics -- oversimplification to win votes. Polls during the campaign showed that it was very popular, and a salient item in garnering votes. Clinton's slogans were also cleverly ambiguous. On the one hand, as President, Clinton could take a relatively liberal path that was nonetheless consistent with his campaign rhetoric. In 1994 he proposed legislation that required everyone to be working by the time he or she had been on the rolls for two years. But it also said, more or less in the fine print, that people who played by the rules and couldn't find work could continue to get benefits within the same federal-state framework that had existed since 1935. The President didn't say so, but he was building -- quite incrementally and on the whole responsibly -- on the framework of the Family Support Act. On the other hand, candidate Clinton had let his listeners infer that he intended radical reform with real fall-off-the-cliff time limits. He never said so explicitly, though, so his liberal flank had nothing definitive to criticize. President Clinton's actual 1994 proposal was based on a responsible interpretation of what candidate Clinton had said.