Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we knew it.” In practical terms, this roughly doubled the number of those in extreme poverty. Philosophically, the move signaled that the Democratic Party believed that the “war on poverty” was a battle best fought by “the market.” Yet the promotion of equal opportunity — and especially racial integration — has always been a task that we have entrusted to our elected officials. As such, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton needs to focus on the government’s role in advancing those that welfare reform has left behind, and in doing so, re-establish our collective role in promoting economic and racial equality.
Federal interventions to promote racial equality were always controversial; however, it was Ronald Reagan who masterfully connected attacks on “big government” and the deconstructed programs that promoted racial equality. Borrowing a page from Reagan’s playbook in 1996, Bill Clinton declared the “era of big government” to be over because “big government does not have all the answers.” That same year, in signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, popularly known as “Welfare Reform,” Clinton’s message was loud and clear: Families who failed to uphold the “basic values of work, responsibility and family” would be left to fend for themselves.
Over the past 20 years, we have seen a notable increase in “deep poverty,” with states with the highest percentage of Black welfare recipients making it the hardest to qualify. However, since Hillary Clinton continues to believe that the 1996 reform gave beneficiaries the tools they needed to find work and take care of their families, she maintains an almost unshakeable faith that it is the market, not the government, that should provide us with a social safety net. As such, her primary goal is to “build a stronger, fairer economy” with jobs that provide “a sense of dignity and pride” to all.
Yet the problem with welfare reform was not that our economy wasn’t strong enough; it was that forcing welfare recipients to work didn’t lead to financial stability and it didn’t help those who could not find jobs. Another problem, our research shows, is that welfare reform’s aggressive pursuit of child support to replace eliminated government-funded benefits actually plunges “the most economically fragile fathers and their families deeper into poverty.”
Regardless of what politicians on the left and right say during campaigns, it is not the economy that will heal what ails us, it is the concerted will of the people. The government is a tool that we as citizens have used to accomplish monumental tasks, from the construction of interstate highways to groundbreaking regulations like child labor laws. In particular, it is governmental efforts that have historically led to the greatest progress in racial integration and equalizing access to opportunity, such as through policies promoting school desegregation and inclusive public employment.
With the leadership of our elected officials, we have the power to help families succeed in life regardless of their zip code, race or gender. A first step in reaching these families, and particularly children — who have a 21 percent poverty rate and are not well-served by the market’s search for profits — would be to increase the Child Tax Credit (CTC) significantly and eliminate the minimum earnings requirement to qualify for it. This could reduce the overall child poverty by 13 percent and lift 18 percent of children under the age of three out of poverty.
In addition, we could invest in the next generation through universal pre-K and Baby Bonds, which would put an average of $20,000 into an account for every child at birth. This money would help provide opportunities for education and entrepreneurship for the next generation, regardless of the financial position of their parents. To support parents’ economic security and mobility, we could enact a federally backed jobs guarantee, perhaps tied to Hillary Clinton’s proposed investments in infrastructure, which could also address the longstanding pattern of racial inequality in unemployment.
While politicians are eager to talk about an “economy that works for all,” they seem to have forgotten that we put trust in the government to take care of needs that the market cannot address. In particular, since the market is not designed to address racial inequality, we the people must work to transform our policies and institutions to make it possible for all Americans to pursue their dreams and live successful lives. Unlike Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996, these inclusive policies would truly put an “end to welfare as we know it.”