Hillary Clinton and Welfare Reform

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law.

Here’s Hillary Clinton talking about her role in the bill’s passage seven years later, in her memoir Living History:

The President eventually signed this third bill into law. Even with its flaws, it was a critical first step to reforming our nation’s welfare system. I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.

Here’s the Washington Post talking today about the bill’s impact on the poor:

Hundreds of thousands of Southern families are living on less than $2 in cash a day as a result of legislation President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University’s Kathryn Edin and University of Michigan’s Luke Shaefer.

As a result, a certain kind of grave poverty has reappeared in the United States. Sanders said that the number of people living in extreme poverty has doubled under President Clinton’s reforms. If anything, that was an understatement. Edin and Shaefer’s research shows that the number of people living on $2 a day or less in cash has increased more than twofold, to 1.6 million households.

For those Americans unable to work and who were ineligible for government assistance as a result, the effects were devastating. That has been clear in the South, which has the greatest poverty rate of any U.S. region.

Edin reported that about 4 in 10 households surviving on less than $2 in cash a day live in the South. The prevalence of extreme poverty there is partly a result of how state policymakers used the authority they gained under President Clinton’s reform.

Clinton replaced traditional welfare with a new program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In order to comply with the law, states either had to place a certain number of beneficiaries in training, job-placement or community service programs, or they had to stop issuing payments to those recipients. For many states, it was easier and cheaper to reduce the rolls.

State policymakers imposed strict requirements on would-be beneficiaries to discourage them from applying and making it difficult for recipients to remain in the program. For instance, many food banks directors and charitable organizations don’t bother telling the poor to apply, Edin said.

As an example, the number of people receiving assistance has plummeted in Georgia, where voters cast ballots Tuesday. Using the authority they gained under Clinton’s law, policymakers in Georgia virtually eliminated assistance for adults beginning in 2004. The number on the rolls declined by 93 percent over five years, according to official data. Only about a third of people who were leaving the program were finding work.

Today, applicants in Georgia must complete an onerous structured employment search before they can receive benefits. The search often involves spending 40 hours a week for several weeks looking for a job.

“You can’t take three weeks,” Edin said. “You’ve got to actually go scrounge for stuff so your kids don’t starve.”

Although people of color are disproportionately likely to be living on less than $2 a day, about half of people at that economic level are white nationwide. Extreme poverty is multiracial in the South, as well.





  1. Joe B. February 27, 2016 at 9:07 am | #

    The Post had an article back in December on how difficult it is to claim welfare in Georgia. In Clayton County in the Atlanta suburbs, 137 people out of a total population of more than 260,000 received a check.

  2. Raven Onthill February 27, 2016 at 10:52 am | #

    A less obvious point is that this also poorly affects the job market, by pressuring people in desperate need to spam prospective employers with applications. Both sides of the relationship hate it. It costs, too, and it hardens employers. In good times, employers are more willing to take a chance on hiring someone who might not work out. In bad times, most small employers are themselves only marginally profitable, and are less likely to take the risk. Policy ought not encourage employers to develop a habit of turning people away, but systems like this do exactly that.

  3. Raven Onthill February 27, 2016 at 11:31 am | #

    See also Robert Waldmann’s *Welfare Reform Kills* (http://angrybearblog.com/2013/06/welfare-reform-kills.html) from 2013, covering a 1994-1999 study of welfare reform in Florida. The results were utterly damning. “Participants in the experimental group had a 16 percent higher mortality rate than members of the control group.” Waldmann commented, “I think the scientifically solid result has been almost completely ignored, because it is politically incorrect. Criticism of welfare reform is barely allowed.”

  4. kevin February 27, 2016 at 6:24 pm | #

    People, Clinton is getting the nomination. Please, please, please do not turn your critiques and your attacks (or, if you prefer, your efforts to pull her left) into a campaign that in fact dampens youth and lefty turnout and results in a Trump, Rubio, or Cruz presidency. Mr. Robin’s Clinton posts, and the comments in support, are moving more and more into that zone every week. Don’t blame Clinton for your frustration with the limitations of our 2-party, power-divided-into-many-quadrants (way more than 3) political system. Just remember, best your gonna get is way, way better than worst you could get.

    • xenon2 February 27, 2016 at 7:02 pm | #

      I wonder about Sanders foreign policy, as he seems to defer everything to ‘Madame Secretary’.
      Sanders has the same beliefs as ‘Madame Secretary’.

      I will not vote for a man who believes in equality for some people, but not for others.
      You have a way of reaching him, I do not.

    • Roqeuntin February 27, 2016 at 8:13 pm | #

      Oh please, we’re just supposed to pretend HRC isn’t a straight up neoliberal capitalist politician? If HRC takes this nomination the 2016 election is going to be so depressing I don’t even really want to think about it. I’ll do my best to ignore most of it, except for the 15 minutes it will take to fill in a Scantron in November. I can’t even say I care much if she or the GOP wins, because despite all the hysteria the differene is so slim you have to use a magnifying glass to see it.

