In 1992, when Bill Clinton announced that he planned to “end welfare as we know it,” he was taking up a unique position for a Democrat.
The party of Lyndon Johnson typically had to fight hard to preserve the country’s limited social safety net; it was unprecedented for a Democrat to strongly disparage welfare and vow to destroy it.
In fact, when centrist political operative Bruce Reed heard Clinton give his anti-welfare pitch, Reed was immediately struck by the fact that “it wasn’t the kind of thing most Democrats said.” (This led Reed to enthusiastically join the Clinton campaign.)
The anti-welfare pitch was a key part of Clinton’s 1992 platform. In Clinton’s speech announcing his candidacy, he declared that “[w]e should insist that people move off welfare rolls and onto work rolls” and that “we should demand” that everybody who can work and become “productive” does so. With this unprecedented rejection of New Deal language, emphasizing “productivity” and “responsibility” over “guarantees” and “safety nets,” Clinton instantly changed the way Democrats talked about welfare.
Brendon O’Connor writes in A Political History of the American Welfare System that by intentionally bringing up welfare reform and campaigning on it, Clinton “did crucially put time limits and workfare on the national agenda as a possible bipartisan position.” By promising to address welfare, Clinton also created public anticipation for a welfare reform measure.
As O’Connor writes, “[t]his oft-repeated campaign rhetoric had consequences in that it heightened expectations for reform . . . [Clinton] helped create a perception that far-reaching reforms were necessary and that almost any other approach would be preferred to the then-current system.”
Clinton’s idea to abolish welfare did not originate with his 1992 campaign. “I had long been committed to welfare reform,” Clinton wrote in a 2006 New York Times op-ed presumptuously entitled “How We Ended Welfare, Together.” Clinton had introduced a “workfare” scheme in Arkansas and had promoted a 1988 welfare reform law requiring teen mothers to meet stricter conditions, like living at home, in order to receive benefits. Clinton spoke of a “contract” with welfare recipients, whereby there would be no more free guarantees that were not coupled with personal obligations.
When asked by an interviewer about “demand[ing] a set of behavioral standards” for “fifteen-year-old mother[s] on welfare,” Hillary Clinton replied that she had “been talking about that since 1973” and was “one of the first people who wrote about how rights and responsibilities had to go hand in hand.” Hillary recommended the policy that Bill had introduced in Arkansas, by which “people who refused for whatever reason to participate had their benefits cut.”
For someone like Bill Clinton, concerned with recapturing white voters, welfare reform made sense as a pet issue to adopt. For many years, the Democrats had been seen as the party of government social programs — defined by the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, serving a motley coalition of the disadvantaged.
But over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, a backlash had developed against the social programs initiated by Franklin Roosevelt and expanded under Lyndon Johnson. An idea emerged that welfare programs were “broken,” that they were breeding dependency and parasitism.
Ronald Reagan notoriously told the story of a “welfare queen” whose government checks financed her brand-new Cadillac, and soon the idea of the welfare queen became a common cliché. (There had been a “welfare queen” in Chicago, a white woman who had bilked the government out of thousands of dollars, as well as being involved in kidnapping, extortion, and murder plots. But nobody could seem to ever find another, and the welfare queen as a widespread social phenomenon was in all certainty a fiction. She became a kind of mythical creature, spoken of constantly while never seen.)
As historian Daryl Carter documents, conservatives “stigmatized those on welfare, particularly women and minorities, as freeloaders, ne’er-do-wells, burdens on the taxpayer, and symbols of what was wrong with America.”
One cannot overstate the level to which this backlash was linked to race. Internal Democratic Party research had determined that white voters had turned away from the party in large part due to a perception that Democrats were the party of handouts to minorities.
Conducting the largest study in its history, the Democratic National Committee found that white voters in focus groups were describing the Democrats as the “giveaway party, giving white tax money to blacks and poor people.” (The results of the survey were so ugly and embarrassing that the party quickly suppressed them, destroying nearly all copies of the report.)
