Everything Bill Clinton said Thursday to defend his 1996 welfare reform law was false.
Clinton claimed that he left the program with plenty of money for poor people, suggested that it helped reduce black poverty and that it was only the mean, nasty Republicans from the George W. Bush era who gutted it and hurt the poor. Clinton’s distortions of economic history and his own record are so outrageous that — you will be shocked — it is difficult to believe he was being honest.
“They say the welfare reform bill increased poverty. Then why did we have the largest drop in African American poverty in history when I was president? The largest in history. What happened was, all these Republicans got into — the Supreme Court elected President Bush 5 to 4, then all these Republicans took over state legislatures. We left ’em with enough money to take care of all the poor people who couldn’t go to work on welfare. We left ’em with the money they had before the welfare rolls went down 60 percent. The Republicans took it away, and [these protesters are] blaming me.”
This is not true. Poverty dropped during the Clinton years not because of welfare reform, but because the entire American economy was being juiced by a massive stock market bubble. No credible economist even disputes this. The Clinton bubble was fueled by the aggressive financial deregulatory policies of Clinton and his Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. When the stock market bubble burst, millions of people who previously would have received welfare fell into poverty.
Welfare reform was an intentional effort to curb financial assistance to poor people, on the grounds that many were simply too lazy to get a job. Clinton turned over a federal program to states, who were effectively allowed to slash welfare funding and impose new work requirements on people who received assistance. Even Republican co-architects of welfare reform concede that the program ended up hurting the poor.
“In a recession, it doesn’t work,” former GOP staffer Ron Haskins told The Huffington Post in 2012 about the welfare reform bill, which he helped shape. “Even in 2001, which was a relatively mild recession, we saw a lot of these single mothers leaving the workforce because they just couldn’t find a job and being forced off the welfare rolls.”
Let’s be clear about the timeline here. The economy went into recession in March 2001, two months after Clinton left office. This was not because George W. Bush had just moved into the White House. It was because Clinton had left the country with a fundamentally unstable economy and a social safety net that had been weakened by his own bill.
This wasn’t an accident or an unintended consequence. The whole point of welfare reform was to kick people off the welfare rolls. Clinton had campaigned on doing just that in 1992. “When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it,” he said on the day the bill passed. “I have worked for four years to do just that.”
In 1996, the year the law was passed, the poverty rate was 13.7 percent. At the close of 2014 — the most recent available annual census data — it was 14.8 percent. But welfare rolls have declined roughly 70 percent, from a peak of 14.2 million in 1994 to 4.2 million today.
Maybe that’s because 70 percent of the people on welfare were all lazy moochers. Republicans who continue to applaud Clinton’s actions suggest just that. But even Clinton himself didn’t make that (ridiculous) argument on Thursday. He instead claimed that the GOP was to blame for unnecessarily cutting off aid to needy people, not he.
That is an astonishing claim for a bill that was literally designed to kick people off welfare rolls. Clinton turned over the federal government’s budgeting authority for welfare to the states and then has the audacity to claim he couldn’t have expected them to slash funding. What, then, was the purpose of handing them budgetary power?
Clinton’s signing-day rhetoric about “dependency” and “responsibility” is eerily similar to Paul Ryan’s 2012 poverty-shaming language about the social safety net becoming “a hammock.” People who receive government assistance are lazy, the argument goes. It has nothing to do with a society that systematically denies them economic opportunities and financial security. At least Paul Ryan has apologized.
But hey, it was the ’90s, right? Everyone was doing it? Nope! Poverty advocates had pleaded with Clinton, urging him to veto the bill. Peter Edelman, his assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, even resigned in protest. His 1997 essay for The Atlantic titled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done” is a classic.
Clinton is fabricating political history for a reason. His wife, then-first lady Hillary Clinton, was an aggressive champion of his welfare reform agenda. She is now running for president at a time when the Democratic Party is undergoing a mass re-evaluation of his presidency. Many of them are concluding that it was an eight-year disaster for progressive ideas. And they want to know whether Hillary Clinton still supports the policies that she and Bill Clinton advanced during the 1990s.
When she sends Bill Clinton out on the campaign trail and he blatantly misleads his audience to defend those ideas, it’s hard to conclude that she doesn’t still support them.
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