Revisionist History of Welfare Reform
Next week will mark the tenth anniversary of the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation. And as a host of former opponents of this legislation now attest, it largely worked.
No, it did not drastically reduce income inequality in the United States. Yes, its initial success depended in no small part on a red-hot late 1990s economy that in particular supplied an enormous number of entry-level jobs. Certainly, there should be a continuing debate over how best to help the dispossessed in our society get into the economic and social mainstream. And moreover, given the currently sluggish and insecure national economy, and the decision of congressional Republicans to reauthorize the 1996 act with no debate and in the dark of the night, with toughened work requirements for single mothers and little or no resources for child care--current law deserves some new scrutiny.
But what's annoying to me, having been heavily involved in the welfare reform debate of the mid-1990s, is the revisionist history being peddled by Republicans, who continue to claim the 1996 legislation as their own, when it's just not true.
Check out this line from a National Review editorial commemorating the anniversary of the 1996 act:
President Clinton vetoed conservative welfare reform twice before Republican resolve finally secured his signature on legislation that held cash welfare to a five-year limit and imposed work requirements on its recipients.
This has long been the view from the Right--and some precincts of the Left--about what happened in 1996: Republicans sent their bill up three times, and the third time Clinton signed it on the advice of the triangulating Dick Morris, in order to guarantee his re-election.
Didn't happen that way.
The first congressional welfare reform bill sent to Clinton was a House-based package that disqualified unmarried mothers--obviously a large segment of the welfare population--from any public benefits. He vetoed it. The second bill was Senate-based, and essentially turned the entire public assistance system into a block grant, with no real incentives for finding jobs for welfare recipients, and every incentive for states to just slash eligibility and call it a day. Clinton, calling the bill "tough on kids, weak on work," vetoed that one as well.
The final bill was indeed a compromise. It eliminated the personal entitlement to public assistance, but did not disqualify big categorties of Americans (other than legal immigrants, a provision which Clinton vowed to change, and did in no small part before he left office), and created significant incentives for states to help welfare recipients find jobs immediately.
Clinton famously agonized over signing this bill, but the idea that he simply caved in to Republicans is not at all accurate. Ten years later, the revisionist history of welfare reform is, like the bizarre belief of conservatives that Ronald Reagan created the 90s boom, just another bit of delusion in the service of propaganda. --