Ending Dependency As We Know It: How Bill Clinton Decreased Freedom

When Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, many hailed it as a necessary step toward ending the dependency of the poor.  Dependence on the state, that is.  Barack Obama praised the bill during his presidential campaign, and in fact made a point of noting that he had helped cut the welfare rolls when he was in the Illinois state legislature.  Rick Santorum has said it gives the poor “something dependency doesn’t give: hope.”

But as Jason DeParle points out in this must-read piece, thanks to welfare reform and the terrible state of the economy, poor people are doing worse today than they have in years.  Even in this recession, states like Arizona continue to cut the welfare rolls.  So what do poor people do now that they can’t turn to the state?

The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

The economic effects of welfare reform are obvious and catastrophic.  But welfare reform has also decreased freedom.  That lost government support doesn’t just increase poverty. It actually drives vulnerable people—almost always women—back into the repressive hold of coercive forms of power: in this case, the coercive power of abusive husbands and boyfriends. Welfare reform doesn’t decrease dependency; it increases coercion.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog and in my book about “the private life of power,” how conservatives seek to reinstate hierarchies of power in which men and employers are able to rule and ruin the lives of women and employees.  That is, and remains, a fundamentally conservative project. But that doesn’t mean so-called liberals haven’t participated in it. They have—and in the case of Clinton, actually pioneered it.

I’ve also talked on this blog and elsewhere about how the left needs to reclaim the politics of freedom.  Welfare is no picnic for poor people; caseworkers and bureaucrats can be—and often are—incredibly intrusive, meddling, paternalistic, patronizing, coercive.  And many people on the left have long sought to address these problems, sometimes with success.  But the critical point about state supports is that, whatever their limitations, they provide us with some measure of freedom and autonomy from the domination of our private superiors, whether they be violent spouses or pleasant bosses.

So when we talk about ending the dependency of the poor, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.  We’re not talking about emancipating the poor or any such thing.  We’re talking about returning them to the repressive hold of their private governors.


  1. Tim Lacy April 9, 2012 at 9:01 am | #

    Corey: I don’t have anything substantive to add to your post, but I simply want to say well done. Our present society radically underestimates the limits to liberty caused by poverty. It’s a shame that our neoliberal Democrats don’t see that. – TL

  2. Douglas storm April 9, 2012 at 9:30 am | #

    I think possibly that it is no longer possible to talk about liberty or freedom as meaning anything at all but to the specific class or person using the term. America turns out to be the home of the severest bourgeois, not brave or free men and women.

    But, though folks rightly denigrate much that Marx offered as “state” prescriptions (through the Stalinist prism/prison), though he meant them to be implemented by a class NOT a state, he did simply suggest that we all agree to the ways of the bourgeois capitalist in order to hasten its demise (note the Speech on Free Trade as an example of this promotion).

    In those terms, we applaud the death knell of real liberty and the increase in our destitution in order to make more fertile the ground of revolution.

    Of course, we should note that our current inability to concern ourselves with anything but entertainment will likely cut the legs out from under our indignation and desperation. We can still tweet and post updates and download porn and get our intoxication cheap. What more can a human, nearest creature to divinity, ask?

  3. Corey April 9, 2012 at 9:38 am | #

    It really just depends on the circumstances. In the Clintonian context we had nearly-full employment and it’s probably fair to say that a greater proportion of welfare recipients simply didn’t want to work (I wish the Left would acknowledge that these people exist, even if it means feeding into a conservative meme that all welfare recipients are this way). In the current context, “welfare reform” does exactly what you say, since there are no real alternatives for welfare recipients.

    One of these days Congress will get smart and design more policy that’s automatically counter-cyclical – that expands the welfare rolls in bad economic times and shrinks them in good. I won’t hold my breath, though.

    • David Kaib April 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | #

      So because we were at almost (but not quite) full employment, and yet the welfare rolls didn’t decline to zero, you are concluding that “some welfare recipients just didn’t want to work”? A more obvious explanation is that even at not quite full employment, many jobs (although fewer than when unemployment is higher) don’t pay enough to live on, and that many such jobs are still insecure (which given the difficulties of getting back on AFDC / TANF, makes taking a unstable job a bad bet), and that the population we are talking about by definition has children (without another care giver) that generally require adult supervision.

      It’s not realism to ignore the realities that people live in and conclude that they are lazy based on abstract notions.

      Like everyone else, I can’t speak for the left, but I do acknowledge that there are plenty of people who don’t want to work and in fact do not. Yet no one seems to mind these people, as they are rich, and often dependent on money inherited by virtue of the birth lottery. Sadly, concern for lazy people who are dependent on others and refuse to contribute to society through their own labor rarely extends to that class of people.

    • Todd April 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm | #
  4. Peter Hovde April 9, 2012 at 3:24 pm | #

    As used in most current discourse, the word “empowerment” generally means “giving more power to those who already have lots of power.”

  5. Mark April 12, 2012 at 2:52 pm | #

    Prof. Robin,

    The Ozzie Guillén affair seems to be right up your alley on workplace repression. You have an embarrassment of richness of material these days!

  6. Fake Herzog April 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm | #

    Shorter Corey Robin on “the private life of power”: if someone, somewhere can tell me what to do, I’m just not free!

    Meanwhile, Heather Mac Donald takes Jason to school in this piece:


    • Simon June 4, 2012 at 12:57 pm | #

      Heather MacDonald’s “secular conservatism” in a nutshell:

      I hate poor people and immigrants. Period. They are allowed no bad decisions, and must suffer for them to the fullest extent possible.

      Thanks for showing us just how damn heartless you conservatives really are.

  7. Stephen Zielinski April 24, 2012 at 11:53 am | #

    Reblogged this on All Tied Up and Nowhere to Go and commented:
    Lest we forget that Democrats are also enemies of the poor…..

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