Punishing the Poor: Welfare Reform and Its Democratic Apologists

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Punishing the Poor: Welfare Reform and Its Democratic Apologists

While Ronald Reagan demonized the welfare system as a whole in familiar terms, his ire was largely directed toward single mothers, and his racially coded language was sufficient to make clear his overarching intentions. (Photo: AP/Jeff Taylor)

A defining feature of Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 presidential bid—a feature that would animate his political career from that point forward—was his theatrical depiction of welfare recipients.

While he demonized the welfare system as a whole in familiar terms, Reagan's ire was largely directed toward single mothers, and his racially coded language was sufficient to make clear his overarching intentions.

"There's a woman in Chicago," Reagan said at a campaign rally in New Hampshire. "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans' benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands."

She operated under several identities, the actor-turned-politician would go on to lament, and her activities were costing those he deemed the "hard-working" taxpayers dearly. Though, as Josh Levin has documented, Reagan's storytelling was vaguely based on a real person and a real case of welfare abuse, his vivid construction of the "welfare queen" rapidly became larger than life and emerged as a mainstay in the national discourse.

Soon after Reagan's "woman in Chicago" skit, the New York Times reported, those in attendance at the future president's rallies were angrily denouncing "welfare chislers" while listening to him brag about how, as governor of California, he had "lopped 400,000 off the welfare rolls."

Of course, as the researchers Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer have noted, Reagan's sensationalizing did little to capture the realities of American poverty, and it did much to mislead and inflame the public in ways that would fuel racism for decades to come. They go on to note that "there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white."

The demonization of the poor in racial terms was, to be sure, at the core of the conservative movement long before Reagan burst onto the scene, and his efforts to fashion a compelling narrative that makes poor families the victims of their own laziness were hardly innovative.


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But Reagan and his fellow conservatives failed repeatedly to force systemic changes to the welfare system; they needed the New Democrats to do that.

Having campaigned on a promise to "end welfare as we know it," Bill Clinton, the darling of the Democratic Leadership Council, signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act into law in 1996.

Though Clinton's embrace of a reactionary policy sparked sharp protests from activists, in the years following the implementation of welfare reform, its impact was widely celebrated. In conservative corners, analysts applauded the fact that people were being booted off public assistance in droves; the Heritage Foundation, in a 2006 report, concluded, "Welfare reform has been successful."

They were not alone—Democrats, too, were eager to declare victory. Bill Clinton himself, in a New York Times op-ed that same year, cheered the destruction of "a system that had led to intergenerational dependency." Two years later, during her run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton also touted the law's effects. Her opponent, then-Senator Barack Obama, said that he would not "second guess President Clinton for signing" the bill into law.

Last week marked welfare reform's 20th birthday, and the apologetics continue.

Speaking to The Intercept's Zaid Jilani, Bruce Reed, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, echoed the common sentiment in elite circles, claiming the law has been a "success." Overall, Jilani notes, the law's "architects said they had no regrets about its passage."

The lack of regret is not surprising, but it is notable, given the startling numbers.

Welfare reform brutally punished the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, children in particular: According to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "the number of children living in deep poverty — with incomes below half the poverty line, using a comprehensive poverty measure—has risen significantly, placing large numbers of children at risk for long-term negative academic, employment, and health outcomes."

"The share of children below half of the poverty line rose from 2.1 percent to 3.0 percent between 1995 and 2005," the report continues, "and the number of children in deep poverty rose from 1.5 million to 2.2 million."

These findings are consistent with a 2012 UNICEF report which, as Alma Carten notes, "found that the U.S. ranked 34th on the list of 35 developed countries surveyed on the well-being of children."

More broadly, researchers have concluded, welfare reform doubled the number of Americans living in extreme poverty.

Given these figures, analysts have struggled to understand why so many would be so eager to defend welfare reform.

Some commentators have sided with the view of Peter Edelman, who famously resigned from the Clinton administration after the welfare bill was passed: "They don’t acknowledge the number of people who were hurt," Edelman has said of defenders of the bill. "It's just not in their lens."

While this is certainly part of the picture, it is an incomplete explanation.

When welfare reform is viewed as an anti-poverty measure, it's failures are clear and easily discernible. But the primary purpose of welfare reform was never to eradicate or even reduce poverty. Hillary Clinton has been quite candid on this point: "Welfare," she said in 2008, "should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance. It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work."

Welfare reform should, rather, be viewed in the broader context of American political and economic trends—trends that have, over the last several decades, increasingly subordinated public services to the needs of the market.

Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram, the authors of a crucial study examining the evolution of what they call "poverty governance," have argued that, through the implementation of certain policies, restrictions, and punitive measures, "governments work continually to manage low-income populations and transform them into cooperative subjects of the market and polity."

(To see the extent to which welfare policy has historically been intertwined with measures of social control and, ultimately, the rapid growth of the carceral state, see the work of Elizabeth Hinton.)

Viewed through this lens, welfare reform has, in fact, been a remarkable success for those who supported its passage: Far fewer people are on welfare than before the reform was implemented, and, as the Washington Post reports, "Just 23 percent of all families with children living in poverty receive welfare."

Further, less money is going directly to poor families; rather, as Andrew Flowers observes, states are free to spend allocated dollars as they wish, as long as they fall within the bounds of the program's broadly defined "purposes." States are also free to impose draconian restrictions and regulations, determining who is and who isn't worthy of public assistance and punishing those who violate the rules.

And perhaps most crucially, welfare reform spurred the rise of an immensely profitable industry.

"If there is any doubt that welfare 'reform' has become a fruitful business," gushed Washington Technology, "consider these numbers: Maximus grew from a $50 million operation in 1995 to $105 million in 1996 and to $319 million in 1999, a 36.8 percent sales growth over 1998."

"In 2008," Soss and his colleagues add, "Maximus Inc. took in $745 million in revenue, almost $553 million of which came from state and local contracts."

Shortly after welfare reform was signed into law, Time's Adam Cohen observed that "with welfare reform, more work is opening up for private companies than ever before, setting off a welfare-management gold rush."

In their book Disciplining the Poor, Soss, Fording, and Schram conclude that welfare in the United States effectively amounts to "neoliberal paternalism," a system that provides a foundation for the rise of programs that "continue to enforce work through the principle of less eligibility, pushing the poor into the least attractive jobs by keeping benefits low, making them inaccessible, and surrounding them with stigma."

To wage a successful war on poverty, then, it is clear that we must also wage war on neoliberalism.

"Disciplinary poverty governance was created through political mobilization and struggle, and nothing less will be needed to replace it with something better," the authors conclude. "To live up to the values of justice, care, and democracy, Americans must turn the neoliberal themes of ownership and personal responsibility on their head. We must take ownership of our complicity in the present system and assume personal responsibility for changing it."

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

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