On the tenth anniversary of the historic and controversial welfare reform bill in 2006, President Bill Clinton wrote an op-ed full of self-praise for having beaten back the critics and revamped the decades-old welfare system. However, the most revealing words in the piece were not his congratulatory praise of the legislation in the body of the op-ed but the title: “How we ended welfare, together.” Those words stood in stark contrast to how Clinton described the law a decade before.
Back in 1996, he and other welfare reform backers used the much more politically palatable phrase of “ending welfare as we know it.” I mention this not simply to nitpick over words. On the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the welfare reform law, the colossal problems that Clinton was warned could and would happen by simply scrapping a measure that kept thousands of mostly poor and minority women off the streets and out of jail cells, have surfaced with a vengeance.
Clinton really did mean to end welfare for millions, not simply reform it. And during his tenure as governor of Arkansas he boasted that if he ever got the chance he’d dump welfare and put those reliant on it to work. He kept his word. Clinton embraced all the arguments at the time that clearing the welfare rolls might be a good move for those who abused welfare and used it as a crutch. But what about the legions of recipients who sincerely wanted to work but could not find jobs because they lacked job and skills training, transportation, affordable child care, had chronic health problems, or inadequate education?
Clinton shelled out millions in block grant funding to the states to provide training, jobs and child care for welfare recipients — and gave them five years to find work. This was a very flawed strategy on two counts.
The first flaw was that there were no firm directives on how much and what services the states should spend the money on. There were wild variances between the states on just how they spent the money and on what. Some states were more generous than others in spending on job training and child care services.
The second flaw was that when the inevitable economic downturn hit, the states would be sorely tempted to cut back on the funding of the support programs, whittle down the five years time limit that recipients were eligible for aid, or simply ax programs that were in place to help the recipients get off the dole. This would virtually insure that those who had managed to find work and then suddenly found themselves victims of the downturn and out of job would have nothing to fall back on to make ends meet.
Clinton did not address or apparently even consider this possibility. The year that he signed the law, the economy was operating at full throttle, jobs were readily plentiful, and the states did not have the massive deficits that many of them face today. So, it was easy to be lulled by the prospect of endless prosperity, and an economy that would always be strong enough to provide jobs for most.
That illusion has been rudely shattered. Though welfare numbers are drastically down from what they were fifteen years ago, the number that receive food stamps, unemployment insurance, are in poverty, and are homeless have skyrocketed during the past decade.
And with the economy hovering dangerously close to another recession, coupled with the massive federal and state spending cuts on income support and service programs, the number of poor are almost certain to grow bigger. Former welfare recipients tell endless horror stories about their fruitless searches for jobs, and trying to pay for food, housing, and child care with a pittance of cash assistance from state relief agencies, and then being warned that meager the amount they received was not limitless.
The biggest tragedy in passing welfare reform without putting in all the fail safe safeguards to ensure that ending welfare would end the problem of joblessness and poverty among the needy and unskilled was that Clinton and many Democrats acted because they bought the conservative line. Conservatives argued for decades that welfare hurt poor and minority women by sapping initiative and encouraging them to have more children to get a government check.
President Reagan in the 1980s repeatedly lambasted the “welfare queens” who supposedly defrauded government agencies out of tens of thousands dollars and lived the life of luxury on the taxpayer dime. Reagan played fast and loose with the facts in one extreme case reported in Chicago to weave his ‘every welfare recipient as a crook’ narratuve. Nevertheless, the myth stuck, and Clinton eagerly made reform his mantra in part to show that he would not pander to minorities, and in part to trump conservatives.
Fifteen years later, the nation is stuck with a reform that did indeed end welfare as we know it. The price for that was to increase poverty for the millions that we also know.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson