Welfare “Reform” Systematically Impoverishes People

Janine Jackson: The policies and practices known as “welfare reform,” marked by Bill Clinton’s 1996 signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, always traded on a number of myths, often abetted by the media. Myths about how much money the government, or “taxpayers,” spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and what those families receiving assistance looked like. And the myth that the receipt of state support discouraged people from working, creating what was bemoaned as a “culture of dependency” that might affect two or three generations.

But at the center of the myths around welfare and the need for its for reform were always women, and particularly Black women. Shouldn’t they work more? How many children should they have? How is their working, or not working, affecting black men, and the perennially troubled and troubling black family?

For a policy that always claims to be about economics, welfare policy has always been about much more. Recognizing and understanding that can be part of a necessary “reboot,” as my next guest describes it, of the policy conversation around poverty.

Felicia Kornbluh is associate professor of history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Vermont. Her books include The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America, and she is co-author, with Gwendolyn Mink, of the new book Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective. She joins us now by phone from Vermont. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Felicia Kornbluh.

Felicia Kornbluh: Thank you so much for having me.

We remember 1996, and the fight around welfare reform. We used to put “reform” in quotes then. Media depictions of support recipients as lazy, as having children to avoid work. Diane Sawyer got in a young woman’s face to say, “Why should I pay for your mistake?”

But what was debate is now backdrop, you could almost say. The PRA, the Personal Responsibility Act, passed, people were cut from the welfare rolls, and Democrats and Republicans toasted their bipartisan triumph. Corporate media essentially chided critics of the policy, “See, the sky didn’t fall.” So place us in 2018, and the point of intervention of this new book. I mean, some of those premises seem kind of entrenched now.

Well, yes, and I appreciate your reminding us of all of that, because the first purpose of the book is precisely to remind people of the fact that this wasn’t always so, and it’s not just that the policy wasn’t always so, but the debate wasn’t always so. It didn’t always have the same form, and we didn’t always treat it as just common sense that, you know, of course the government would not help people in times of desperate need; that of course mothers of young children were expected to be in the labor market full time, or more than full time; that the government had a hands-off attitude toward people who may have committed “mistakes,” may have been partners with abusive men, or may have had a child with somebody who was later incarcerated.

There was a time when there was actually a very broad agreement on the fact that the government had a role to play in people’s lives. And so I think it’s worth it for us to go back and unearth that if we want to make some kind of new direction, if we want to have some kind of new approach to the relationship between government and all of our families, if we want to have a more honest and robust conversation that goes beyond the #MeToo glamour and actually talks about the status of women in America, whether they’re in the labor market or not in the labor market.

So that’s the first thing that we want to do, is unearth the history of this so we can remember that what’s taken as obvious today isn’t obvious, and it wasn’t obvious, and there was enormous, enormous contention. And I think that is a critical point of intervention with the media, because it’s the mainstream of the Democratic Party and it’s the mainstream media working together that keep saying, “this is a success.” And, “this is obvious.” And, “there was consensus in the ‘90s.” There was no consensus, and the policy has not been a success. It’s been the opposite.

We watched it in real time, a kind of bait-and-switch, in the so-called liberal press. I remember papers like the New York Times starting out saying, “Well, we’ll agree, it would be OK to cut benefits, as long as there’s a guaranteed job.” And then the job went into parentheses. And then it became, “Well, a job—or else some training.” And then it just kind of disappeared, you know, and childcare….

That’s right, with incredible credulity, or something worse.

Exactly. Childcare went the same way, so folks may not remember that it was sold as an anti-poverty program, and now it’s being celebrated as simply being anti-welfare, and the difference between those is what’s being elided.

Yes. I almost hesitate to say this, because, of course, Donald Trump is horrible, and our contemporary politics are terrifying. But it’s worth remembering also that, you know, Bill Clinton was a pretty good liar, too. Donald Trump is a liar, but Clinton was also a liar.

And he said all the time, and people in his administration said all the time, or suggested at least, that there was going to be childcare available for every person who was now going to be expected to be in the waged labor market, that people weren’t just going to be thrown off the welfare rolls willy nilly. But that there would be, he kept on saying, there would be opportunity, there would be education, there would be training, there would be jobs, there would be childcare, but none of that was actually in the law.

Our book actually starts, the first chapter is just a reading of the actual federal law. And we did that because we just want to get clear on what it is that we’re talking about here, you know? And there has been so much misrepresentation. There was then, and there continues to be, so much misrepresentation.

And, yes, so childcare was never really given to people. There was certainly no entitlement to childcare. There was more money overall, but not enough.

Education, access to education and training, was cut dramatically. Actually, right before this welfare reform, people who were receiving assistance and raising kids, they had access to pretty good educational support. People were getting community college degrees; the community colleges were developing pretty good programs, and some people got four-year degrees, or even master’s degrees, while they were receiving some assistance and raising young children. And that did allow them to make a different kind of life for themselves, to get away from abusing partners, etc.

But what happened after the Bill Clinton and Republican Congress created this law, is that things just went in the opposite direction, and it was just a story of compulsion and driving people away. And ultimately, of getting people to not even ask, to not even apply for the benefits. And I think that was the real purpose of the law.

So much of the mid-’90s conversation was really about poor women. We used to hear about welfare policy in a context of social engineering about women. People essentially worrying that women who can survive without men, not to put too fine a point on it, that women who are able to survive economically without men will do so, and that that means the apocalypse. Welfare was family-discouraging, and Black men in particular go to the bad if they can’t be heads of families, and now we’re back in Moynihan. I understand you’re saying that that awareness has drained a bit from the discourse, that understanding of how much it really is about women.

Yeah, there’s a funny thing that’s happened in public discourse, in mainstream media and also in mainstream political conversation, that there is a lot of talk about sex and gender, and even about sexuality and transgender, and that’s all wonderful. But when we talk about people who are economically strapped, and we talk about anti-poverty policies, somehow that whole dimension of the conversation has dropped out.

So the policies are still targeting folks on the basis of gender, the so-called deadbeat dads, on the one hand, and the so-called immoral moms, on the other hand, they’re still getting the short end of the stick. But we don’t think about those issues in gendered terms.

“We”—I mean mainstream media people who write about this stuff, and mainstream political people—they have another, I don’t know, another “file” that they put all these issues in, and that they sort of relegated these people to. And that is another purpose of our book, is to bring the gender lens, that in some ways we’re good, at least in our academic lives and our intellectual lives, at applying to our society, and actually take them and look at what’s going on in the anti-poverty realm.

And when you do that, it just seems outrageous. The kinds of stereotypes and myths that are directed at, especially, low-income men of color and low-income women of color, are just nutty. And incredibly destructive.

The book, I see it as also wanting to relocate this welfare conversation in a broader context, not just the conversation, pardon me, but the policy itself, within the context of a broader understanding of social net programs. And it has to do with, really, a very colorful and vivid and various idea of what life could be like if people didn’t have to struggle. So it really is about revisiting, radically, in the sense of “to the root,” anti-poverty programs, of which welfare policy should be seen as a part.

Yes, absolutely. And there are some very really obvious links between this story and things that are very hot today. Like, for example, the continuing push by the Trump administration, and some state administrations, like Kentucky, to impose work requirements on people who get their healthcare through Medicaid.

And I think, if you’re not a policy maven, that you might think that sounds reasonable. You know, “Sure, everybody should work, we all have a responsibility to work.” But if you understand this history, and you understand the real racial and gender stereotypes that are inevitably attached to that whole conversation, then you might get to be a little more suspicious. Like when you understand that what happened when “welfare reform” occurred in the ‘90s, and when there were work requirements applied, was that people were just impoverished, and they were pushed off, and the government got to save a little bit of money, and good data indicate that people died. You know we have good solid data that death rates for people who would have otherwise been recipients of this aid went up.

That’s what’s going to happen with Medicaid work requirements, too. This is not about putting our healthcare system in dialogue with the labor market, and helping people get out of poverty. This is about systematically impoverishing people and perhaps killing them. That’s really what the policy is. And I think it sounds good to some people, in part because those racial and gender stereotypes are still just woven right in there.

The idea, you know, “Why do you have to have a work requirement?” Because the assumption is poor people, non-white people, etc. are not working. And that’s just not true. It’s just an utter myth. Black women work harder than any other group in our society, and this is consistently true. You just have to look at the damn numbers, and a lot of people in mainstream politics are just not interested in doing that.

And those same myths that media fail to really dig out, from the root up, of the idea of people who receive assistance not working, for example, when we know that many people work more than one job, and still require something else in order to be able to pay the bills. And I guess what I also wanted to talk about is—and that the book is about as well—is that progressives and Democrats have to show a vision, and have a vision. That a different world is possible, not just that this one sucks, you know?

And I know that Democrats are going to argue until the end of recorded time about whether Trump won because people feel economically dead-ended, or because people are racist and misogynist. But doing the work of growing a broad safety net income policy, that advances justice and economic security, as the book talks about, that would seem to me to really give us work to go forward with.

Yes, I hope that the document that we include in our book at the end, which comes from the early 2000s, a group of advocates that my coauthor and I were both part of, I hope that that can provide something of a launching point.

And also, just remembering the amount of debate, and remembering that there were progressive Democrats, and independents like Bernie Sanders, who was at the time in the House of Representatives and later went to the Senate. You know, there were folks who were offering an alternative vision. Not just saying “no,” but also saying, “Look, our families are struggling. We need a public policy that supports families.” Their argument was, and my argument would be, those folks are just asking the wrong question: talking about this one tiny corner of the government, which has always been stereotyped, or has long been stereotyped, on racial and gender grounds, instead of looking at, “What kind of a society do we want to have? What kind of economy do we want to have? Why do families have to work so damn hard? Why can’t parents be with their kids? Why are people giving up their kids to foster care and adoption? Why are so many people in jail, you know? What are we doing here? What’s this social engine that’s just creating misery and stress and shortening our lifespans?”

That’s the real paydirt, I think. And if we can start from this story and go out from there, and look at the questions that women asked in the ‘90s, and that have been driven out of debate by mainstream politics and the mainstream media, then maybe we can start to recover the real questions.

You spoke of it as almost the kind of original sin of modern politics, to have, in welfare reform, almost sold off a part of the constituency, and said, “We will disassociate ourselves with these folks and somehow that will save the party.”

And that—when I last spoke with you in 2015—you were saying, in terms of welfare policy in particular, we have to do both: We have to fight back against the predations, the new things that come up—OK, means-testing for immigrants, OK, a work requirement here—but also have a whole, entirely new alternative that we can put forward. You actually mentioned a truth and reconciliation process, where we figure out why we took this wrong turn, in terms of what we believe about people who need help, which is basically all of us, at some point.

Yeah, I had a hope, which has been partially realized. When I started working on this project, I had a hope that sometime in the 2016 Democratic primaries, there would be a real reckoning with what that party had become in the 1990s. And it was very interesting to see that, in part, that happened. You know, there has been a lot of energy on the progressive left that centered on the Sanders campaign. But what didn’t happen is, we didn’t talk about it in terms of women and gender, and we did not talk very much about poverty, and especially women’s and children’s poverty.

So I think, and now I think a lot of people have been thrown into a defensive posture because the threats are so real to the things that we care about, from the Trump administration. But I think that that’s actually a good sign overall.

I kind of wanted Hillary Clinton to apologize. Like, that was my secret desire in starting to do this research, that at some point Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, would say, “You know what? We were wrong. This was a Faustian bargain, and it was terrible. And we cosigned a lot of stuff that we shouldn’t have cosigned about race and gender, and we want to do better.”

So, OK, that didn’t happen. But I think there’s a lot of energy on the left, and even in the Democratic Party, to rethink some of the wrong turns that were taken in the ’90s. And I want this book to be a part of that, and to be informing that process.

We’ve been speaking with Felicia Kornbluh, associate professor of history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Vermont. Her new book, with Gwendolyn Mink, is called Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective, and it’s out now from University of Pennsylvania Press. Thank you so much, Felicia Kornbluh, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you.