This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.
“It’s the economy stupid.” “End welfare as we know it.”
These two quotes from the era of President Bill Clinton summarize two of what supporters and even many critics say were his two greatest domestic policy accomplishments. The economy certainly improved dramatically during his tenure. The late 90s did “lift all economic boats” including the tiny rowboats of the poor. Unemployment was 7.5 in 1992 the year before Clinton took office and plummeted to 4.0 by the end of his tenure. During that time 23.9 million jobs were created, more living wage jobs than now. The federal deficit which was $290 BILLION in 1992 flipped to a surplus of $236.4 BILLION by 2000. All in all, it is an impressive economic legacy.
AND, President Clinton did “end welfare as we know it.” His best ally in this fight was the Republican Party. At the time that the legislation passed there were 4 million families on the new version of welfare, TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That number has been reduced to some 1.6 million today. Benefits have fallen by 32.5 percent due to inflation and half of those on the program live in only two states, New York and California. Two thirds of all the funds allocated by congress for TANF are spent on non TANF budget items. The money has been block-granted to the states and they decide how to spend it.
At the time of the welfare reform passage the economy was humming and many of the poorest of the poor were able to find jobs. The reform was seen to be a major success for the Clinton Administration. Since then we have seen a very different story. During the deepest bottom of the Great Recession of 2008 the New York Times reported that there were 8 million people whose only income was Food Stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Most people did not even apply for TANF because they knew there was little or no money available in their state. Thankfully, the economy has improved and unemployment has been cut in half but there are still 24.4 million people in deep poverty, making less than half of the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four. There are 7 million children and teens living in deep poverty. The vast majority receive nothing from TANF.
President Clinton vetoed the welfare legislation twice before he signed it. The Republicans threw in severe cuts to Food Stamps that Clinton did not like but, in the end, he signed the legislation. Hillary Clinton encouraged him to sign it. She believed that generous work support programs like Earned Income Tax Credit, free childcare programs, mandated support from absent parents (mostly fathers) and housing support programs added to even low wage job earnings would support a deeply poor family. Many who were involved in the legislation were disappointed but thought it might work as long as the economy was healthy. It has not worked that way for millions of children and their parents.