Another study of white Reagan voters, by future Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, concluded that “[t]hese white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives, not being black is what constitutes being middle class, not being black is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live.”
The data also confirmed that race was at the heart of the welfare issue specifically. An attempt by sociologists to determine which other beliefs were statistically correlated with support for welfare reform found that: “the one thing that did predict a negative view of welfare was negative beliefs about African-Americans, particularly a belief in black laziness” as well as “stereotypes of black women as being sexually irresponsible.”
They also found that talking about welfare in itself changed people to have a more negative view of African Americans.
We found that as politicians talked more and more about welfare and what was wrong with the program, they moved people’s racial attitudes. The people who were most likely to start seeing welfare as a big problem were actually those who shifted from not having negative views of African-Americans to steadily responding to this discourse by beginning to see race in a different way and seeing African-Americans in a much worse light.
Race consequently became a key part of the political narrative around welfare. As sociologist Joe Soss summarizes, the story around welfare became a story of mooching, which:
held that there were white people who played by the rules, and then there were people of color — and particularly black people — who were taking from those people in an illegitimate way. At the time, there was a lot of talk of the pathologies of the underclass. And many believed that it was really these liberal programs that were to blame for what was seen as a kind of crisis of crime and disorder and sexual irresponsibility and welfare dependence and all of these things.
There were political gains to be had in exploiting these prejudices. Sociologists Kenneth J. Neubeck and Noel A. Casaneve observed that by 2001, “[t]he racialization of welfare has reached the point where politicians can now exploit racial animus to promote their political ambitions and goals simply by speaking the word welfare.” In their book Welfare Racism, Neubeck and Casaneve examine the entire history of American social programs, showing that racism has been a core factor in determining how political discussions about welfare occurred.
Rutgers historian Donna Murch writes that the new centrist Democrats were willing to use this “illegitimate takings” story to reverse their political fortunes:
Bolstered with polling data and the crisis of the Reagan landslide, the New Democrats searched for ways to aggressively distance themselves from “blacks” and to entice resentful white swing voters back into the fold. To do this, the New Democrats appropriated hot-button issues from the Republican Party, later deemed “dog whistle politics,” that invoked the specter of blackness without directly naming it.
It should perhaps be noted that all of the stories underlying the welfare panic were false. Not only was the welfare queen a mythical creature, the chupacabra of American social policy, but America was distinctly stingy with its social guarantees compared with the European countries.
By the time Clinton took office, huge cuts to welfare spending under Ronald Reagan had already eliminated four hundred thousand people’s eligibility for welfare, and one million people’s eligibility for food stamps. After adjusting for inflation, welfare benefits had fallen by 47 percent between 1970 and 1994.
Anger about benefits had thus increased at the same time as the benefits themselves were decreasing.
The arguments for links between illegitimacy and the receipt of welfare were also based on flimsy social scientific evidence. The infamous “Moynihan Report” (on the “tangle of pathology” afflicting the “Negro family”) had made for easy sound bites about black family dysfunction and dependency. But the concept was fundamentally unsound.
First, the limited available data had found that “welfare payments did not increase single motherhood.” But there were also fundamental correlation/causation problems with the entire theory. Causal links between phenomena are notoriously tricky things for social scientists to make, and if one could argue that changes in black family patterns caused lingering poverty, one could also argue the reverse: the persistence of poverty was causing changes in black family structures.
In fact, the very idea of welfare “dependency” was based on a somewhat oblivious premise to begin with. Daniel Patrick Moynihan himself took note of the fact that “it is the nature of children to be dependent”; there is no such thing as an independent infant. So, too, with single mothers. Since it’s impossible to care for a child during the hours one is working a job, and impossible to work a job during the hours one is caring for a child, some level of dependence on outside assistance is an inevitable aspect of poor motherhood.
Yet “dependency” was discussed as if it was by nature undesirable, something to be eliminated by any means. Rarely did anyone venture to point out that it may be a fact of social life that some who cannot provide for themselves will always have to depend on others. The rhetoric of mutual aid that had built the Great Society vanished, as New Democrats joined the Republican attempt to eliminate the dependency scourge.
