Saturday, February 27, 2016

Welfare as we knew it

In August 1996, as the welfare "reform" bill Bill Clinton had vetoed twice traveled to his desk once more, Even-the-Liberal-New-Republic ran this lovely image, black mom savoring a cigarette while her baby enjoys a bottle, over the headline "Sign the Welfare Bill Now". Image via SansEverything. Those were truly evil days, not that that excuses him, strictly speaking, for signing it the third time around, but it helps to explain why he ended up thinking he had to.
So far in the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton definitely has an edge over Bernie Sanders on the issue of welfare, if not exactly a glorious superiority: she's promised that she'll say something about it eventually—
In the coming months she will discuss more details on her approach to addressing children and families living in poverty, including how best to support those families who rely on the safety net of welfare to temporarily keep their families afloat during the hardest of times
—and he hasn't promised a thing.

Although of course on the other hand Sanders was one of the 98 Democrats and Independents in the House of Representatives who voted against the the 1996 welfare "reform" bill (98 Democrats voted for it) which replaced the traditional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (supplied under Title IVA of the 1935 Social Security Act) with a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to be administered through block grants to state governments which would design their own programs, including strict working requirements for the beneficiaries, and putting a cap of 60 months on an adult's ability to receive such benefits during her or his lifetime. Whereas Clinton didn't have a vote at the time, but, as is pretty well known, was married to the president who signed the thing, as she still is.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) was a nasty-minded, punitive, "federalist" in the usual meaning of "antifederalist", very Republican bill, and I guess it would have been better if Bill Clinton had refused to sign it, but then he was in a fairly tight spot: he'd promised in the 1992 campaign to "end welfare as we know it" and get rid of what was almost universally regarded as a broken, nonfunctioning system; and then done nothing about it, preferring to focus his attention on, guess what, universal health care, until the Republican victories of 1994 started forcing him to take a position. He'd already vetoed the stinker twice, this is often forgotten, when it came up for a third time in August with some fairly serious improvements, as Hillary Clinton later described them:
It contained more financial support for moving people to work, offered new money for child care and restored the federal guarantees of food stamps and medical benefits.
He still didn't want to sign, concerned particularly about the ban on cash assistance and medical benefits to immigrants, even the legal ones. Hillary Clinton claims to have been especially bothered by that five-year lifetime cap, along with important thinkers on the very wide range from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York to Representative John Lewis of Georgia.

(It's always worth noting that many of the PWRORA's most righteously ferocious critics have backed Hillary Clinton campaigns, from Moynihan practically bequeathing her his Senate seat in 2000 to Lewis enthusiastically supporting her today. And her early mentors Peter and Marian Wright Edelman, as well, who really formally broke with Clintons when Peter Edelman resigned over the PWRORA in 1996, are also backing her for the presidency now. Not in 2008 when they had a better candidate. There is a reason for this.)

But it was also three months before an election in which Clinton was running not only for himself but, I'd think, in the hope of bringing Democrats back into power in Congress, and public opinion of welfare clients, even among Democrats, after two years of nonstop propaganda, was overwhelmingly negative (note how it shoots up afterwards, apparently the moment the bill is signed).

And the cabinet was deeply divided, with a remarkably heterogeneous group of people opposing the bill—Donna Shalala, Robert Reich, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes—but some very close political advisors favoring it, including Bruce Reed, Rahm Emanuel, Mickey Kantor, Al Gore, and apparently Hillary Clinton herself, in spite of her reservations.*

And so it happened, and I don't think it was the worst thing that could have happened (He could have signed one of the earlier bills, for example, and Hillary was firmly against that), and I don't think you can blame Mrs. C. for it, but I do think you can expect her to come out with some kind of useful idea for making the situation better, because that's something she always does.

I got to the subject through more unpleasantly propagandistic posting from my favorite political scientist, Professor Corey Robin, who is intent on demonstrating that Hillary Clinton is probably the worst person in the world, apparently under the impression that he'll get a chance to vote for Ralph Nader this November, juxtaposing a quote from her 13-year-old memoir Living History, in which she seems to ask for some credit for her involvement with the welfare "reform" of 20 years ago, back when it looked like a huge success—
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
—with material from a Wapo story by Max Ehrenfreund fact-checking Bernie Sanders's recent assertions that the rate of extreme poverty in the US has doubled since the 1996 bill was signed into law, suggesting that Hillary is directly responsible for this terrible outcome.

