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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Misremembering Welfare's Dismembering

According to Ezra Klein, welfare reform wasn't the bi-partisan cooperative effort that Bill Clinton remembers in his New York Times commentary. Whatever you think of the outcome, it was a battle every step of the way:

Bill's Misremembered Bipartisanship, by Ezra Klein, Tapped: Far be it for me to criticize Bill Clinton ..., but his op-ed today is just nuts. Celebrating welfare reform's better-than-expected results, he generously concludes that "[r]egarding the politics of welfare reform, there is a great lesson to be learned, particularly in today's hyper-partisan environment, where the Republican leadership forces bills through Congress without even a hint of bipartisanship. Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together. The 1996 Welfare Act shows us how much we can achieve when both parties bring their best ideas to the negotiating table and focus on doing what is best for the country."

Wrong. Clinton vetoed the first two welfare reform bills the Republican Congress sent him for their unimaginable cruelty -- they were punitive programs, focused on punishing, not uplifting, poor blacks. The third bill sparked the most acrimonious and intense negotiations of the Clinton White House, with the president proving unable to decide his course till the eleventh hour and 59th minute. That's because the bill was never meant to be signed. Here's how Jason DeParle, The New York Times lead reporter on welfare reform, recounts the maneuverings in his remarkable book American Dream:

Gingrich and Dole remained opposed [to passing a plan], and they found a new way to stop it: attaching a "poison pill" that would block grant Medicaid, imposing a huge health care cut Clinton (and his wife) wouldn't abide. Shaw and Haskins couldn't believe it: Republicans were propping up the welfare status quo. A strategy memo from Representative Jennifer Dunn showcased a cynicism stark even by election year standards. Emphasize "the tragedy of welfare and its crushing cruelty for the children," she wrote. But "draw opposition and, probably, a veto." Emphasize the suffering of children, and make sure they suffer some more.[...]

The prospects of a bill improved when Dole resigned from the Senate to campaign full-time; now he could no longer block it. But Gingrich remained firmly opposed. "We're not going to give the president a bill he can sign," he told House Republicans.

Eventually, Gingrich and Co. crafted a bill they thought would split the Democratic Party and sent it to the president. Against expectations, he signed it, betting that he could repair its most offensive elements during his second term. On some level or another, he was right. He did improve the legislation. But a bill by Bill -- the welfare reform Clinton wanted -- would have been infinitely better, kinder, more generous, and more successful than the Republican incarnation. Clinton and the Republicans didn't work together -- Republicans worked to undermine him and he sought to foil them. He won. And then he spent the next few years fixing the poison pills and landmines Republicans had added in order to roil the Democratic Party and snooker Clinton. To hold the legislation up as some sort of shining compromise between well-meaning representatives of different philosophies may help Clinton's reputation as a post-political statesman, but it's absolutely false as a characterization of the ugly, cruel, and hyper-partisan genesis of welfare reform.

Whether they were screaming at each other (my recollection) or calmly working to resolve issues, at least everyone had a seat and voice at the policy table. That's no longer true. I'll be curious to hear your reactions to the legislation and the political environment that created it. Here's one view from American Prospect:

Welfare Redux, by Christopher  Jencks, Scott  Winship, and Joseph  Swingle, American Prospect: ...What Next? Welfare reform may not have had a big impact on single mothers’ typical living conditions, but it transformed the political landscape. For the past 10 years the political action has almost all been in state capitals, not Washington, D.C. Once TANF gave states more control over welfare, most governors concluded that the best way to look good to the electorate was to cut the welfare rolls as rapidly as possible, and that was what they did. Unlike AFDC, which gave a state more federal money when it spent more of its own money, TANF gave states a fixed amount of federal money based on what they had received in the last years of AFDC. Under TANF, therefore, cutting the welfare rolls left states with more federal money for child care, job training, and other programs that help single mothers hold jobs. ...

The main reason welfare reform has hurt so few families is that the combination of rising wages and work supports like the EITC and child-care subsidies made work an economically viable option for single mothers who could hold a job. But the damage was also limited by the fact that states had enough flexibility to shelter mothers they judged incapable of working. That flexibility is now being reduced dramatically. The economic fate of single mothers is now tied to the business cycle in the same way as that of other working-age parents. Welfare is no longer the poverty trap that it was, but it is also less of a safety net. As other federal funds aimed at the poor are cut, the safety net will become even more threadbare.

By the time Congress abolished AFDC in 1996, everyone hated it. Liberals hated it for being too stingy. Conservatives hated it for supporting the undeserving. The public hated it for promoting idleness instead of work. Recipients hated it for forcing them to cheat in order to survive and then treating them like dirt because it suspected them of cheating. Nobody wept when it died.

But TANF was also a compromise that pleased neither liberals nor conservatives. Liberals thought that its time limits and work requirements would, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, leave “tens on tens of thousands” of children sleeping on grates. Gingrich Republicans thought it was nowhere near tough enough. President Bill Clinton, who vetoed the Republicans’ initial proposals, eventually signed the bill even though he thought it was a bad piece of legislation -- because he thought it was still better than AFDC. For the past decade that has probably been true. Whether it will remain true is an open question.

    Posted by on Tuesday, August 22, 2006 at 03:24 PM in Economics, Politics, Social Security | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (32)


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