Opinion

Will Hillary Clinton admit that welfare reform was a failure?

Because if she becomes president, chances are good congressional Republicans will want to do it all over again

The Clintons are finding it very hard to live down their history of cynical triangulation.

For one thing, Hillary Clinton is facing sharp questions over her stance toward gay marriage during her husband's presidency. She now supports gay marriage, but back in the 1996, her husband President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize gay marriage performed in another state.

Today the Clintons argue that DOMA was a tactical retreat intended to head off a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage altogether, while public opinion trundled along toward equality. But an extensive investigation of Clinton White House documents from BuzzFeed News' Chris Geidner finds no contemporaneous evidence for this.

This is an illustrative story. As Matt Yglesias writes, it seems to confirm liberal fears that the Clintons, instead of being savvy, realistic liberal brawlers, are actually just sellouts: "The historical record seems to show transactional politicians who made a cynical calculus that they had a lot to lose and nothing to gain from opposing DOMA."

And it's not just gay marriage that seems to indict Bill and Hillary for that particularly Clintonian brand of cynicism. Consider welfare reform, which provides another case of triangulating sellout-ery, and one that has turned out much, much worse than gay marriage (which, after all, is now the law of the land and enjoys popular support from a big majority of Americans).

The same year as DOMA, President Clinton signed welfare reform into law, abolishing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program — which provided a small cash grant to low-income families with children — and replacing it with the vastly inferior Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The new policy had a number of enormous problems. First, TANF was not indexed to inflation, so its size is nibbled away every year. Second, TANF block-granted money to the states. This was supposedly to allow for lots of experimentation so that best practices could flourish, but as was obvious at the time, conservative states would "experiment" by cannibalizing the program. Third, it has no anti-cyclical mechanism — meaning it does not compensate for economic downturns, when there are more people out of work and needing help.

The problems were masked for awhile during the red-hot economy of the mid to late 1990s, but after that, welfare reform failed utterly. Even after the worst economic crisis in 80 years, TANF has basically ceased to exist in much of the country. Eligibility requirements have gotten so onerous, and benefit levels so miserly, that many poor people haven't even heard of the program, or think it was abolished.

AFDC did have some flaws, no doubt. But it was a modest program that put money into the hands of people who needed it: the very poor, most of them children. In the 15 years after TANF passed, the fraction of Americans living in extreme poverty increased 150 percent. (We should also note that it was argued for on explicitly racist grounds.)

Welfare reform is not just something for browbeating Hillary Clinton. It's a directly relevant issue for millions of the most hard-up Americans. Furthermore, the political context Clinton will face if she is elected president is likely to be almost identical to that of her husband in 1996: a Republican Congress, eager to slash government spending to make budget headroom for tax cuts for the rich. Only this one will be far more conservative than 20 years ago.

And as David Brooks writes, GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio wants to block-grant basically the entire welfare state. The grotesque failure of TANF might as well be proof of concept for the right — kicking the very poor is basically what they got in the game for.

Clinton really ought to address this issue. If TANF is so great, as she has long maintained, why does it help almost no poor people at a time of historic economic weakness? Is a 150 percent increase in the proportion of people living on two bucks a day an acceptable policy outcome for her? If Republicans want to block-grant Medicare, or privatize Social Security (to name another rumored '90s Clinton initiative), how would she react? Poor Americans deserve an answer.

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