This year marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. It also coincides with Hillary Clinton’s second run at the White House. The overlap has more meaning than mere chance. Hillary’s decision to support and whip votes for the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was a crucial turning point in her career. It was when she transformed into the politician she is today.
It’s also one of the few controversial episodes from her past for which she has never apologized—she’s been plenty willing to ditch other parts of her husband’s legacy. She repudiated her use of the phrase “super-predator” to describe black children in gangs and apologized for the consequences of the 1994 crime bill. She’s come out strongly in favor of gay rights, including the right to marry, contra her husband’s signing of DOMA. She’s even backed away from NAFTA, a trade pact she once said was “proving its worth.”
Welfare reform has been different. Clinton’s support for it hasn’t wavered over the 20 years since her husband signed the bill into law, and she’s reaffirmed it numerous times since then. Many policymakers who once supported welfare reform have repudiated it, though—even academics who once praised the law have changed their minds.
Now, it’s running headlong into some of the main messages of Clinton’s campaign. The people it most harmed—economically vulnerable women, particularly single mothers and their children—are those for whom Clinton says she is fighting. Welfare reform dropped many single mothers and their children from the rolls, some of whom now have no source of income, yet she says she’s “playing the gender card” for women’s economic rights and wants to give every child the opportunity to “live up to his or her God-given potential.” Welfare reform has been linked to a surge in extreme poverty, yet she has detailed plans to address income inequality. Welfare reform was fueled by ugly stereotypes about women of color, yet she grounded issues of racial and gender justice in the early messages of her campaign.
Welfare reform was the defining moment in Hillary’s evolution from an idealistic advocate to a pragmatic politician. Because the political context of welfare and poverty haven’t significantly changed since that moment in the mid-90s, her calculations about what’s most opportune haven’t changed either. Despite her claim to champion people who are financially struggling and societally marginalized, Hillary keeps telling the same story about the country’s only cash assistance program for the poor because there’s no strategic need to change it.
In 1992, Bill ran for president on the platform of ending “welfare as we know it.” Although he put forward his own reform bill in 1994, the issue was put on hold while his administration warred with Republicans over health care. When the 1996 midterms empowered Newt Gingrich and Republicans in Congress, conservatives decided to seize the issue themselves.
They sent Clinton a series of bills stuffed with deal breakers. One version suggested, courtesy of Gingrich, that the federal government should take children born out of wedlock to women under 18 and put them in orphanages. They also wanted to completely restructure Medicaid, food stamps, and school lunches and deny these benefits to legal immigrants.
Clinton vetoed two versions. But after Republicans made some concessions they sent him a third bill. The legislation eliminated welfare’s original structure and rights, instituting time limits and work requirements. States were granted power to shape programs as they saw fit. And legal immigrants were completely cut off.
Aides including Dick Morris and Rahm Emanuel told him to sign it and avoid having the issue thrown in his face during the campaign. Activists, policy wonks—including researchers at the Urban Institute who published a report finding that the bill would put 2.6 million more people into poverty—and all but one of his cabinet members disagreed. He signed.
Sources give conflicting accounts of how much Hillary was involved in this process. As Morris remembers in his memoir Behind the Oval Office, “She told me flatly that she did not want to become involved in the welfare-reform issue,” mainly over her objections to the deep cuts Republicans had packed into their original bills. As Morris was urging Bill to sign the third version, he recalls Hillary telling him, “‘I know the politics, I know the [polling] numbers, but it still bothers me deeply.’”
That’s similar to the memory of Bob Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who was talking to senior White House staff on a daily basis at that time. “The view was that Hillary Clinton was not involved in these discussions,” he said. “I never heard of her involvement. My belief is that she probably only talked to a few people, and I really don’t believe that her intervention was a major factor.”
But that’s not the way Clinton herself tells it. In her 2003 memoir, Living History, she wrote that she “actively participated” in the internal debate on welfare reform. “I wanted to influence his decision,” she wrote. She threatened to go public with her opposition to the first bill the GOP presented, she wrote—which would have been a first for her speaking out against her husband’s administration—but that once the third bill came back with changes, “I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.”
Her public silence on the issue was notable amid the din of voices mobilizing against the legislation. “Hillary did not speak out about it at all,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth. “She remained unusually quiet around the issue.”
Activists revived the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, organizing low-income mothers who would be affected by the Clinton administration’s reform. They staged demonstrations in front of all 50 state capitol buildings. “There was a lot of active protest,” said Mimi Abramovitz, a professor at Hunter College who was part of the movement. “It was really wild up until the passage.” Meanwhile, women’s-rights organizations like NOW got involved for the first time and pushed to protect Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, the original welfare program. These were Hillary’s people. But she didn’t join them.