      • kevin February 27, 2016 at 8:26 pm | #

        Right, Roquentin. Alito = Ginsberg. EPA under Bush = EPA under Obama. Etc. ad nauseum. Everyone can see and believe in those obvious truths . . .

        • Roqeuntin February 27, 2016 at 8:48 pm | #

          Also, that sums up the entire HRC campaign. While Sanders pledges to try to do all kinds of things for voters, Clinton just has threats and fear. “Vote for me or else.” The should just put that beneath her picture and be done with it.

          • Graham Clark February 27, 2016 at 11:48 pm | #

            America: We don’t negotiate with hostage takers, but we do use it as a presidential campaign strategy.

      • patriciahale February 29, 2016 at 10:53 am | #

        I agree

    • Graham Clark February 27, 2016 at 11:50 pm | #

      re: kevin “Please, please, please stop mentioning things that happened.”

    • Harold February 28, 2016 at 11:49 am | #

      @Kevin: How are you able to say things like this and believe them? Especially if you read Corey’s last blog post, talking about how mainstream Republican figures are starting to back Hillary Clinton because she’s the candidate they wish they had from their own party.

      Sanders gets my primary vote, and if it comes down to Clinton being the nominee, I’ll be voting third party again this year.

  5. Roqeuntin February 27, 2016 at 8:39 pm | #

    What are you even talking about? The EPA was created by Richard Nixon, a Republican. Trying to attribute it to either Bush or Obama is completely besides the point.

    And Supreme Court Nominees? That the GOP will stonewall no matter what? Even when it’s a Republican governor? This is the big change we’re supposed to be so excited about? That’s the only thing people like you have left to justify the existence of politicians like HRC. That they’ll nominate someone marginally less bad, which does count, but not for much.

  6. Patrick February 29, 2016 at 12:49 am | #

    I will vote for Bernie in the primary. But this whole “marginally less bad” bit is insane. Trump/Cruz/Rubio == Reagan/Thatcher/Berlusconi. These people are evil, very evil; Hilary is not. #PresidentsMatter
    Besides, Bernie does have a black problem; he does have a woman problem; intersectionality complicates the Bernie/Ron-Rand Paul purity love fests. I always thought of myself as a socialist, but the idiotic Trumpist “I am going to hold my breath unless I get exactly what I want” makes me distrust idealism more and more.
    Capitalism was built on racism. Don’t invert the causality.

    • Zach Braff March 11, 2016 at 4:31 pm | #

      woah woah woah — This is an old post now, but I couldn’t not comment on this.

      It was getting bad enough w/ “Bernie does have a black problem; he does have a woman problem,” etc. (Black people are not a monolith, women are not a monolith; there is, in a strict sense, no such things as “black issues” or “women’s issues.” Lambert Strether has some great articles on nakedcapitalism lately, digging into feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality – the whole point of that term is to break out of the narrow fictional confines of an identity like “woman” or “black” and see those terms instead as a collection of diverse individuals with a “potential coalition,” rather than a single unified body. Why does “women’s issues” == abortion, when a very significant minority of women are pro-life?)

      But then, “capitalism was built on racism. don’t invert the causality.” Whaaaaat? Lol, it’s like it was meant to be a joke, the way you drop that ahistorical proposition with zero argument, like it’s just some common wisdom

      Slavery existed before capitalism, sure, but as a function of power — as spoils of war, as an Egyptian or Roman subclass or Mongol Kahns’ abducted concubines. Only (relatively-)modern capitalism made it possible to buy and sell human beings — because, say, you own a big piece of land from which you sell the cotton your current slaves grow, you get money in return, and there exists a modern nation state to secure your property rights. That allows you to pay other people with said money to do the conquering (or breeding, ugh) for you.

      Maybe you were thinking more of colonialism than slavery — well, same argument. Colonialism began as resource extraction by the sword. Only more lately is it sustained by a stable, global capitalist hegemony that secures property rights against the “theft” and sabotage of, say, indigenous communities fighting powerful worldwide fossil fuel corporations.

      Capitalism isn’t built on racism, it’s built on systematic exploitation (and bank notes) — racism, in the context of exploitation, comes much later, almost like a psychological excuse for those material conditions of exploitation. America got in-CREASINGLY racist as the battle (amongst landed white people) to keep or abolish slavery heated up: the word “miscegenation” didn’t even exist until 1863, according to Wikipedia. The sense of a “white identity” (Quinn Norton has an incredible piece on Medium about this) didn’t exist in America until things like Virginia legislatively codifying it as a way of elevating “white” poor people ever-so-slightly above freed black ones. (Then those poor, also-exploited people feel they have a reason to buy into the corrupt system, because the powerful have deigned to sprinkle some tiny amount of privilege down on them.)

      Racism is not inextricable from the human condition, simply because there’s NO BIOLOGICAL FOUNDATION for race. As evidence, see the racism that runs rampant between wealthy Anglo-Europeans and exploited Scots-Irish, flaring up whenever exploitation peaks. It was common “scientific” discourse in the 19th c. to argue Scots-Irish were more “Negroid” than “Teutonic.”

