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Welfare Reform, Then and Now

The welfare reform bill Hillary Clinton championed has doubled the number of people living on less than $2 a day.

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 yesterday 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.