Hillary’s schism with her former friends in the advocacy world was profound. Ahead of Bill’s signature, Marian Wright Edelman, Hillary’s early mentor and the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, where Hillary once worked, wrote an open letter calling on Bill to veto the legislation, saying it “would be a great moral and practical wrong” for him to sign it. In an interview with Democracy Now! in 2007, she said, “Hillary Clinton’s an old friend, but [the Clintons] are not friends in politics.” Edelman’s husband, Peter, resigned from his post as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services just after Bill signed the welfare-reform law, as did HHS officials Mary Jo Bane and Wendell E. Primus. Following his resignation, Edelman wrote an article in The Atlantic about welfare reform entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”
Hillary later wrote that she “accepted and even admired” the resignations, but she called the break with Marian Wright Edelman “sad and difficult.” During what she called in her memoir the “painful aftermath” of welfare reform, “I realized that I had crossed the line from advocate to policy maker,” she wrote. Her bruising defeat in trying to pass health-care reform loomed in the back of her mind, which she felt “may have happened in part because of a lack of give-and-take.”
“Principles and values in politics should not be compromised,” she concluded, “but strategies and tactics must be flexible enough to make progress possible.”
Her exact position on welfare reform has not been easy to pin down, either then or now. In the ’90s, she seemed to agree with her husband that early forms of welfare needed to end, saying “the system desperately required reform.” But in her earlier career at the Children’s Defense Fund and the legal-aid clinic at the University of Arkansas, she had met recipients firsthand. “I knew that welfare was often essential as a temporary support for poor families,” she wrote. “Yes, I had seen it exploited; but I had also seen it rescue people who used it to weather a rough period.”
Evidence suggests that the people who were enrolled in AFDC did in fact largely use it as a short-term backstop. Despite the public’s fever dream of “welfare queens” lazily guzzling benefits, a large majority of the aid recipients worked, and more than 40 percent left the program within two years. “There was a great deal of cycling through the program, not people just staying and staying,” said Joe Soss, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota.
Hillary knew these facts. Yet, she wrote, the program “fed taxpayer resentment,” adding, “I didn’t think it was fair that one single mother improvised to find child care and got up early every day to get to work while another stayed home and relied on welfare.” Reform “was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.”
So what did the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act do? The most drastic change was ending the entitlement structure. AFDC guaranteed federal funding to cover the full need of all families who met its qualifications. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF—what welfare was called after reform—makes no such promises. It “wiped away that program and all of the rights that had been achieved under that program,” said Frances Fox Piven, a political-science professor at the City University of New York.
States are allowed broad discretion to decide who is eligible, excluding families for reasons like failing to take a drug test. And the five-year time limit—in some states, it’s even shorter—means that even families who comply with the rules but stay needy get cut off. This structure also allows states to move TANF funding away from welfare toward other anti-poverty efforts, often replacing money they would have otherwise have spent from their own budgets. The incentives are skewed toward reducing the rolls. States get the same amount of money no matter how many people are enrolled, so fewer beneficiaries means more money can be pushed toward other budget needs. The amount of money states get from the government hasn’t increased since 1996, so with inflation it’s lost 28 percent of its value since then. Welfare used to reach nearly three-quarters of poor families with children. Today, only about a quarter are enrolled.
When the economy tanked in 2007, TANF couldn’t provide support for many families who fell on tough times—states get a set amount of money to dole out, even if the country dips into a recession and more people need help. Between 2007 and 2011, caseloads fell after rising modestly once an influx of federal money dried up, even as unemployment stretched upward. But the number of people on food stamps, which weren’t affected by the reform movements of the ’90s, rose.
Meanwhile, the program’s time limits have repeatedly been found to cause hardship. Many of the people who are kicked off aren’t able to get work, leaving them with neither income nor benefits. By 2008, about 20 percent of all low-income mothers fell into this category, living without any wages or cash assistance. Instead, they lean on other benefits like food stamps and survive by cobbling together strategies like living with family or finding informal work.
While TANF’s work requirements may have pushed some recipients to leave the program and enter the workforce in the booming economy of the ’90s, many jobs ended up being low-paid and part-time, according to Alejandra Marchevsky, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. And not everyone was able to get them. Poverty initially fell in the years following reform—continuing a trajectory it was already on—but it has since climbed back up. Things are worst for the poorest Americans. The number of families living at half of the poverty line, or less than $12,000 a year for a family of four, is higher now than before welfare reform. Extreme poverty, or living on $2 or less for each person in a household per day, has risen 159 percent since 1996, particularly among those directly affected by the new law.
