One of the greatest strengths of President Franklin Roosevelt – especially in the early days of his first administration when he was conducting what amounted to lifesaving CPR on the American economy (and maybe even preserving the nation’s experiment with democratic government itself) was his candid willingness to try new things. Though he is often castigated by conservatives and lionized by liberals for having birthed the New Deal and the idea that the federal government has a duty to combat poverty, FDR was, at heart, a genuine pragmatist. His ultimate objective was always less about vindicating a particular ideology, and much more about championing action and unleashing what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Roosevelt wasn’t against capitalism; heck, his family fortune was a byproduct of it. What he was against was slavery to an ideology that elevated the pronouncements of musty old Englishmen in powdered wigs and knee britches over the real world experiences of average people trying to survive in modern society. He saw the horrific suffering that his predecessor’s unwillingness to tackle the Great Depression had wrought and vowed to keep trying new things until conditions improved.
Oh, for a dose of FDR’s “if at first you don’t succeed” brand of governance in the modern era – especially as it applies to one of his most important guideposts, combating poverty and human suffering.
Twenty years ago yesterday, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (commonly referred to as “welfare reform” or “PRWORA“) into law. It was and is one of the most important laws on the subject of poverty in American history.
At the time, the idea embraced by conservatives with whom Clinton had made league and some progressives was that millions of Americans were being held back from participating in the growing American economy and achieving economic self-sufficiency by a system that essentially kept them trapped. As Clinton noted in a speech delivered just a few weeks before he signed the new law:
“When I ran for President four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it. I have worked very hard for four years to do just that.
Today the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to live up to that promise, to transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence, to give people on welfare a chance to draw a paycheck, not a welfare check. It gives us a better chance to give those on welfare what we want for all families in America, the opportunity to succeed at home and at work.”
The premise of the new law was that “welfare” would no longer be a lasting way of life. Instead, and in keeping with the conservative belief that government would “get out of the way,” poor people would be provided with new paths to enter the workforce along with powerful incentives (in the form of time limits on their receipt of assistance).
And, in truth, welfare “as we then knew it” was a badly flawed system. Struggling low income people receiving help from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC – now “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” or “TANF”) operated under numerous restrictions that made it difficult to earn income or secure an education while receiving pitiable sums of assistance. Many North Carolina families receiving welfare assistance received less than $200 per month.
Failing to live up to its promise
Today, however, two decades later, one can only conclude that the welfare reform effort was a major failure. This is from an excellent new “Welfare Reform Syllabus” created by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University:
“In just two decades, 10 million people have disappeared from the welfare rolls. Democrats, Republicans, and the mainstream press cite this figure to celebrate welfare reform’s success. They assert that the policy was effective simply because far fewer people receive public assistance – yet they do not substantively examine what dropping caseloads actually mean.
Evidence-based research tells a different story. Soon after PRWORA’s implementation—and even before the Great Recession thrust even more Americans deeper into poverty— many researchers warned that poverty was rising, former recipients were being pushed into low-wage, part-time jobs with limited childcare supports, most states diverted recipients from attending college, and many families had no income from work or welfare. They reported dramatically higher levels of hunger, malnutrition and homelessness. In 2014, a record 47 million Americans—nearly one in six—lived below the poverty line. Extreme poverty rose sharply under welfare reform, with nearly 1.5 million households with children surviving on less than $2 per day in 2011.”
In other words, while “reform” succeeded in cutting plenty of people off via time limits, it never delivered on its promise to provide the other supports (training, childcare, health coverage) that would be essential for there to be any genuine hope of moving millions of low income people into sustainable, living wage work.
As policy analyst Tazra Mitchell of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center noted in a post on the subject last week:
“TANF does little today to help families regain their footing on the economic ladder or to connect them to work to reduce their need for supports—thus violating the purported intention of the law to move people off welfare to work. In fact, Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich, two of our nation’s foremost experts on poverty, warned President Clinton and Congress at the time that this would happen, as they recall:
‘We argued that the low-wage jobs available to former welfare recipients would not pay the bills. We warned that the legislation didn’t provide adequate child care for single mothers thrown off welfare. And we cautioned that many welfare recipients faced serious barriers to success in the job market.’”
In other words, though it was cloaked in all kinds of high flown rhetoric and even some good intentions, when you get down to it, welfare reform differed little in its essence from the so-called unemployment insurance “reforms” instituted by North Carolina conservatives in recent years. Both delivered the same basic ultimatum to poor people: “Get a job because we’re going to cut you off.”
In any rational policy environment – think FDR in the 1930’s – the 1996 welfare reform effort would have long ago been discarded (or at least dramatically altered and improved). Having examined the national spike in poverty that has accompanied the end of “welfare as we know it” and the metastasizing gaps in income and wellbeing that now afflict 21st Century America, a set of pragmatic political leaders would have admitted and processed the law’s many shortcomings and tried something new. This wouldn’t have necessarily meant going back to the old system, but it certainly would have involved emphasizing results over ideology.
Unfortunately, of course, this has not happened. Despite living in an age in which we enjoy virtually instant access to mountains of data, facts seem to have been playing much less of a role than ideology in driving government policy – especially conservative, market fundamentalist ideology.
Happily, thanks to a rapidly changing economy and a growing national movement for living wages and economic justice, one gets the distinct impression that events may overtake this situation in the foreseeable future. Though Americans – especially young and independent voters – clearly have little interest in returning to the “welfare” system of the old days, they also recognize that the system in place now is even less effective in combating poverty and helping to preserve and grow the middle class.
In this most extraordinary of election years in which both major presidential candidates seem to defy many traditional ideological labels, let’s hope 2017 turns out to be the year in which national anti-poverty policy reverts to its pragmatic, results-driven origins.