At a campaign event in South Carolina on Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized rival Hillary Clinton for her support of a bill that had serious ramifications for the poorest in the country who rely on welfare cash assistance.
Sanders pointed out that Clinton helped round up votes for welfare reform passed in 1996, which was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. “What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country,” he said. “And, during that period, I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform — strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.”
As recently as 2008, Clinton supported the bill, saying that it was a necessary and successful step toward making poor families self-sufficient. “Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance,” she said at the time. “It simply did not work.”
The evidence, however, is that the bill passed in 1996 has all but decimated the program. It did a number of things, including turning it into a block grant in which states get a fixed amount of money no matter what residents’ needs may be, rather than one where the federal government shares fluctuating costs. That amount hasn’t been updated since the bill’s passage, so the sum going to states has lost 28 percent of its value since then. The structure also means that when need spikes during times of economic trouble, such as the recent recession, welfare can’t keep up. Caseloads actually dropped between 2007 and 2011, while the food stamps rolls, which aren’t operated through a block grant, rose by 45 percent.
It also imposed work requirements as a condition of receiving benefits, although many educational and GED programs don’t count, and lifetime limits that kick people off after five years with some states cutting people off sooner, which have been found to significantly increase hardship for those who lose the assistance.
States have been given relatively broad leeway in designing these programs under the block grant, and that often means that they move funds around to go to other purposes, such as plugging budget holes. It also means they can implement barriers like drug testing that end up making it harder to get on the rolls.
All of these things combined mean that welfare reaches a tiny sliver of eligible families. Before welfare reform, about three-quarters of low-income families with children were enrolled; today only about a quarter are. And while at first poverty seemed to decline and more people moved off the rolls into jobs, those trends haven’t been sustained. By 2012, two-fifths of families headed by a single mother — a majority of those who are supposed to be helped by welfare — lived in poverty. Deep poverty, or families living off of less than $12,000 for four people, is higher now than in 1996. Even worse, the number of families living on less than $2 a day per person has risen 159 percent, particularly concentrated among the people most impacted by reform.
The Clinton campaign responded to Sanders’ attack on Wednesday, pointing out that welfare reform came as a package of measures and highlighted the inclusion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families plus job training and child care assistance. But it also noted that Clinton will work to address some of the law’s shortcomings, such as the five-year lifetime limit for receiving benefits.
Sanders said he would address poverty and the people left behind by welfare reform through some of the policy platforms he’s already laid out: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and providing universal health care through a single-payer program, which he says would “take a huge bite” out of poverty. But thus far neither candidate has proposed a way to fix the welfare program itself.
Defending his wife from Sanders' attack, former President Bill Clinton said Thursday, "There's no question that [welfare reform] did far more good than harm," but also added that "there's no question that subsequent events showed it needs some improvement" and that "the law needs to be changed to help the poorest of the poor."