What Believing Welfare Reform Was Good Means In Reality

And it’s worth noting one candidate supported welfare reform for a very long time–Clinton–and one opposed it, Sanders. The reality, not the rhetoric (boldface mine):

A generation earlier, even people in Scott’s situation had advantages that she lacks. They tended to live in the middle of Atlanta, near the subway, and they also received welfare, cash payments from the government that were available to nearly all in deep poverty, regardless of whether they had a job.

But over the past 20 years, the virtual elimination of that component of the safety net in Southern states has created a new kind of poverty, one in which people are left more to their own devices, with less access to cash in times of desperation. That shift amounts to a major change in the strategy of addressing the needs of the poor — a change that stems from the belief that entitlement programs failed to incentivize work and trapped people in poverty.

The dramatic overhaul took root in 1996 with reforms under President Bill Clinton, who had pledged to “transform a broken system” and end a “cycle of dependence.” In doing so, he granted governors wide latitude — as they had requested — to draw up their own welfare programs. States would receive federal block grants, but they were under no obligation to give cash handouts. Instead, they could use the money in other ways — to educate job-hunters, encourage marriage or fund child-focused government agencies. The federal government also expanded tax credits for low-income workers, creating another incentive for the poor to find jobs.

The legacy of the changes, on a national level, is mixed: The safety net has expanded for those who can hold down jobs, but it has shrunk for those who cannot. The Earned Income Tax Credit — a benefit for low-income workers — plays a far greater role than welfare in fighting poverty. But the system also creates vulnerabilities during times of economic distress, when the unemployment rate rises….

Across the five states in the region — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina — some 58 percent of impoverished families with children received welfare in the pre-Clinton years, according to data compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Now, that percentage has tumbled below 10 percent. In Georgia, the state with the sharpest decline, only 7 percent of poor families with children in the state receive welfare, compared with 98 percent in 1994.

State officials say some of the money that could have been used for cash handouts has instead been invested into programs to educate job-hunters. But critics say that states have instead used the bulk of the money to plug general budget holes. This has been especially problematic for single mothers. Over the past 15 years, the poverty rate for single mothers in the Deep South has risen from 42 percent to 46 percent, according to Census Bureau data, a rate that is 5 to 10 percentage points higher than in other regions of the country.

The tragedy of welfare reform is that, in its original, academic incarnation, it was essentially a jobs guarantee program with elements of job training and education thrown in. But the Clinton Administration and the New Democrats realized that such a program would be very expensive. Rather than abandoning the program at that point, they decided to keep the job training bits and focus on benefits time limits (after a certain point, no more benefits, period) and block grants to the states. In other words, they stripped out the meat of the program and left the punitive parts–one more sorry example of triangulation.

It really is amazing–in a bad way–how so many erstwhile progressives are willing to forget how things actually went down in the 1990s. Then again, that might just be par for the course.

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