Bill Clinton Killed the Myth of the Welfare Queen

It’s his most overlooked welfare reform victory.

In the course of his incendiary presidential campaign, GOP candidate Donald Trump has unabashedly shown his scorn for America’s most vulnerable citizens and minorities. He’s proposed banning Muslims, called women “pigs,” mocked Americans with disabilities and smeared immigrants as criminals and “rapists.”

But in Trump’s otherwise vast gallery of scapegoats, one notable trope is missing: the “welfare queen.”

For the better part of a generation, conservative and right-wing candidates vilified Americans on welfare – the “undeserving,” typically minority poor – in their appeals to their base and the white working class. In 1976, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan introduced the nation to Linda Taylor, a 47-year-old Chicago welfare recipient whom Reagan made infamous as the original “welfare queen.” “If you are a slum dweller,” Reagan claimed in what now seems a very Trump-esque speech, “you can get an apartment with 11‐foot ceilings, with a 20‐foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and play room, and the rent begins at $113.20 and that includes utilities.”

At the time, Reagan’s tough stance on welfare encapsulated the conservative critique of what was wrong with big-government liberalism. And it struck a nerve with a public grown cynical about the Great Society. In 1976, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, 63% of Americans thought the federal government spent “too much” on welfare.  Reagan’s tales of welfare cheats and incompetent bureaucrats – with their wink-and-nod racist subtext – enraged blue-collar and middle-class Americans alike. Welfare reform, which Reagan also championed in California, became a signature issue that helped propel him to national prominence and then to the White House in 1980. It also became a core component of the broader conservative movement, enshrined by Newt Gingrich and his conservative revolutionaries in the 1994 Contract with America. Even today, die-hard Tea Party Republicans continue to lobby to cut benefits to the poor.

Yet Trump – despite his unerring instincts to leave no wedge issue unexplored – has been strikingly silent on welfare and poverty. His appeals for “law and order” in the “hell” of inner cities are no less implicitly racist than Reagan’s warnings of a “permanent culture of poverty.” But America’s poorest women and children – once the target of decades of right-wing vitriol – have largely escaped the crosshairs.

The reason is that welfare simply isn’t the toxic wedge issue it once was – to the benefit of America’s poor. Compared to their decided hostility toward the poor in the 1970s and ‘80s, Americans are now decidedly more sympathetic toward a strong governmental role in fixing poverty. At the same time, the federal government’s role in reducing poverty has grown over time, not shrunk. In fact, the footprint of federal anti-poverty efforts, which now includes broad expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the working poor, food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies, is much larger today than in the years when federal spending was a political albatross for progressives. Yet there’s no widespread middle class backlash; no grassroots taxpayer revolt; and no resuscitation of another Contract with America to strip the poor of their benefits.

Welfare simply isn’t the toxic wedge issue it once was – to the benefit of America’s poor.

The credit for these dramatic shifts belongs to former President Bill Clinton and the historic welfare reform legislation he signed in 1996. But it’s an achievement for which Clinton gets far less praise than he deserves.

Twenty years after the fact, a popular view among the progressive left is that welfare reform was an abject failure. “[F]ailure was baked into the original policy design [Clinton] signed into law,” said a recent op-ed at ThinkProgress. Along with the 1994 crime bill, welfare reform is one of the key aspects of Bill Clinton’s record in office that have fed the progressive left’s guilt-by-association suspicion of his wife, Hillary. In April, for example, Black Lives Matters protesters interrupted a campaign rally where Bill Clinton was speaking, holding signs criticizing both reforms.

The biggest failures of welfare reform, however, belong to conservatives. One such failure was political: Clinton’s co-option of the issue stripped conservatives of a powerful cudgel with which to pummel “big-government” Democrats and undercut federal programs for the poor. “It was pretty stunning to have a Democratic candidate for President talking about ‘ending welfare as we know it,’” said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, speaking at a recent event looking back at the history of welfare reform.

But conservatives’ substantive defeats were even worse.

If you look at the original Contract with America, its language is shockingly punitive. Congress should pass a “Personal Responsibility Act,” the Contract read, to “[d]iscourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare.” Moreover, the Contract urged, Congress should “cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.”

Conservatives, however, not only lost their efforts to shred the safety net for poor women and children, they failed to stigmatize “illegitimacy” as a matter of federal policy (a goal that seems even more laughably out-of-touch today). Nor did they succeed in making the related aim of “promoting marriage” an enduring priority for federal funding, despite explicit language to that effect in the final welfare reform bill. As the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector lamented at the same event where Engler spoke, “We have now spent $660 million on an act where three out of the four goals were to promote marriage, and what did we get from the states?  One immeasurably small marriage program in one state after 20 years.”