And it is true, according to the research reported in last September's $2.00 a Day by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, that extreme poverty as indicated by an income of $2 or less per day per person really has gone up that much during the period, to as many as a million and a half households as of early 2011, at least at certain seasons, living on virtually no cash, able to eat something (because SNAP, however inadequate, is still there) but not to pay rent, just utterly destitute in the richest country in the world as we always say, particularly in the South, and largely minority populations though about half are white.

And it it truly horrifying, though if you include non-cash benefits in the calculation the situation is a lot less dire:
When including Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in income calculations, the number of extremely poor households increases at a slower place, by 80%, from 475,000 households in 1996 to 857,000 households in 2011. When refundable tax credits and housing subsidies are counted as income, the rate of extreme poverty growth slows even further, with the number of households living in extreme poverty grows from 409,000 in 1996 to 613,000 in 2011. Overall, the existence of major means tested aid programs prevented an estimated 2.38 million children [of the three million children cited in the Wapo article, or most of them] from experiencing extreme poverty.
And it is indeed very much because of PRWORA, or rather the way certain state governments have been able to evade it because that's how the Republicans wrote it:
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.
In other better-run states this does not happen, such as New York, where the benefits level itself is more sustainable though hardly generous (it's about half the poverty line, which is pretty terrible actually, but in most of the Southern states it's under a tenth of the poverty line) and the five-year limit is offset by state programs extending it indefinitely.

Via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nor did the Clinton people believe states would handle the law in such different ways. As Anthony Cheesborough was noting as early as 2002:
Many observers did not expect states to follow through on benefit termination due to the many exemptions and extensions, however, this is clearly not the case. It is important to note that 18 states offer no exemptions of any kind, five states do not extend benefits for any reason, and 18 states limit the number of extensions to the federal limit of 20% of the caseload.
Call them naive! But in this way the most important factor in a person's chance of living in extreme poverty in the US is living in a state with a Republican governor and legislature. Really.

But please don't blame Hillary Clinton for it, or wall yourself off from the possibility of voting for her. She made it better than it might have been! She's a pretty good person, as Bernie Sanders will tell you, and an extraordinary listener, as Elizabeth Warren has said, and a tremendously hard worker, as everybody seems to agree, and maybe the best possible president, as John Lewis and the Edelmans have decided. Focus on the possibility of giving the Democratic nominee an effective progressive Congress to work with, the one thing Bill Clinton and Barack Obama couldn't get.

*Some people claim on the basis of a widely quoted passage from her memoir, Living History, that she lobbied congresspersons to vote for the bill while Bill was agonizing over whether to veto it or not, but this makes no sense. The relevant passage goes like this:
The third bill passed by Congress had the support of the majority of the Democrats in the House and Senate. It contained more financial support for moving people to work, offered new money for child care and restored the federal guarantees of food stamps and medical benefits....
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—though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system … I was most concerned with the five-year lifetime limit, because it applied whether the economy was up or down, whether jobs were available or not, but I felt, on balance, that this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence. 
The legislation was far from perfect, which is where pragmatic politics entered in. It was preferable to sign the measure knowing that a Democratic administration was in place to implement it humanely. If he vetoed welfare reform a third time, Bill would be handing the Republicans a potential political windfall.
I think the text is showing its origins here, in the work of three ghostwriters with Hillary editing, and the episode is just garbled, but she certainly wasn't on the Hill in July during the legislative process lobbying for legislation if Bill wasn't sure he could support it, and she couldn't have been doing it after it had passed on July 31, because duh, it had passed. Maybe she was lobbying in July to make it more like something the president could support, or maybe the story of what happened during August when she was "working hard" inside the White House with Gore to "round up" cabinet members to urge Bill not to veto, which is familiar from other sources, has gotten unluckily transformed into a false account of her doing stuff in the Capitol that she did not do. Very irritating, by the way, to have to deal with Bill involved with bills and Hill interacting on the Hill through the medium of such awful, dead, sludgy committee-driven writing representing a point of view to which I want to be extra fair. I love Hillary but I don't love that prose.

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