Fifteen years ago next week, President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill into law. There will be no ceremony Monday to mark the occasion. No cake. No card. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to highlight welfare reform anymore.
Democrats worry that raising the issue could give the impression that they care about poor people or that they are retreating from Clinton’s centrist reforms. Republicans know that while they sell reform as a cut in spending, any serious effort to move struggling Americans into self-sustaining jobs requires more government funding for job training and work support.
Both sides want to convince voters that the only thing they care about is the middle class, so they act as though the 44 million Americans in poverty — including more than 4 million still receiving cash welfare each month — don’t exist.
This amnesia isn’t new. In 2005, when the 1996 bill was about to expire, the Republicans who ran Congress implemented further restrictions on welfare through provisions in a budget reconciliation, rather than passing a stand-alone welfare bill that would have required debate. While the president and the Democrats who ran Congress in 2009 did quietly add temporary funding to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help welfare recipients find work, that funding has expired with little fanfare.
Our leaders have avoided a new debate over welfare because it is assumed that reform was an unqualified victory and that the drop in participation proved its success. People receiving cash assistance nationwide declined from 12.3 million in 1996 to 4.4 million in 2010. Yet judging the effectiveness of welfare solely by how many people leave it is a bit like judging the success of a hospital by how many people leave it — without differentiating between whether they depart cured, ill or dead. A full analysis of welfare reform demonstrates a decidedly mixed bag. Some have been greatly aided, but others irreparably harmed.
In the late 1990s, during a strong economy, many people who left welfare obtained jobs — or increased the hours they were working in the jobs they held — thereby lifting their incomes and giving them increased pride from work. Both the overall poverty rate and the child poverty rate decreased. Poor people themselves generally supported reform. That’s why I believe that Clinton — in whose administration I served — was correct in signing the bill, after vetoing earlier versions that would have turned food stamps into a block-grant program or provided too little money for child care.
Still, even when reform was working most effectively, some of those who left welfare for work found their wages to be less than the value of the total benefits package they had received, and people who remained on the rolls struggled with shrinking benefits. As the overall poverty rate decreased, the number of people in severe poverty (earning half the poverty threshold or below) increased.
After the economy weakened in 2001, states kept moving people off welfare, but fewer and fewer were finding jobs, and more were being pushed into the streets. After the economy worsened further in 2007, most states still resisted significantly expanding their welfare rolls. Between 1996 and 2009, the number of Americans in poverty rose from 36 million to 44 million, or 22 percent, according to Census Bureau data, and the number of people in severe poverty climbed 36 percent, from 14 million to 19 million, the highest number in decades. Fifty million Americans live in food-insecure households. Homelessness is surging in many parts of the country.
The law that Clinton signed gave governors, mayors and subsequent federal policymakers the tools to further change welfare dramatically, for better or worse. Most changes were for the worse, tightening work requirements and imposing penalties for noncompliance in ways that resulted in further limiting upward mobility.
I still believe in the promise of welfare reform and believe fervently that living-wage employment should be the centerpiece of all social policy. To achieve that goal, we need serious national efforts to create jobs that pay enough for families to meet their basic expenses and to provide the training and work support necessary to ensure that current and former welfare recipients can obtain and keep those jobs.
The only way to achieve those changes is to build a broad-based political movement that energizes low-income Americans and convinces middle-class families of the reality that reducing poverty (and not just welfare) is in their economic self-interest. All Americans need to understand that it is to everyone’s benefit to have an economy in which more people can afford to buy basic goods and services.
Building such a movement is especially difficult in a political environment in which the ultra-rich shape most of our policies, as well as the debates over them, and the non-rich quietly acquiesce. That is why, in the near term, welfare reform will continue to be forgotten by all sides of the political spectrum.
Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and the author of “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?” He served in the Agriculture Department during the Clinton administration, including as USDA coordinator of community food security.