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How the Media Is Abetting the GOP’s War on “Welfare”

Bill Clinton already ended welfare as we knew it. So what, exactly, are Republicans after now?

Win McNamee/AFP/Getty Images

Since Republicans passed their tax cut package, it’s been clear what the party’s next priority is—sort of. While there have been myriad articles with similar headlines proclaiming that the GOP is taking on “welfare,” these do more to muddle our understanding of Republican priorities than clarify it.

The Washington Post reports: “Ryan says Republicans to target welfare, Medicare, Medicaid spending in 2018.” It notes that “Trump recently called on Congress to move to cut welfare spending after the tax bill,” while allowing that “Trump has not clarified which specific programs would be affected by the proposed ‘welfare reform.’” The Wall Street Journal’s headline says, “After Push on Taxes, Republicans Line Up Welfare Revamp Next.” At CNN, it’s “GOP will tackle Medicare, Medicaid, welfare in 2018, Ryan says,” with the speaker of the House quoted as saying, “We think it’s important to get people from welfare to work. We have a welfare system that’s basically trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work, and we’ve got to work on that.” The Christian Science Monitor goes with “Trump to take on welfare, but not all Republicans are on board,” while Reuters warns, “Political risk looms over Republicans’ welfare tinkering.”

The problem with using “welfare” as shorthand is that it slips into the way we talk about and understand the issue. Republicans, in fact, are counting on it, since it amounts to a concession to how they are framing their arguments.

Any web editor can tell you how rarely readers get to the end of the article, where the description of which “welfare” programs Republicans actually want to target is usually buried. Instead, what the average, overworked American reader gets is an idea that some program called “welfare” is going to be cut. But they don’t use “welfare,” so they move on to the next story. That is because “welfare” doesn’t exist, while actual programs that many people will rely upon at some point in their lives are on the chopping block.

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, having campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” It was a promise he repeated in his 1993 State of the Union speech, saying, “We have to end welfare as a way of life, and make it a path to independence and dignity.” Back then, welfare reform was bipartisan, but it was built on dog whistles from the right that dated back to the 1970s, the moment when American capitalism was shifting away from the decades-long Fordist bargain of union contracts and relatively decent wages to growing downward pressure on the working class and attacks on social safety net programs.

“Welfare,” in those days, meant Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the program ended by Clinton’s welfare reform bill, which turned AFDC into block grants known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). As Premilla Nadasen, the author of Welfare Warriors, writes, AFDC was relatively uncontroversial until the 1960s, when an increasing number of black women taking advantage of the program—and organizing to demand better of it—opened the door to racialized attacks. “The punitive approach to addressing poverty was a result of the way race and poverty had become intertwined in the national debate,” Nadasen writes. “In the 1960s, urban social disorder, black demands for economic equality, and federal anti-poverty initiatives drew the nation’s attention to the persistent problem of black poverty. But the dominant liberal approach explained poverty as a product of black culture, reinforcing the notion that certain poor people were responsible for their own poverty.”

The women of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), founded in 1967, challenged this idea. Importantly, they also argued that raising children was itself work. Welfare, they said, was a safety net that would be there for anyone who needed it, not a handout to a pathological segment of the population. “Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women,” argued Johnnie Tillmon, chair of the NWRO. “As far as I’m concerned, the ladies of NWRO are the front-line troops of women’s freedom. Both because we have so few illusions and because our issues are so important to all women—the right to a living wage for women’s work, the right to life itself.”

Yet NWRO’s struggle was ultimately unsuccessful; instead of expanding the AFDC program and removing its more punitive aspects (home inspections and even forced sterilizations), the U.S. government slashed it. And sloppy reporting and endless repeated lies about “welfare queens”—introduced in Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1976 speech—enabled that slashing. Even publications like this one had their role in pushing welfare reform through—The New Republic’s notorious August 1996 cover called for Congress to “sign the welfare bill now,” under a photograph of a black woman holding a baby and smoking a cigarette.

Reagan wasn’t the first to blur the lines between “welfare” and other broadly used and broadly popular social programs, and his rhetoric lives on in today’s GOP, from Paul Ryan to Donald Trump. While AFDC was not, in fact, predominantly used by black women, the image that was used in speeches and in stories was the irresponsible black mother. That image echoes today in Trumpist paeans to the “white working class,” which implicitly contrast white people, who work, to the black poor, presumably non-working. Yet “welfare” cuts have always been about pushing people into work, as Trump made clear in his State of the Union Tuesday night, trotting out an old cliché: “We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity.” What that looks like in practice, so far, is new work requirements for Medicaid.

Welfare reform did not improve the lives of poor women, working or otherwise, but it definitely did end welfare as we knew it. Only a quarter of TANF spending now goes to payments to poor people; the program has lost nearly a third of its value to inflation. The portion of single mothers with neither income nor cash benefits is up to 20 percent. Extreme poverty has risen 159 percent since 1996.

So what, then, are Republicans taking aim at?

Politico had one of the few stories that framed the situation honestly: “Under the banner of welfare reform, the administration is eyeing changes to health care, food stamps, housing, and veterans programs,” it wrote, in a story titled “Behind Trump’s plan to target the federal safety net.” In other words, programs that have very little to do with “welfare.” Some of these are anti-poverty programs; others, like veterans programs, do the work of fighting poverty but are more easily construed as “earned.” And then, in Paul Ryan’s dreamworld, there are Social Security and Medicare cuts—but those will be the hard ones, since most Americans rightly see these as their due.

What the GOP means by “welfare cuts,” then, are cuts to what is often referred to in Europe and in academic contexts as the “welfare state,” the programs that a country provides that look after the general well-being of its residents. Social Security and Medicare are parts of the U.S. welfare state; in Europe, it usually includes a national health care program, paid family leave, and long-term unemployment benefits. The welfare state in the U.S. has always been more privatized than in European countries. It is often provided to workers by their employers rather than the state, and the workplace is its battleground. As Lane Windham notes in Knocking on Labor’s Door, the government subsidized the provision of health care by employers, and provided a stick to workers in the form of government support for union organizing.

These days, the government is handing that stick to employers. Work requirements for TANF, and now for Medicaid, push people to take the first available job and give them little ability to leave it. Employers have few incentives to provide health insurance or pensions anymore, and yet Ryan and Trump want to slice even more out of the few broad welfare-state programs we have left.

In that context, uncritically repeating their “welfare reform” framing is beyond lazy. It’s actively taking a side, aiding those who want to slash a safety net that is already in tatters by allowing them to recycle a racist meme from the 1970s.