Sunday, June 05, 2016

The ugly legacy of Bill Clinton's bipartisan welfare "reform"

One of the ugliest legacies of Bill Clinton's neoliberal/DLC Presidency is his notorious welfare "reform," aka, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).

Blatantly bad results were forestalled by the tech boom of the 1990s. But once the inevitable recessions started hitting, and then the 2008 financial crash that wase greatly facilitated by the success of Clinton's financial-deregulation policies, then the ugly sides became obvious to anyone willing to look.

Krissy Clark reports on part of the ongoing bad results in The Disconnected Slate 06/03/2016.

Hillary Clinton's candidacy has provided new opportunities for people to recall what the conservative version of Democratic economics looks like in practice. Bryce Covert recalls in No, Bill Clinton, You Can’t Blame Welfare Reform’s Failures On Republicans Think Progress 04/08/2016:

It’s true that there was a large drop in black poverty under Clinton’s presidency, with the share of black families in poverty falling from about 33 percent when he took office to just under 23 percent by the time he left. But that downward trend began long before welfare reform was signed into law in 1996, and it was short-lived. By 2002, the rate started climbing again as the country entered a recession.

The same story played out with poverty generally. While the booming economy of the 1990s provided enough jobs such that people who were forced to work in order to receive welfare benefits were able to find them, as soon as the economy faltered that story faltered as well and recipients fell into hard times. The work requirements have been repeatedly found to significantly increase financial hardship for those who lose benefits because they can’t find work.

Meanwhile, after reform, welfare was less and less able to help those at the very bottom. The number of families living at half the poverty line, or less than $12,000 a year for a family four, is higher now than in 1996, and extreme poverty — families who live on $2 or less per person a day — has risen 159 percent since then, especially among those who were most directly impacted by welfare changes.
The Clinton-Obama brand of neoliberalism doesn't entirely reject Keynesian countercyclical economic policies, aka, bonehead macroeconomics. When Obama took office in 2009, he got enough of an economic stimulus bill passed with Democratic majorities in Congress to restimulate the economy to a significant extent. Even the Cheney-Bush Administration's panic over the 2008 crisis lead them to bail out some banks in an attempt to stabilize the economy.

But Obama clearly believes in neoliberal, i.e., anti-Keynesian/Herbert Hoover/Angela Merkel economics. That's why even in 2009 he proceeded with setting up the infamous Simpson-Bowles Commission to promote cutbacks in Social Security and promote general domestic spending cutbacks when the US and world economies clearly needed active contracyclical stimulus for a while yet.

See also:

Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis, Why It Matters That Hillary Clinton Championed Welfare Reform The Nation 03/011/2016

Joshua Holland, How Bill Clinton’s Welfare “Reform” Created a System Rife With Racial Biases Moyers & Co 05/12/2014

David Ellwood gave a contemporary account on the process of enacting welfare "reform" in Welfare Reform as I Knew It: When Bad Things Happen to Good Policies The American Prospect May-June 1996

Frances Fox Piven, since built into some bizarre Obama conspiracy theory by Glenn Beck, responded to Ellwood's article in Was Welfare Reform Worthwhile? The American Prospect July-Aug 1996. The online version misleadingly shows only Ellwood himself as the author; he actually just has a brief rejoinder at the end. But Piven writes:

Clinton was using the welfare issue not as an opportunity to relieve poverty, but as an opportunity to gain support by inciting popular indignation at welfare. Welfare reform became an argument about why poor women were to blame for so much that was wrong with America. No wonder the administration has been so reluctant to refuse even the most draconian state requests for waivers. After 1994, of course, the Republican Congress quickly snatched back the welfare issue, which the Clinton administration has helped to heat up.

Ellwood thinks the diverse Republican efforts at welfare spending rollbacks, work enforcement, benefit cuts, strict rules, and devolution to the states are contradictory, without "shared conviction." I think he again misses the point. These policy proposals are not mainly about the design of rational interventions in social life. Rather, they continue, unmodulated by any liberal compunctions, the political strategy begun by Clinton, of pointing to the failures of poor women as an explanation for the cultural ruptures and economic insecurities of contemporary American life.

And real welfare reform is less likely than ever.

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