How Bill Clinton Waged a War on Welfare Mothers Instead of a War on Poverty
Editor’s note: This piece was originally posted on Aug. 29, 2006. Truthdig is republishing it on the 20-year anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the welfare legislation.
To hear Bill Clinton tell it, his presidency won the war on poverty three decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched it, having changed only the name. Unfortunately, however, for the mothers and their children pushed off the rolls but still struggling mightily to make ends meet even when the women are employed, the war on welfare was not the same battle at all.
Clinton masterfully blurred the two in a recent New York Times opinion column, as did most others on the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, writing as if getting mothers and their children off the welfare rolls is the same as getting them out of poverty. In the absence of any evidence that poverty is tamed, he celebrates a “bipartisan” victory, which was good for his image but not necessarily for those it claimed to help.
The ex-president gloats over the large decrease in the number of welfare recipients as if he is unaware of the five-year limit and other new restrictions which made it inevitable. Nor does he seem bothered that nobody seems to have thought it important to assess how the families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children fared after they left welfare. The truth is we know very little about the fate of those moved off welfare, 70% of whom are children, because there is no systematic monitoring program, thanks to “welfare reform” severing the federal government’s responsibility to help the nation’s poor.
The best estimates from the Census Bureau and other data, however, indicate that at least a million welfare recipients have neither jobs nor benefits and have sunk deeper into poverty. For those who found jobs, a great many became mired in minimum-wage jobs — sometimes more than one — that barely cover the child-care and other costs they incurred by working outside the home.
Yet, in rather the same way that President Bush likes to follow sentences about Sept. 11 with the words “Saddam Hussein” to imply a connection unsupported by facts, Clinton follows his boasts about welfare “reform” by announcing that “child poverty dropped to 16.2 percent in 2000, the lowest rate since 1979” as if that proves a causal relationship.
But if crushing welfare is such a boon to poor children, the effects should be snowballing the further we get from the bad old days, right? Well, no: The same census data Clinton cites for 2000 also records a 12% increase in childhood poverty over the four subsequent years.
Of course, Republican funding cuts to various poverty-related programs have no doubt played a role in this sad stat, as has a bitter resistance to raising the federal minimum wage, which, in real dollars, is now at its lowest point in a half-century. But it is ridiculous to imply, without evidence, that welfare reform is responsible for declines in poverty but is unrelated to increases in poverty.
What we do know unequivocally is that real wages have been declining for workers, both lower- and middle-class, despite increases in productivity. As the New York Times reported on Monday, “wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960s.” These numbers are even more depressing when we realize that the top 1% of wage earners, beneficiaries of Bush’s feed-the-rich tax breaks, now earn an outsized 11.2% of the nation’s total wages.
Now, Clinton knows full well that the playing field is neither level nor fair, so it is unconscionable to have singled out the minuscule welfare program for a big propaganda campaign to improve government efficiency. The overly examined welfare program costs $10 billion a year while the $300 billion already spent on the Iraq war is rarely raised in discussions of taxpayer burden and fiscal responsibility.
The sad reality is that “ending welfare as we know it” was championed by Clinton because it made him appear to be a “new Democrat” and not because it would improve the lives of poor kids. Otherwise, he would not dare boast in his column that “as a governor, I oversaw a workfare experiment in Arkansas in 1980,” because that program was a failure.
In Arkansas today, fully half the children are described in Census Bureau data as “low income,” while 1 out of 10 live in a situation that researchers call “extreme child poverty,” meaning that a family of four survives on less than $9,675 per year.
Yes, Clinton all but ended welfare. Unfortunately, child poverty is again on the rise in Arkansas and throughout the nation.