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Missing From Bernie’s Revolution: Welfare Reform

The most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary race has been notably quiet about the issue. How come?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On September 11, 1996, a few weeks after President Bill Clinton signed a landmark welfare reform bill, Peter Edelman and Mary Jo Bane, both assistant secretaries in the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned.

Edelman, a longtime ally and close personal friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, confined his statements on the matter to two terse sentences in a memo to his staff:

I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could to help in reducing poverty in America. I believe the recently enacted welfare bill goes in the opposite direction.’’

A month earlier, policy adviser Wendell E. Primus also resigned from HHS. “To remain,” Primus wrote, “would be to disown all the analysis my office has produced regarding the impact of the bill.’’ That analysis, which HHS Secretary Donna Shalala hand-delivered to the president months earlier, indicated that the proposed law would send 1.1 million more children into poverty. On the Senate floor, Ted Kennedy called it “legislative child abuse.”

For liberals holding out hope that the Clinton administration would mark a departure from a decade of conservative assault on the social safety net, welfare reform was the ultimate betrayal—a definitive signal that Clinton’s New Democrats were no particular friends to the cause of social democracy in America.

In the immediate aftermath, many Beltway Democrats muted their criticism, believing that the only way to improve the bill and mitigate its worst impacts was to re-elect Clinton, who was then in the midst of his campaign against Bob Dole—a calculation that The Washington Post’s David Broder likened to rewarding Jack the Ripper with a scholarship to medical school.

He won, and Democrats succeeded in making a few superficial changes to the law. But as Edelman wrote in The Atlantic in March 1997, in an article titled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” welfare reform “dynamited a structure that was in place for six decades.” There was no going back.

The centrist Democratic economic policy envisioned by Bill Clinton—which found its apotheosis in the passing of welfare reform—is once again on trial, this time in the form of a nominating contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Clinton is running on a modestly progressive agenda, one that reflects the increasingly liberal state of the party, but shies away from new expensive programs or increased taxes on anyone but the rich. She’s not running as a “Clinton Democrat,” but she’s not repudiating that legacy either. She’s embraced certain accomplishments of the Clinton years, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), balanced budgets, and general prosperity, and distanced herself from others, like the punitive 1994 crime bill. But most significantly, she’s distinguished herself from Sanders by embracing the get-things-done pragmatism of the first Clinton presidency—the spirit of deal-making and compromise that enabled such triumphs of bipartisanship as the Defense of Marriage Act, mandatory minimum sentences, and, of course, welfare reform.

Sanders, on the other hand, has made it his goal to implement the kind of ambitious New Deal-style economic agenda that Democrats—anxious to win conservative swing voters—shunned during the Clinton years: free public college, single-payer health care, paid family leave, aggressive regulation of Wall Street. Describing himself as a “democratic socialist,” Sanders compares America unfavorably to Scandinavian countries like Denmark—robust social democracies that have reduced inequality, and all but eliminated poverty, by providing a large suite of social services in exchange for much higher taxes.

As President Obama recently remarked, “Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: ‘Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? Why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism?’”

What’s missing from Bernie’s “full-throated” progressive agenda, however, is welfare.

While Sanders frequently repeats and laments the statistic that one in five American children live in poverty, neither he nor Clinton has put forward a specific plan to address it. And neither spends much time talking about food stamps, housing subsidies, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, all essential programs for the poor.

Liberal pundits have criticized Clinton for defending her husband’s welfare legislation—and for parroting the conservative caricature of welfare beneficiaries as “deadbeats”—but so far, it hasn’t created any serious problems for her campaign. But this, perhaps, is to be expected from a more moderate Democrat. The oversight is arguably a more glaring problem for Sanders, who voted against the welfare bill and harshly condemned it in his 1997 book, but hasn’t made it an issue in the primary. In August, he told Bloomberg, with uncharacteristic restraint, “I think that history will suggest that that legislation has not worked terribly well.”

That, the evidence suggests, is an understatement.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 replaced Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). A far stingier program, TANF introduced strict work requirements and time limits for receiving benefits. It severely limited access to benefits for non-citizens and the formerly incarcerated. And it was distributed as a block grant that wasn’t indexed to inflation, so that its real value has fallen by a third over the last two decades. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the result was a weaker welfare system, which supplies much less cash assistance to significantly fewer people.

The impact on poor families has been just as catastrophic as Edelman, Bane, and Primus projected. A recent study by Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer found that the number of households living on or below $2 per day, per person (a World Bank global metric of poverty), has more than doubled, from 636,000 to 1.65 million, since welfare was gutted. The number of children in extreme poverty rose from 1.4 million to 3.5 million in the same time period. These are people who Edin and Schaefer describe as “the poorest of the poor,” for whom “the absence of cash permeated every aspect of their lives.”

The absence of welfare from Sanders’s “political revolution” is conspicuous. It’s not just that improving TANF is compatible with his agenda; it’s that his platform is woefully incomplete without it. Reducing economic inequality doesn’t just require taxing those at the top and increasing security for working families—it also takes a robust safety net that keeps those at the very bottom from becoming destitute.

