After widespread speculation that Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, would be picked as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate, the country learned he had lost out to Mike Pence last week. But Gingrich is still getting a starring role in the Republican National Convention, giving a primetime speech on Wednesday evening.
Gingrich will headline an evening under the theme “Make America First Again.” He has become famous (or notorious, depending on who’s asked) for proposing big, often outlandish ideas. He gained attention, for example, when he floated the idea of building a colony on the moon when running for president in 2012.
But sometimes, those ideas actually stick. Perhaps the best example of Gingrich putting forward out-of-the-box ideas that had a real effect on the country’s discourse and policies was his involvement in welfare reform in the mid-90s.
Former President Bill Clinton frequently promised to “end welfare as we know it” during his campaign for president in 1992. The promise came at a time of high resentment against those who relied on the country’s only cash assistance entitlement: President Ronald Reagan had stirred the pot by coining the phrase “welfare queen” and painting a picture of lazy black women who defrauded the government by getting more benefits, often by having more children, and refusing to work for income. That narrative ran counter to the evidence, which was that a large majority of aid recipients worked and more than 40 percent left the program within two years.
Clinton put forward a version of how to reform welfare himself, which wouldn’t have dramatically changed the structure of the program but did set many stricter limits. But it never went anywhere and he didn’t push to move it forward.
Then along came Newt Gingrich.
Shaming Poor Mothers
In 1994, Gingrich helped author the Contract with America, a short document that House Republicans used to outline a number of policy promises. In the list of bills Republicans promised to bring to the floor was “The Personal Responsibility Act,” which would block welfare benefits for any teen mothers and deny a family an increase in benefits if their families increased, both meant to “[d]iscourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy.” It also promised a two-year lifetime limit on benefits, which would kick someone off if she had been enrolled for that long no matter whether she had a job or some other source of income.
Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995. And the next year, he decided to get aggressive on his welfare reform agenda. He helped craft a bill with some eye-popping ideas. Not only did the bill prohibit welfare benefits for any woman who had a child under the age of 18 for the rest of her life, but it proposed using the savings to set up and operate orphanages. Then, the state would take away the children of unwed teen mothers and put them in those orphanages.
These ideas rested on false stereotypes about poor families and vilified poor and single parents. Those who are enrolled in public benefits programs have the same size families as those who don’t rely on them, and this was the case going back to the 1960s. Meanwhile, the distinction Gingrich drew between the value of poor parents and all other families was clear in the Republicans’ framing document. In the Contract with America, directly after outlining plans to penalize teen mothers and the families of people on welfare, the very next bill mentioned was a group of proposals that were meant to “reinforce the central role of families in American society.”
Making Immigrants’ Lives Harder
But Gingrich wasn’t done. The speaker included a ban on giving benefits to legal immigrants, even those who had jobs and paid taxes that funded programs. He originally proposed ending not just welfare benefits for legal immigrants, but also food stamps, Medicaid, school lunches, and some Social Security benefits.
Meanwhile, welfare reform completely changed the program’s structure, moving it from an entitlement program in which anyone who was in need qualified and the federal government gave states more money if the number of people who needed help went up, to a block grant, meaning that states get a set amount of money no matter what and much more leeway to decide who does and does not get benefits. All the evidence shows that block granting anti-poverty programs simply means they wind up with much less funding. Gingrich wanted to go beyond welfare and also block grant a number of other programs, including food stamps, subsidized school lunches for poor children, and Medicaid.
Clinton vetoed two versions of Gingrich’s bills, including the one with the orphanages idea. But the final bill, which Clinton signed into law, included banning legal immigrants from getting welfare benefits as well food stamps and Social Security’s supplemental income benefits. It also block-granted welfare, ending the right poor people used to have to enrollment, and instituted strict time limits that kicked people off after five years as well as work requirements in order to get benefits.
In later years, Clinton eventually restored food stamps and Social Security to immigrants. The damage from the final welfare bill for some of the country’s poorest, however, has emerged since its enactment and been linked to a huge increase in extreme poverty.
Gingrich made headlines recently by acknowledging some facts about structural racism in the country, saying, “It’s more dangerous to be black in America” than white and that many white people don’t understand that. But his reliance on stereotypes about poor black people in the 1990s, and his attempts to penalize people of color through welfare reform, left lasting damage.