by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
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
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 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
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’ narrative.
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
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
cohost 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:
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