      None of this is to argue all racism is equal, we all struggle blah blah blah, “my people” the Irish suffered too, thousands were indentured servants and died in forced labor in the South, again in the north later blah blah blah, my ancestors never had slaves so blah blah. Nor would I say capitalism creates racism, but exploitation probably does.

      To argue otherwise, that capitalism – as the name we’ve granted in retrospect to THE pervasive economic structuring force of global society – follows from racism, props racism up as THE organizing principle of human societies. I don’t know, to me that is both wrong and somehow naïve, and wayyy too close to the nihilistic, cynical self-serving argument racists make, “hey, c’mon, we’re all a little bit racist”

  7. commonreader March 1, 2016 at 8:59 am | #

    “Capitalism was built on racism. Don’t invert the causality.”

    Actually, Barbara J. Fields makes a very strong case that you have it exactly backwards. See this essay:


    It’s also expanded in Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2012). The Fieldses are both African-American women, and understand intersectionality as well as any intellectuals today. What they show is that racism is an ideology invented to justify slavery and colonial conquest, which were driven by the economic interests of European aristocrats and merchant capitalists. The original justifications for these activities were religious; the modern language of “race” was only concocted in the late 18th and 19th centuries to replace the old rationales.

    Also, it’s very revealing that Clinton has appropriated the language of intersectionality to defend her opposition to reinstating Glass-Steagall. I’m sure her donors clapped when she said, “Breaking up the big banks won’t end racism.” Never mind that the too-big-to-fail banks caused an economic crash that wiped out half of all African-American wealth…Apparently Clinton’s version of intersectionality is fine with that sort of thing.

  8. Nick March 6, 2016 at 4:39 pm | #

    Was Hillary president or was her husband? I think it was her husband.

    Is Hillary a centrist? A technocrat? A capitalist? Yep, yep and yep.

    And so is Obama. Obama has made a lot of bad decisions. But he was light years better than Bush.

    I really have a hard time understanding this line of thinking that Hillary is marginally better than Trump, Cruz or Rubio or just about any Republican. In truth, it’s not even close. Do you really want a GOP president that is going to fill SCOTUS with more Scalia’s?

    Go ahead and live inside an ideological bubble. I’m living in the real world where the last Republican president launched us into the Iraq war on a raft of lies and came within inches of sending the country into another Great Depression.

    Look, Sanders is great in so many ways. His economic policies are exactly what this country needs.

    But he is simply not getting the turn-out necessary to win … in either the primary or the general.

    Let’s take the good when and where we can get it. His campaign has, from its very existence, pushed Clinton further to the left. But don’t make the mistake that Clinton is just aping Sanders. Well before Bernie started having giant rallies and railing against Wall St, Clinton was already anticipating his appeal and his policies’ appeal. Her very first campaign policy announcement was about campaign finance reform and she stated her goal was to overturn Citizen’s United. She was already trending more left than in her past.

    Sanders’ campaign has guaranteed that these more progressive stances and policies will be in the Democratic platform and a part of the Clinton policies.

    For those who claim they are tired of “picking the slightly lesser of two evils,” … tell us your solution.

    I have all the respect for the people who are passionate and are out there busting their asses for Bernie’s campaign. But if Sanders can’t deliver the sort of turn-out Obama managed, he can’t get elected. And it’s not happening. So somewhere along the line there is a disconnect. So what are you going to do? What’s your solution?

    I will promise you one thing. Sitting at home on election day, or voting for some no-chance 3rd party candidate is not a solution. Did Ralph Nader’s campaign help our country? Nope. Just the opposite.

    So what is it? You want to be part of the solution? Do whatever you need to do to advance the progression policies you want to see take shape in our country. Fight for Bernie.

    But if Clinton is the nominee, I can guarantee you that sitting it out is not the solution. These are very real world stakes we are talking about. Sitting at home on election day or throwing away your vote on a no-chance 3rd party candidate is not helping you, me or any American.

    We needed a major movement in 2010 to hold onto Congress. But too many Dems sat it out. We let the far-right mobilize and get out the vote. And we sat at home criticizing Obama over not giving us single payer.

    Facts are facts. Gore would have been WAY better than Bush. We know that now. No debate.

    Obama … WAY better than Bush. No debate.

    Now … we’re not even looking at a W. type candidate. Cruz is worse. Rubio is worse. Trump is an out and out fascist. Hillary Clinton is so much better than anything the GOP is offering it’s frightening.

    But even more frightening … is the voices I hear like these … dismissing Clinton as barely more acceptable than Ted Cruz. Or Donald Trump. This is distressing.

    Please. Work as hard as you can to get Bernie the nomination. But if he doesn’t win, don’t turn your back on your country. Don’t let your cynicism and/or ideology get in the way of you helping this country avoid turning down a VERY dark road.

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