Fifteen years ago this week, President Bill Clinton gave his controversial signature to landmark welfare reform legislation. The anniversary has not gotten a lot of attention, even though the program created to replace “welfare as we know it” in 1996 is up for reauthorization by September 30. A few conservatives have rehearsed their revisionist histories of the 1996 law, according to which Clinton was forced to sign a bill he had vetoed twice (which ignores the rather profound differences in the three measures). A few liberals have either revived their original objections to the law, or have simply noted that an approach to public assistance that worked in the go-go economy of the late 1990s has not worked so well more recently, in part because the jobs that were the linchpin of the new system have all but evaporated, and in part because neither the federal government nor most of the states have kept the funding promises they made fifteen years ago.
But whatever you thought of the law in 1996, or of its performance since then, the biggest surprise has been the rapid erosion, especially during the last few years, of the hopes shared by liberals and conservatives alike that firmly connecting public assistance to a requirement to work would detoxify the social and racial poisons that had grown up around the old system. At first, that actually seemed to happen; the “welfare wedge politics” so common from the 1960s to the 1990s largely abated in the aftermath of the legislation. But now, even as the “working poor” (the bipartisan heroes of welfare reform) are bearing much of the brunt of the Great Recession, they have become the objects of a new and intense wave of conservative hostility that treats them as parasites just like the “welfare queens” of yore.
WHEN RICK PERRY paused, mid-tirade against taxes, in his presidential announcement speech to deplore the number of Americans who pay no federal income taxes (a theme also common in the rhetoric of his rival Michele Bachmann), he was implicitly attacking the Earned Income Tax Credit, which offsets (and, for some, exceeds) federal income tax (but not, of course, payroll or other tax) liability for people of limited income. It was a telling moment, as an expanded EITC, Ronald Reagan’s favorite social policy instrument, was central to the design of the 1996 welfare reform law for the simple reason that it helped “make work pay,” in the parlance of that time, providing a smooth transition from welfare to work. The very instrument once championed by conservatives as a way to put welfare recipients back to work was now officially under attack.
Neither the unimaginative Perry nor the shrill Bachmann pioneered this assault on work-based welfare reform, of course. It splashed onto the national scene in a campaign ad by John McCain in October of 2008, which attacked Barack Obama’s proposal for an increase in the EITC as “welfare for people who don’t pay taxes.” The ad marked a significant departure because McCain himself had once joined his 2000 rival George W. Bush in rebuking House Republican leader Tom DeLay for seeking to delay EITC payments as part of a budget proposal.
Today, however, in an environment where Perry is hedging his bets on whether Social Security is, indeed, the first big step on the road to serfdom, it’s perhaps not remarkable that he and other conservatives would suddenly decide that yesterday’s great Republican initiative to help the working poor is now not only fiscally unaffordable but morally objectionable. The transformation is widely observable across the conservative landscape, with Republican fiscal proposals in the states and in Washington going after a host of other key support systems for the working poor with a vengeance: state-level EITCs, job training programs, unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, you name it. It’s also no coincidence that, in the agitation against the Affordable Care Act, many conservatives deliberately stoked resentment towards alleged redistribution of federal largesse from virtuous Medicare beneficiaries to the uninsured, who are, by definition, working individuals and families who don’t qualify for Medicaid for one reason or another.
Underlying this assault, there seems to be a current of genuine anger at the working families who no longer receive “welfare as we knew it,” but remain beneficiaries of some form of redistribution, even if it’s only progressive tax rates. You can debate back and forth endlessly about whether there is a racial element in this hostility, as there definitely was in the old “welfare wedge” politics. The iron-clad conviction of many conservatives that race-conscious federal housing policies caused the housing and financial meltdowns is not an encouraging sign, in any case. But it is clear that the social peace so many anticipated in 1996—after it had been established that no one receiving public assistance could be accused of refusing to work—has now been broken. Work is no longer enough, it seems, to avoid the moral taint of being a “welfare bum.” And the cruelest irony of all is that, for so many, the work’s not available anyway.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.