When President Bill Clinton speaks in Grand Rapids next Monday at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids’ annual dinner, his policies will likely receive little critical examination in the corporate media. Like his signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or his Iraq policy, Clinton’s “welfare reform” initiative has received little critical review over the years. In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act after years of campaigning and promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton signed a Republican welfare reform bill in 1996 despite his criticisms that portions of it–specifically cuts in the food stamps program and denial of benefits to undocumented immigrants–were too harsh. Most importantly, the bill set work requirements for most welfare recipients and limited the length of time that they could receive assistance, making it a substantial change to the welfare system.
Clinton’s adoption of “welfare reform” as a major issue was a critical component of the Democrats’ shift to the right in the 1990s. While able to win two presidential elections by appealing to the center-right, Clinton’s “New Democrats” led what was essentially an attack on the working class with a “softer” face than that of the Republicans. Clinton’s welfare reform, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and promotion of a neoliberal economic agenda all had their most direct impact on working class Americans. Similarly, Clinton’s charisma and his repeated promises to the left silenced many critics, while he advocated policies that preempted Republican positions on a variety of issues.
In the months and years leading up to the passage of the welfare reform bill in 1996 (“The Personal Responsibility Act”), Clinton placed considerable emphasis on personal “responsibility” and in particular, the idea that welfare mothers needed to learn “responsibility.” Clinton’s rhetoric invoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” who were allegedly living large off of government assistance. From his 1991 campaign promise to end welfare to his repeated lecturing of the poor in 1996 while pushing for welfare reform, Clinton made several such statements:
In May 1991, Clinton said “opportunity for all is not enough… For if we give opportunity without insisting on responsibility, much of the money can be wasted and the country’s strength can still be sapped. So we favor responsibility for all. That’s the idea behind national service. It’s the idea behind welfare reform.”
In June of 1996, Clinton said “First and foremost, community programs must stress abstinence and personal responsibility. A program cannot be successful unless it gives our children the moral leadership they need to say no to the wrong choices and yes to the right ones.”
In the Summer of 1996, Clinton said “A long time ago… I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.”
At the time, the bill was the subject of considerable protest from welfare rights organizations, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, “the left,” and Senator and self-proclaimed welfare policy expert Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Of course, as is so often the case, this opposition got little coverage in the media and instead reports of how much welfare reform would benefit the country carried the day.
This has continued up until the present day, with few media outlets critically examining welfare reform. In a review of press coverage on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, Neil deMause wrote for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s (FAIR) that since the passage of welfare reform the media has largely ignored the connections between welfare reform and poverty. deMause points out that while poverty rates did decline from 1996 to 2000, they grew again after 2000 when the economic “boom” of the 1990s ended. Instead of looking at how welfare reform has impacted the lives of those no longer on the welfare rolls, deMause argues that the media has either trumpeted the fact that welfare rolls have shrunken, or when admitting the ambiguity of welfare reform’s legacy, have asserted that it was not as bad as what critics expected.
Clinton himself has advanced a similar assessment of welfare reform, focusing his comments on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform on how many people were moved off welfare in a widely circulated op-ed in the New York Times. Clinton failed to ask the more important question of how people faired once they were off welfare. In his lengthy autobiography, My Life, Clinton gave the topic only minimal coverage–one paragraph in its hundreds of pages.
So, if Clinton and the media have not investigated welfare reform, what were its long-term effects? Unfortunately, because it moved much of the administration to the states it is often difficult to find specific numbers and many of the effects–particularly in the past five years–have gone unstudied. In 2006 on the tenth anniversary of welfare reform, child poverty was on the rise in the United States, a noteworthy fact when one considers that 70% of those affected by welfare reform were children. Since welfare reform in 1996, 2.5 million families have left the program. Welfare reform also disproportionately affected women (90% of federal welfare recipients were women at the time of its passage), with studies in 2003 showing that about 1 million single mothers formerly receiving assistance were neither working or receiving cash benefits from welfare, disability, or unemployment insurance and were not living with a partner who had income from those sources and that 20% of mothers removed from welfare rolls have been unable to find work. Those that have found work–according to media reports–tend to be stuck in low-wage jobs paying around $8 per hour, an amount that is more than what they would have earned in welfare benefits but far short of a living wage. Instead, welfare reform was a part of a shrinking social safety net and following welfare reform, only 50% of those eligible for assistance received it compared with 80% in the 1980s.
Various studies have shown that the results of welfare reform have been “mixed” at best–the number of people receiving assistance is down while various measures of poverty are up–with it being difficult to place blame on a specific program. In 2004, a study by the Center on Budget and Priority Policies that reviewed other studies found that poverty rates for families leaving welfare are high and that families that lose assistance because of time limits are more likely to experience hardship than those leaving for other reasons. In 2006, the Center for Law and Social Policy declared that “by any real measure of family well-being, low-wage workers are no longer able to achieve economic security by ‘working hard and playing by the rules’.” The Center cited studies showing that child poverty increased 12% from 2000 to 2004, that welfare workers struggle to obtain employment due to lower education levels, domestic violence, learning disabilities, and other reasons, and that 40% of low-income single mothers spend half of their income on childcare. In Michigan, a 2001 study reported that only 25% of women who left welfare were employed at “good jobs,” generously defined as paying $7 an hour with benefits or $8 without.
However, studies and statistics often miss the human aspect of how low-wage jobs and removal of welfare benefits effect women. Because of the emphasis on “work first,” working is often prioritized over parenting meaning that many single women face increased difficulties in the already hard work of parenting. The statistics do not show how women balance employment with the second job of parenting, a reality that often means little sleep and constant stress.