Take, for example, Sanders’s persistent references to the U.S.’s high child poverty rates. The way that other social democratic countries address this problem is through child allowances: monthly or weekly cash transfers from the government for each child in the household. This policy contributes to the low child poverty rates found in Denmark (2.7 percent), Finland (4.6 percent), and Norway (5.9 percent). The United States, for comparison, has a child poverty rate of 19.6 percent.

Like single-payer health care and free public college tuition, child allowances may not make for easy politics, but they do make for good policy. Studies consistently show that additional income improves child health and development, raises test scores, and reduces maternal depression. Moreover, contrary to the myths perpetuated by conservatives, cash benefits don’t discourage work or breed “dependency”—and parents tend to spend that cash on their kids.

The moral and empirical case for embracing welfare is solid: Increasing unconditional cash benefits is both a fair and effective way to combat poverty. But welfare may also be a strategic wedge issue for Sanders—an opportunity to demonstrate that building an egalitarian economy is just as worthy a feminist goal as electing a female president.

Hillary Clinton’s self-portrayal as a champion of women and families—already belied by her unwillingness to back congressional Democrats’ bid for paid family leave—is even more vulnerable when it comes to welfare. Of those who used to receive AFDC benefits, over two-thirds were children, and of the remaining third, more than 90 percent were women. As the National Women’s Law Center has documented, women, especially women of color, are more likely than men to live in poverty. And more than half of all poor children live in women-headed families. In other words, poor single mothers and their children consistently suffer the most as a result of our porous, restrictive, and insubstantial welfare system.

There’s also history. As others have noted, Clinton cannot be blamed for all the legislation her husband signed. But when it comes to welfare reform, First Lady Clinton was much more than a supportive spouse. She whipped Democratic votes for the bill. She praised it in the press and wrote columns lauding its impact through the 1990s. As recently as 2008, Secretary Clinton defended the legislation as necessary and successful, insisting that welfare “should not be considered an anti-poverty program.”

Secretary Clinton is fond of touting her work with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), where she held her first job after law school. But her advocacy for welfare reform was enough to alienate her CDF colleagues. Marian Wright Edelman, CDF’s founder (and Peter Edelman’s wife), said at the time that signing welfare reform made “a mockery of [Bill Clinton’s] pledge not to hurt children.” The Clintons’ betrayal opened a rift between the two couples—old college friends—that Hillary Clinton described in her memoir as “sad and painful.” But as Peter Edelman told The New York Times in 2008, the Clintons have never expressed remorse: “They don’t acknowledge the number of people who were hurt [by welfare reform]. It’s just not in their lens.”

Sanders can and should make the case that additional cash assistance is necessary to protect women and families—and challenge Clinton to repudiate her support for what most experts (Paul Ryan excluded) agree was a disastrous and mean-spirited bill. Doing so would force Clinton to put her money where her mouth is when it comes to defending the most vulnerable American families—or else continue to endorse a piece of legislation, and status quo, that quite unambiguously injures the poor.

But there is yet another reason Sanders should call for more cash assistance. If President Obama is right that Sanders is rejecting the terms of the debate established by Ronald Reagan, Sanders ought also to reject the mythical depiction of the urban poor as lazy, reckless, and undeserving—a caricature that Reagan popularized, Bill and Hillary Clinton perpetuated, and whose racial subtext was made explicit in an August 1996 cover of this very magazine.

That cover, depicting a black mother feeding her child while smoking a cigarette, and urging President Clinton to “Sign The Welfare Bill Now,” eliminated any doubt that, as riddled with inefficiencies as the old welfare system may have been, the reform bill that Clinton signed was motivated as much by a cynical ploy to assuage the unfounded racist fears of white voters—that a mass of poor black “welfare queens” were sucking the government dry—as by any genuine desire to improve the distribution of state benefits.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, recently noted, this too is the legacy of Clintonism. “I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done,” Alexander wrote in a recent Facebook post. “[M]illions of families … were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare, and taxes.”

By not more vociferously rejecting this legacy, Sanders lends credence to the criticism that the limits of his “political revolution” are indeed those circumscribed by white supremacy; that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has astutely observed, it is only in instances of racially charged policy that the socialist Sanders opts for pragmatism over idealism.

It’s possible that Sanders believes a political revolution cast in more universal terms will ultimately prove more durable for everyone, with the added benefit of sidestepping a racially fraught battle. But Sanders has also explicitly built his campaign strategy around attracting low-income whites away from Clinton (and perhaps, away from the Republican Party). It appears that Sanders—a far more savvy politician than his critics give him credit for—is wary of alienating those white voters.

However, insofar as the white working class continues to be captured by Reaganite-Clintonite myths of black dependency—and the evidence is at best inconclusive that they are; most welfare beneficiaries are, after all, white—it ought to be as much a goal of the Sanders campaign to explode those assumptions as it has been to reject the right-wing mythology that extreme inequality is a natural consequence of meritocracy.

Progressives are ready for the end of the Clinton era in Democratic politics. Is Bernie Sanders?