What did happen is that Clinton seized on one element of the conservative welfare reform agenda – work – and used it as leverage to create the broadest expansion of federal spending on poverty reduction since the New Deal. Welfare recipients should work, Clinton agreed, and the 1996 legislation set both a five-year time limit on benefits and imposed, for the first time ever, a requirement that recipients work to receive aid.

But Clinton also argued government’s obligation to “make work pay.” “No one who works full time and has children in the home should live in poverty,” said Clinton in 1996. It was a bargain that would win over the public, which soon shed its appetite for punishing the poor that conservatives had done their best to encourage. It also enabled Clinton to push through his ambitious agenda of new programs aimed at helping the working poor.

Clinton’s biggest win was the expansion of the EITC, which was framed as a precondition to passing welfare reform and which Congress passed in 1993. Today, the EITC is the federal government’s largest anti-poverty program, delivering $63 billion in benefits a year to nearly 28 million families. This makes it nearly four times the size of the federal block grants under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) – the successor to AFDC. Researchers credit the EITC for dramatically increasing workforce participation for lower-income women (more so than the reform of AFDC). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the EITC lifted 9.4 million people in working households out of poverty in 2013.

Clinton also won on the creation of federal subsidies for child care, which didn’t exist before 1996. Today, the government spends roughly $5.3 billion in block grants to the states each year to fund child care assistance for low-income moms. He also won on an expansion of Medicaid to working-poor families, something that federal law had previously disallowed. Both of these changes were part of the original welfare reform legislation.

At the same time as these expansions were taking place, public attitudes toward the poor and toward federal assistance for the poor were shifting dramatically for the better. For example, according to an analysis by the Roper Center, 54% of Americans in 1995 – the year before reform – said they thought “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits.” 53% also said they thought welfare recipients could “get along” without their benefits “if they tried.”

But by 2001, only 44% of Americans thought welfare recipients didn’t need the help, and the share of Americans who believed poor people “had it easy” had fallen by 10 percentage points. Today, according to an early 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 59% of Americans say the federal government doesn’t do enough to help the poor, while a 2015 Pew survey finds that 55% of Americans say the federal government has a “major role” in “helping people get out of poverty.”

Just as significantly, a growing number of conservatives have come around to the view that the federal government has a vital role in supporting work for low-income Americans. In a sprawling bipartisan report released this spring by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, a who’s who of liberal and conservative experts – many of them adversaries or allies from the 1996 welfare reform debate – agreed on the importance of state and federal investments to improve low-income Americans’ jobs skills, expand the EITC yet further and even raise the federal minimum wage (though it did not specify by how much). Such a consensus would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

This is not to say Clinton’s effort was an all-around slam-dunk. While Clinton successfully built a new infrastructure to support the working poor, the price was the damage done to cash assistance for vulnerable families. Where conservatives did score the biggest points was in TANF itself, which has shrunk to a shadow of its predecessor, AFDC. Today, the program serves barely 1.6 million families (compared to  4.9 million AFDC cases in 1995). Determined to shrink welfare caseloads to their barest minimum, conservatives demanded provisions requiring states to ensure that a steep percentage of the recipients on their caseloads were engaged in “work activities.” The legislation also instituted a “caseload reduction credit,” which incentivized states to push people off the rolls rather than try to help them find work. In 2005, conservatives pushed through a series of technical changes that tightened the definition of “work” and eliminated state flexibility to work with recipients. More people left or got pushed out of the program. As a result, says Olivia Golden, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), TANF now reaches less than one in five poor children and involves too few recipients in meaningful work activities that could lead to stable employment. As she wrote in a retrospective essay for the Clearinghouse, “TANF is in tatters.”

As for the nation’s progress on poverty, there’s also unquestionably much more to be done. According to the Census Bureau’s latest figures, 19.7% of America’s children still live in poverty, including 31.6% of children who are black and 28.9% who are Hispanic. But these figures are still an improvement over 1993, when a staggering 46.1% children of black children and 40.9% of Hispanic children lived below the poverty line. While some liberal critics argue that welfare reform actually increased poverty, that claim is simply untrue.

It’s a tragic commentary on our times that the relative absence of public controversy on an issue is a sign of progress. But in an environment when almost any and every issue before Congress risks Trump-like demagoguery (or a government shutdown), the quiet new consensus on how to help America’s poorest and most vulnerable is indeed an indicator of how far we’re come from the days of Reagan’s “welfare queens.”

A small blessing, perhaps, but a blessing nonetheless.