None of this has changed the way Hillary talks about welfare. Speaking to WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein in April, she called AFDC “not at all a platform for most people going anywhere.” The welfare-reform law her husband signed had “a lot that I thought was positive,” she said, blaming its perceived shortcomings on the George W. Bush administration and Republican governors for poor implementation. They “were really not interested in continuing what had been the positive framework for welfare reform,” she said. She’s echoed this position multiple times over the years.
One reason Hillary’s position may not have changed since the mid-90s is because the issue doesn’t have a lot of powerful political backers. The people who have been hurt the most by reform are also the ones who are less likely to vote, let alone donate to a presidential campaign. Meanwhile, opposition to welfare reform was short-lived. Today there is virtually no trace of the welfare-rights movement.
Powerful movements have championed the issues Hillary has walked back or moved left on. Occupy Wall Street transformed income inequality into a catchphrase. The gay-rights movement pushed acceptance of LGBT people into the mainstream, culminating most recently in the success of legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, something Clinton finally said she supported in early 2013. Black Lives Matter activists have made the 1994 crime bill a campaign issue. Fight for 15 made a $15 minimum wage politically viable and Clinton says she would sign a bill raising it to that level, even though she supports a national floor of $12. “It really shows us the power of grassroots movements,” said Marchevsky.
Welfare reform is still waiting for its mass movement. Creating one at this point would be difficult, if not impossible—even those few who actually get welfare don’t want to be associated with it, Abramovitz said. “The program is so deeply stigmatized, it’s very hard to say, ‘I’m on welfare, let’s get organized,’” she said. “It takes a pretty brave person to come out as a welfare mother in the era of welfare queens and say, ‘We have a right to organize.’”
Even Bernie Sanders isn’t fully advocating new reforms. Sanders has pushed the issue in this presidential-campaign cycle, criticizing Hillary for supporting welfare reform and pointing out that he didn’t vote for the legislation. His comments sparked not just a tepid response from the Hillary campaign, but also a huffy defense from her husband. Yet Sanders hasn’t put forward any plans to fix these programs—he often pivots to raising the minimum wage and providing free health care for all. A focus on wages “does leave out these women who haven’t been able to make it in the labor market,” Piven said.
Hillary can comfortably continue her silence about the damage welfare reform wrought. “There are no movements or candidates or parties or even advocacy groups leaning very heavily on her,” Abramovitz added. “The protest forces … have been silent.”
That doesn’t mean Hillary refuses to see that TANF could use some changes. Writing in 2003, she said she “hoped welfare reform would be the beginning, not the end, of our concern for the poor.” By that time, she was a New York senator, and she outlined plans for how she would try to fix and build on the legislation her husband had signed. “The five-year limits for lifetime benefits should be waived for people who lose jobs in a jobless economy,” she argued. “More money should be spent on education and training, and some education hours should count toward work requirements. And the states should be held accountable for how they spend federal welfare dollars.”
Those ideas didn’t get any traction during her tenure in the Senate—perhaps because she didn’t see a way to move them forward, or perhaps because she didn’t put energy behind enacting them. These problems still exist, and she still brings them up. “Now we have to take a hard look at it again, especially after the Great Recession and the five-year limit,” she said in April, “but also the really unfair way that a lot of states have defined education benefits and other administrative changes they have imposed.”
These are good places to start. Any revamp, however, has to start with more money. States haven’t gotten an increase in 20 years. “One simple thing either Clinton or Sanders could come forward and say is we will push for increased TANF funding,” Marchevsky noted.
There are small signs that these kinds of changes have become politically palatable. In his most recent budget, Obama called for an additional $8 billion for state TANF programs over five years, more effective work programs, and a crackdown on states to make sure they’re actually spending welfare money on cash assistance, childcare, and work. It’s the first time the program has gotten that kind of attention in two decades. “That’s yet another sign that policymakers are acknowledging that there are problems,” Greenstein, the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities president, said. Welfare might not be so toxic. “Twenty years later, the political atmosphere is different,” he said.
But any legislative change would require expending precious political capital, particularly when Republicans dream of applying welfare reform’s structure to all federally funded assistance programs. Obama’s suggestions haven’t gotten actual legislative traction. Hillary may have a wish list of changes she would make, but there’s little reason to think that she would fight for them once in office.
Hillary has never shrunk from painting herself as a diehard pragmatist, even as she’s embraced more and more liberal policy positions. “I’m a progressive,” she told a debate audience in October, “but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.” That doesn’t mean that she can’t be moved to the left by a robust social movement. But the pressure has to be applied. In its absence, the Hillary Clinton who learned to be a calculating politician as her husband signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law will continue coasting on the same position she held back in the era of Newt Gingrich and welfare queens.
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