By Luke Brinker
With last week’s depressing figures on poverty in America – which now stands at a staggering 15.1 percent – comes another opportunity to revisit the legacy of the welfare overhaul passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Clinton put his signature on the law in the summer of an election year, despite having previously vetoed two similar bills. The politics of Clinton’s decision to sign have been much ballyhooed. Clinton sought to present himself as a “New Democrat,” separate from the liberal legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. New Democrats, under the umbrella of the Democratic Leadership Council, argued that the Democratic Party needed to stop worrying so much about the pesky poor and spend more time courting “middle America.” In practice, however, the New Democrats were more about currying favor among well-heeled corporate donors like Koch Industries, Chevron, and Merck, key DLC contributors.
But I digress. Back to welfare reform, perhaps the landmark policy accomplishment of the New Democrats. The 1996 law ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a Johnson-era program, and replaced it with the stingier, state-based Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The measure also placed a five-year time limit on receiving benefits.
Signed amid the economic boom of the 1990s, the welfare reform law would face its first real test when an economic crisis hit. If one accepts that the purpose of welfare policy should be the improvement of the condition of poor people’s lives – and even reform supporters pledged fealty to that principle – then it follows that welfare programs should match the need for federal assistance when hard times arrive. With the Great Recession, the welfare reform law faced its test – and came up woefully short.
Proponents of the law heralded declining welfare rolls, but as Ezra Klein noted last month, those rolls continued to decline even after the economic crisis pushed more people into poverty. Klein contrasted the food stamp program with TANF:
If you think the point of the program is to help the poor, then no, welfare reform is not working. As Jake Blumgart writes at The American Prospect, the reformed program “has failed to cushion the neediest through recessions. While in 2009 the food-stamp program responded to the increased need for government assistance, growing by 57 percent, the number of TANF caseloads merely inched upward…At the heart of the worst recession in 80 years, TANF funds only reached 4.5 million families, or 28 percent of those living in poverty. By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million families, or 75 percent of those living in poverty.”
With the New York Times reporting today that young families are seeing record levels of poverty, the consequences of a generation of blaming the victim as a welfare policy have become wrenchingly clear. Don’t expect the Democrats to seize the moral challenge, though. While the DLC formally folded last year, its influence on the party endures. When President Obama and Democratic moderates speak of growing income inequality, they bemoan the impact on the middle class. The poor, who tend not to vote, are always an afterthought.