Downturn Reviving Rift Over 1996 Welfare Change
By Peter S. Goodman
In the summer of 1996, President Bill Clinton delivered on his pledge to "end welfare as we know it." Despite howls of protest from some liberals, he signed into law a bill forcing recipients to work and imposing a five-year limit on cash assistance.
As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton supported her husband's decision, drawing the wrath of old friends from her days as an advocate for poor children. Some accused the Clintons of throwing vulnerable families to the winds in pursuit of centrist votes as Mr. Clinton headed into the final stages of his re-election campaign.
Despite the criticism and anxiety from the left, the legislation came to be viewed as one of Mr. Clinton's signature achievements. It won broad bipartisan praise, with some Democrats relieved that it took a politically difficult issue off the table for them, and many liberals came to accept if not embrace it.
Mrs. Clinton's opponent in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama, said in an interview that the welfare overhaul had been greatly beneficial in eliminating a divisive force in American politics.
Mrs. Clinton, now a senator from New York, rarely mentions the issue as she battles for the nomination, despite the emphasis she has placed on her experience in her husband's White House.
But now the issue is back, pulled to the fore by an economy turning down more sharply than at any other time since the welfare changes were imposed. With low-income people especially threatened by a weakening labor market, some advocates for poor families are raising concerns about the adequacy of the remaining social safety net. Mrs. Clinton is now calling for the establishment of a cabinet-level position to fight poverty.
As social welfare policy returns to the political debate, it is providing a window into the ways in which Mrs. Clinton has navigated the legacy of her husband's administration and the ideological crosscurrents of her party.
In an interview, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that "people who are more vulnerable" were going to suffer more than others as the economy turned down. But she put the blame squarely on the Bush administration and the Republicans who controlled Congress until last year. Mrs. Clinton said they blocked her efforts, and those of other Democrats, to buttress the safety net with increased financing for health insurance for impoverished children, child care for poor working mothers, and food stamps.
Mrs. Clinton expressed no misgivings about the 1996 legislation, saying that it was a needed - and enormously successful - first step toward making poor families self-sufficient.
"Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance," she said. "It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work."
During the presidential campaign, she has faced little challenge on the issue, in large part because Mr. Obama has supported the 1996 law. "Before welfare reform, you had, in the minds of most Americans, a stark separation between the deserving working poor and the undeserving welfare poor," Mr. Obama said in an interview. "What welfare reform did was desegregate those two groups. Now, everybody was poor, and everybody had to work."
Mr. Obama called the resulting law "an imperfect reform." Like Mrs. Clinton, he called for an expansion of government-provided health care, child care and job training to assist women making the transition from welfare to work - programs he says he helped expand in Illinois as a state senator.
Asked if he would have vetoed the 1996 law, Mr. Obama said, "I won't second guess President Clinton for signing."
Among some advocates for the poor, the growing prospect of a severe recession and evidence of backsliding from the initial successes of the policy shift have crystallized fresh concern. Many remain upset that Mrs. Clinton, once seemingly a stalwart member of their camp, supported a law that they contend left many people at risk.
"If there is no national controversy about welfare reform, we paid an awfully high price," said Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University who has known Mrs. Clinton since her college days, and who quit his post as assistant secretary of social services at the Department of Health and Human Services in protest after Mr. Clinton signed the measure.
"They don't acknowledge the number of people who were hurt," Mr. Edelman said. "It's just not in their lens. It was predictably bad public policy."
Forcing families to rely on work instead of government money went well from 1996 to 2000, when the economy was booming and paychecks were plentiful, economists say. Since then, however, job creation has slowed and poverty has risen. The current downturn could be the first serious test of how well the changes brought about by the 1996 law hold up under sharp economic stress.
"We should have enormous concern about the lack of a fully functioning safety net for families with children," said Mark H. Greenberg, director of the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.
In many ways, Mrs. Clinton has sought to moderate her liberal image since leaving the White House. But on welfare, she has faced the opposite problem: accusations from some liberals that she sold out their principles for a politically calculated centrism.
On the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton is largely focused on the middle class. Since the departure from the Democratic race of John Edwards, who had made poverty a centerpiece of his campaign, there has been little debate about social welfare policy. But in promising on Friday to establish a cabinet-rank poverty-fighting position if she is elected, Mrs. Clinton reintroduced the topic and the question of her record.
In the interview, conducted last month, Mrs. Clinton said she had followed through on her promise to address what she viewed as shortcomings in the welfare law after being elected to the Senate in 2000. She said she had pressed for legislation that would have increased financing for child care for poor mothers by up to $11 billion, seeking to expand food stamps, and allowing welfare recipients to draw cash aid while attending school.
Those provisions were blocked by the Republican leadership.
"We've had to mostly spend our time since President Bush came in to office preventing bad things from happening," Mrs. Clinton said.
Many welfare advocates dispute Mrs. Clinton's characterization. Since entering the Senate, they say, she has shown a predilection for compromise at the expense of the poor.
When the overhaul bill came up for reauthorization, Sandra Chapin, a former welfare recipient affiliated with a coalition called Welfare Made a Difference, lobbied Congress to allow more women to attend college while they received aid. Mrs. Clinton "wouldn't have anything to do with it," Ms. Chapin said.
Ms. Chapin, now program director of the Consumer Federation of California, posted an e-mail message to a discussion board in February accusing Mrs. Clinton of having "had a hand in devaluing motherwork in this country, and no doubt sending thousands of children and their families deeper into poverty."
In the interview, and in her memoir, Mrs. Clinton said she had serious misgivings about some of the changes proposed to the welfare system as the issue percolated through Washington in the mid-1990s.
Her husband had taken office with a pledge to dismantle the old system. He embraced time limits for cash aid and allowing states to largely decide for themselves how to spend the money. He set out to expand job training, access to health care, child care and food stamps.
When the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 elections, making Newt Gingrich the House speaker, they seized the initiative. Twice, they passed bills seeking to impose time limits on welfare benefits while cutting other aid. Twice, Mr. Clinton vetoed the bills, with the encouragement of Mrs. Clinton.
In August 1996, three months before Election Day, Congress sent the White House a third bill. This one imposed time limits on cash benefits and barred most legal immigrants from receiving welfare. But it maintained guarantees for Medicaid and food stamps and increased financing for child care. This time, Mr. Clinton signed.
"I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes," Mrs. Clinton wrote in her memoir.
Mrs. Clinton remained troubled by parts of the bill, she wrote in her memoir, particularly the provision barring welfare for legal immigrants. But "pragmatic politics" had to be considered. "If he vetoed welfare reform a third time," she wrote, "Bill would be handing the Republicans a potential political windfall."
Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of Children's Defense Fund, an activist group that had given Mrs. Clinton her first job, blasted the Clintons as betraying the poor, opening a rift that Mrs. Clinton called "sad and painful." Mrs. Edelman's husband, Peter, quit his administration post.
In the years that followed, the number of those on welfare rolls plummeted by more than 60 percent. A study last year by the Congressional Budget Office found that from 1991 to 2005, poor families with children saw their inflation-adjusted incomes climb by 35 percent, as employment climbed.
In recent years, however, low-skilled women have struggled. The percentage of poor single mothers neither working nor drawing cash assistance surged from under 20 percent before the welfare overhaul to more than 30 percent in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service. During the same period, the number of children in poverty rose to 12.8 million from 11.6 million, according to census data.