In running to be the Democratic presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders has used the issue of welfare reform against rival Hillary Clinton, a bill he didn’t vote for at the time but for which Clinton helped round up votes while her husband was president.
Now Clinton has spoken out to explain her support of the law at the time and the way she views it in an interview with WNYC.
Clinton characterized the previous iteration of welfare cash assistance, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), as “not at all a platform for most people going anywhere.” This was the original program, begun in the 1940s, that gave cash assistance to the neediest and was dramatically changed by welfare reform passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton.
Clinton’s depiction, however, is a mischaracterization. Since it first began, AFDC included draconian eligibility requirements that kept many eligible families from getting the assistance. By the early 1990s, many families living in poverty still couldn’t qualify for benefits. Meanwhile, despite the depiction of welfare recipients as people who didn’t work and stayed on the rolls rather than get jobs, a large majority had work in a given year, and more than 40 percent left the program in less than two years.
Starting in the 1960s, reforms were made in an attempt to push mothers out of the home, where some were caring for their children, and into the labor force through tax incentives and “workfare” programs. Overall, though, “workfare was unsuccessful because the wages that most welfare recipients could earn were not adequate to raising children in safety and health,” writes Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University.
Clinton went on defend the reform bill, recalling the political environment of the 1990s in which she claimed Republicans “were going to push through a welfare reform bill…and it was just a question of whether it could be one that would have some promise attached to it.” While she acknowledged that there were critics of the bill that felt it would do more harm than good, she said, “I did not believe that. I believed that it could be a net positive if it were implemented right.” She pointed to job training programs for recipients as one positive piece of the legislation and has in the past praised the inclusion of child care assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families.
Yet she pinned the blame for the law’s failings on the administration of President George W. Bush and Republican governors for implementing it in a way, she claimed, that got rid of the positive sides. This is similar to the defense her husband gave of the law just two weeks ago, who also blamed Republican presidents and governors for its shortfalls.
But while governors do have a large amount of control over the administration of welfare, that’s part of the reform legislation’s design, which changed it from a program where the costs and structure were a shared responsibility between the federal government and the states to a block grant where a set amount of money is handed to the states alongside broad discretion in implementation. Because the amount of money states get hasn’t been increased since welfare reform passed in 1996, it’s lost 28 percent of its value to inflation, incentivizing states of all political persuasions to reduce their caseloads. They also have wide latitude to move the money toward other purposes and many across the country used it to prop up other social spending amid economic downturns. That’s led to a steady decline across sates in spending on cash assistance, part of why the program only reaches a quarter of eligible families today.
The block grant structure, not Republican politicians’ decisions, is what hampered welfare reform in the recent economic crisis. Without an automatic infusion of funding from the federal government, and with welfare money tied up in other needs, states weren’t able to increase help as need increased, and caseloads actually fell. This isn’t just in red states: at least 46 responded to budget deficits during the recession by cutting welfare. But food stamps, a program where the federal government gives states more money when demand goes up, was able to rise 45 percent.
Clinton did go on to call for a reexamination of the 1996 welfare reform bill in her interview with WNYC. “Now we have to take a hard look at it again, especially after the Great Recession,” she said. She’s previously mentioned the harm caused by the five-year lifetime limit, which kicks people off the rolls at that point whether or not they have a job and has been found to severely increase financial hardship. She added to her critique, saying that the way many states have defined education — only one year of vocational education is allowed to count toward work participation requirements — is “really unfair,” and also calling for a revamp of “other administrative changes that [states] have imposed on top of that framework.”
She didn’t elaborate on the rest of those changes that she might want to reverse, but there are many. One popular one is to impose drug testing on applicants and recipients, even though the tests are costly and don’t uncover high rates of drug abuse. Another is to cap benefits after a certain number of children in an attempt to discourage low-income women from having larger families.
For Sanders’ part, while he has frequently brought up the welfare reform bill, he has not offered his own alternative to change the current program. Instead, he has said that his policy prescriptions, such as a higher minimum wage and health care for all, will help the poorest who have been left behind.