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Deadbeat Democrats

How Bill Clinton set the stage for the GOP's war on the poor.

Illustration By André Carrilho

In June, at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, President Trump brought 6,000 supporters to their feet, roaring their approval. “I believe the time has come for new immigration rules,” Trump bellowed. “Those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years.” A bill to shred the safety net for legal immigrants would be moving through Congress “very shortly,” Trump promised.

The legislation never materialized, for a simple reason: What Trump proposed is already the law of the land. Thanks to the massive “welfare reform” bill that President Bill Clinton signed two decades ago, new immigrants are ineligible for public assistance during their first five years in America. It’s a mean-spirited policy. But it was the creation not of nationalist demagogues like Trump but of Democrats like Clinton, who pledged in his 1992 campaign to “end welfare as we know it.”

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s talk of lazy “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying expensive steaks on the government’s dime had turned welfare into a dirty word. By 1989, two-thirds of Americans thought welfare made people dependent and “content” to stay poor. Feeling hemmed in by white voters who had responded to Reagan’s racemongering about the shiftless poor guzzling up government benefits, Clinton decided to make a sort of Faustian bargain: He would “reform” welfare in a way that would detoxify the politics around it, gambling that the move would create more support for a strong safety net in the long run. “Once taxpayers started viewing the poor as workers, not welfare cheats, a more generous era would ensue,” The New York Times observed in 2000, summing up the rationale for Clinton’s wager on welfare reform. “Harmful stereotypes would fade. New benefits would flow.”

Celebrating the law’s passage in 1996, Clinton repeated his Reaganesque justification for sweeping change. “The current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility, and family,” he declared, “trapping generation after generation in dependency.” In the end, though, Clinton never succeeded at getting more generous benefits for the poor. And his bet on “reform” turned what was once a helping hand into a slap in the face—and an utter disaster for the vulnerable.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act ended the Great Society promise of cash benefits for all families in need. It imposed work requirements on recipients of welfare benefits, and allowed states to erect further barriers to aid. And it plunged millions into even deeper poverty. In 1996, nearly 70 percent of poor families received benefits. Today it’s less than 25 percent. And that’s not because they all found decent jobs and developed the sense of “personal responsibility” and “self-sufficiency” that Clinton loved to preach about. According to a study of low-income single mothers, more than 20 percent go for months at a time with neither employment nor benefits. Since 1995, the number of Americans living on $2 or less a day has nearly tripled—including some three million children.

At the same time, Clinton’s reform failed to convince more Americans to help those in need. In fact, as political scientists Joe Soss and Sanford Schram have found, the law “was actually followed by a decline in the public’s desire to reduce inequality and raise living standards for the poor.” Rather than reframe the debate over welfare, Clinton ended up legitimizing the notion that the poor need “tough love,” reinforcing the racist stereotypes that had been peddled by Reagan, and whetting the GOP’s appetites for even more cuts. Today, drawing on the same rationale that was given credence by Clinton, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are clamoring for another round of “welfare reform.” If Bill Clinton took us back to the days of Hoovervilles and breadlines, Paul Ryan and his fellow conservatives want to return us to Dickensian England. And they may very well get their way this time, thanks to the noxious legacy of welfare reform.

The case that Clinton made for “welfare reform” created a powerful weapon that Republicans are using in their renewed assault on the poor. Paul Ryan has long defended his calls for draconian cuts to safety-net programs by explicitly comparing them to Clinton’s approach, which the House speaker has praised for yielding “landmark legislation” that he considers an “unprecedented success.” Echoing Clinton, Ryan has blamed poverty on a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work.”

The most recent House budget sings the same tune, relying on lingering perceptions of the “deadbeat” poor. “The federal government should no longer create a culture of dependency on government,” the budget insists, “but rather should promote self-sufficiency and the value of a hard-earned dollar.” It recommends welfare reforms that “promote work and self-sufficiency,” as if the country hadn’t endured a debate over just that for the better part of the 1990s. In his own budget, President Trump explicitly calls for a new round of “welfare reform,” in nearly identical language. “We must reform our welfare system so that it does not discourage able-bodied adults from working, which takes away scarce resources from those in real need,” the president’s budget states. “Work must be the center of our social policy.”

But where “welfare” used to refer specifically to cash assistance, Republicans have expanded the definition. Now a whole new universe of programs has been lumped together and primed for the chopping block: food stamps, Medicaid, even unemployment insurance. Ryan calls “welfare reform” one of “the two big things” that Republicans want to get done this year. The House budget would impose harsh work requirements on a host of new programs and turn Medicaid into “block grants,” placing federal funds in the hands of individual states—a system that has dramatically eroded welfare benefits since 1996. Trump’s budget, meanwhile, calls for slashing $272 billion from a wide category of “welfare” programs over the next decade.

Republican governors and state legislatures, in the meantime, are not waiting for Congress to act. Fifteen states now strip aid from anyone who misses or fails a drug test. Some have imposed harsh lifetime limits on benefits: Families in Arizona, for example, are abruptly cut off after a year, no matter how dire their circumstances. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has sued the federal government to allow him to place work requirements on food-stamp recipients, contending that the states should have wider latitude to impose restrictions on benefits.

Republicans, of course, have been waging war on the poor for decades. But if Trump and Ryan succeed in slashing the safety net even further, Democrats will shoulder part of the blame. Back when Clinton first pushed for welfare reform, many Democrats fought hard to stop it. Almost his entire cabinet, and half the Democrats in Congress, opposed the measure. But in the two decades since, liberals have done next to nothing to change the toxic terms of welfare politics by challenging, in a consistent way, the stereotype that welfare recipients are undeserving. They’ve never tried to rekindle the War on Poverty. Instead, they’ve pushed mainly for tax breaks to “working families”—language that conjures up a Reaganesque divide between hardworking Americans who merit assistance and those who don’t. Even Bernie Sanders, who has denounced welfare reform as “an attack, by and large, on low-income Americans,” has never put forward a program for reversing the devastation it’s caused.

This fall, Democrats have a chance to start reframing the debate. With GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, liberals won’t be able to defeat all of Ryan’s and Trump’s proposals. But they should seize the opportunity to roll out concrete proposals to match their anti-poverty rhetoric. Two years ago, Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, a former welfare beneficiary herself, came up with a promising approach. Her RISE Out of Poverty Act would fundamentally change the nature of “welfare reform” by shifting the measure of success from reducing welfare rolls to reducing child poverty. The bill would require that benefits rise with inflation, which hasn’t happened since 1996. And it would guarantee childcare for all welfare recipients who work. “You want to be self-sufficient?” Moore told me back when she first introduced her bill. “Hallelujah! Let’s talk about what it means.”

But even Moore’s proposal plays on the GOP’s turf, by emphasizing ways to reward the “working” poor. Instead of fighting a rearguard effort to preserve existing benefits, Democrats should go on offense, proposing even bolder ideas to aid the poor. For starters, why not call for a “universal basic income” that ensures every American a bare-minimum level of resources? Under UBI—an idea once championed by both George McGovern and Richard Nixon—the government would simply cut an annual check for every American. A federal supplement of just $3,000 a year would slice poverty rates in half.

The only way to atone for Bill Clinton’s sin, and for his party’s continued failure to defend those in need, is to create a new political constituency for increasing aid to the poor. It’s an effort that will take years, perhaps decades. But the time to start is now.