The Return of the “Undeserving Poor”

Welfare reform revived a hateful notion

The successful two-term Clinton presidency has left the Democratic Party in a position to compete effectively with Republicans over the next decade in the ongoing struggle to define our nation's agenda for collective action. That is its most significant political legacy. After the ideological shift rightward during the Reagan years, and in the wake of humiliating national defeats for Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton managed to recast the Democratic message so that it once again resonates with the sentiments of a majority of American voters. He moved the party toward the center, for the most part quieted its radical left wing, and, using a combination of center-right social-policy initiatives (on welfare and crime, for instance), clearly signaled the Democrats' endorsement of values widely held in the electorate at large.

To be sure, this strategy was aided by the good fortune of an unprecedented economic expansion. And it was powerfully abetted by the incompetence of Clinton's political opponents, who failed to understand that this country is far less ideological and (thank God!) much less self-righteous than is the right wing of the Republican Party. Even so, this repositioning of the unwieldy coalition of interests that constitutes the national Democratic Party has been a very impressive act to watch.

There is, however, an obvious problem in such repositioning. When not tempered by an uncompromising adherence to core principles, efforts to co-opt conservative rhetoric on social issues are not very different from capitulating to conservative values on social issues. That the death penalty is popular does not make it right. That middle-class taxpayers resent the giving of public money to unwed, unemployed, uneducated young mothers does not mean that such resentment is justified in the richest country on earth. That parents fear the prospect of drug use by their children does not make the War on Drugs good social policy. The Clinton presidency, while beating a full retreat from the "liberal ideology" that so plagued the Democrats in national politics during the 1980s, has also managed to confer an undeserved legitimacy on some widely held but not commendable notions about American social life. This, too, is a part of its legacy: self-consciously progressive political rhetoric has been essentially banished from the top of the Democratic Party.

As one example of this process, consider the public discussion of welfare policy. Clinton campaigned in 1992 on a promise to "end welfare as we know it." In this way he inoculated himself against the charge of being an old-style liberal Democrat seeking to protect the welfare status quo. Clinton's original plan was, in my view, a good one—but it never had a chance. When, after a protracted struggle with Republican majorities in Congress, a welfare-reform act was passed and signed into law in 1996, it initiated one of the most far-reaching conservative shifts in social policy in the post-New Deal era. The federal entitlement of indigent children to public support was terminated. Strict work requirements for recipients of assistance were put in place, and time limits were imposed on eligibility for assistance. Such a policy seemed to abandon the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. Peter Edelman [see "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," March, 1997, Atlantic], one of several Clinton appointees to resign in protest over the signing of that bill, made a crucial point: much of welfare policy is really better thought of as disability policy. One third of the welfare case load involves some disability in either mothers or children; a third to a half of adult recipients seem to be unemployable, given that in the best "supported work" experiments many were still jobless despite three years of concerted searching. A great number of these folks are socially, psychologically, physically, or mentally impaired. Young children are involved. Why should our response to them properly be conceived along the single dimension of work?

This policy was due neither to historical inevitability nor to intellectual necessity. Rather, it was the result of political expediency. "Workfare" became the salable rejoinder to conservatives' anti-welfare rhetoric. The Democrats' mantra became "If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn't be poor." But where does that leave the great number of people who are unable (or unwilling) to "work hard and play by the rules"? By implication, they (and their children) deserve to be poor. In other words, the conservative distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor people has now been written into national policy—and by a Democratic Administration. A line of argument that started with the idea that everyone should pull his or her own weight has ended with a five-year lifetime limit on receipt of federal support for millions of indigent families incapable of supporting themselves.

Of course, defenders of the reform process can cite declining welfare rolls and relatively high employment rates among previous recipients. But here, again, the sheer good luck of an extraordinary economic climate must be kept in mind. Clinton has presided over a huge change in the structure of our anti-poverty policy. Much greater importance is now being placed on earnings relative to transfers. Little remarked is the fact that this policy shift has left low-income American families much more vulnerable to an inevitable rise in unemployment.

All of this leads me to regret the diminution of ideological (as distinct from partisan political) fervor that one must, I think, associate with the Clinton presidency. Crime rates are down, and the President takes due credit. Be it noted, however, that incarceration rates have continued to soar over the past eight years, growing at roughly the same rate during Clinton's presidency as during Ronald Reagan's. (The number of people in local, state, and federal custody on a given day has essentially quadrupled since 1980.) We are fast becoming a nation of jailers. Our major public outreach to impoverished, ill-educated young men occurs within this vast corrections establishment. Now, defenders of President Clinton would no doubt deny that the vast expansion of imprisonment that has taken place on his watch, alongside a comparable growth in our economic well-being, should be counted as part of his legacy. The point is debatable. What is beyond doubt, however, is that he has done precious little to awaken in the American people a sense of disquiet about it. Indeed, to the contrary, and in keeping with his grand political strategy, he has on occasion pandered to base public sentiments. That most certainly is a part of his legacy. And it does not look like progress to me.

Glenn C. Loury is a professor of economics and the director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University.