While reforming or ending welfare had been one of his key proposals in 1992, once Clinton became president the issue lay somewhat dormant until 1995. Up until that point, Bill Clinton remained preoccupied with health care and crime, and the more liberal Democrats did not care to bring up his welfare pledges.
But with the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 elections, welfare once again entered the public discussion. The Republicans were eager to take Clinton up on his promise and put pressure on him to follow through on ending welfare. As Joe Soss says, “Clinton found that he had painted himself into a corner, because of course the Republicans were willing to go much farther in this game than he was.”
The Republicans passed several welfare bills, each predictably unsparing in its elimination of benefits. Fearing the outright revolt of his liberal base, Clinton vetoed these bills twice, holding out for something that didn’t seem quite like it had been lifted directly from Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
But Clinton knew the data on the popularity of cutting benefits, and knew that he would be held to account if he failed to make good on his unqualified pledge of 1992.
It was Clinton who had helped to build the national consensus that welfare was “broken” and urgently needed “fixing,” and thus he was expected to fix it. As Soss says, “for a public that had already learned to think of welfare as a black program — that had internalized these Republican calls to get tough on the welfare queens and whatnot — welfare now became center stage. The public was aroused, so something had to be done.”
That something was the dismantling of the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program.
AFDC was a New Deal program founded in 1935, which offered cash payments to poor families. It was the core of the existing federal welfare system. Because AFDC offered aid without any work requirements, it was considered to be the root of the welfare “problem.”
AFDC was also disproportionately received by black single mothers. It was not the only program that offered government handouts with little expected in return (Social Security mailed millions of checks every month). But it was the program most linked in the public mind with “dependency.”
The consensus among Republicans and right-leaning Democrats was that AFDC had to go in its entirety. Even the softened versions of the welfare bill did away with it. The central thrust of the plan to “end welfare as we know it” was that welfare should no longer be a federal guarantee of assistance, but a quid pro quo in which limited assistance was granted in exchange for the fulfillment of various obligations. Welfare would not be a fallback for the destitute, but a program to incentivize employment.
With strong public support for this “welfare to work” philosophy, Clinton and the Republican congress seemed certain to succeed in removing AFDC. But since core Democratic blocs were disgusted by the welfare bill, it did not pass without controversy, and Hillary Clinton later recalled that she had to “work hard to round up votes for its passage.”
As the bill moved closer to passage, the remaining liberals in the Democratic Party were scandalized. Lofty appeals to the better natures of Congress and the president were made throughout Washington. John Lewis took to the floor of the House and denounced the bill in especially uncompromising terms:
[This bill] is cruel. It is wrong. It is down right low down. The Republican welfare proposal destroys the safety net that protects our Nation’s children, elderly, and disabled. It is an angry proposal, a proposal devoid of compassion, and feeling . . . It takes money out of the pockets of the disabled. It takes heat from the homes of the poor. It takes food out of the mouths of the children . . . Vote against this mean-spirited proposal; raise your voice for the children, the poor, and the disabled.
When the bill came up for a vote, Lewis pleaded: “How can any person of faith, of conscience, vote for a bill that puts a million more kids into poverty? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?”
Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told the House, “I find it ironic that at the same time our Nation’s most vulnerable families are being required to do more for themselves, our states are being asked to do even less.” Many black Democrats in Congress did not accept the argument that Democratic welfare reform was an improvement over that offered by the Republicans. Carol Moseley-Braun insisted the changes from the previously vetoed Gingrich bills made little difference:
This bill is still an abomination, which is what I called the previous bill, and I intend to vote against it for precisely that reason — and I keep coming back to the question, and no one has answered the question: What about the children? What happens to them when all is said and done, with all the cuts and the changes that we are making with this legislation?
Charles Rangel bitterly scoffed that “the Republicans will throw two million people, children, into poverty, and my president will only throw one million into poverty.”
The appeals of the Black Caucus were insufficient to sway Clinton. On August 22, 1996, he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law.