Report — From the October 2015 issue

Getting Jobbed

The real face of welfare reform

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Welfare reform has been successful by one measure alone: it has reduced government spending. In 1995, about 14 million Americans were on welfare; today, that number is down to 4.2 million. Meanwhile, the benefits received by families with no other cash income now bring them to less than half the federal poverty line, according to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In 2014, the median family of three on welfare received a monthly check of just $428, and other government assistance programs have seen their budgets slashed even further. For every hundred families with children that are living in poverty, sixty-eight were able to access cash assistance before Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. By 2013, that number had fallen to twenty-six.

Would a Hillary Clinton presidency create an opportunity to correct the flaws of her husband’s welfare reform? Would we see the Clinton who championed microfinance for the very poor and spoke to the New America Foundation in 2014 about the fact that the poorest women in America — women like Rosie and Charlene — have a shorter life expectancy than their mothers did? Or would we see her double down on block grants, time limits, asset tests, and work-participation activities that don’t include education or entrepreneurship training? In the early months of her 2016 campaign, Clinton has moved further left than she ever did in 2008. She has embraced the mantle of feminism, included stories of her mother’s impoverished childhood in her stump speech, and called for an end to “the era of mass incarceration,” which signals a sharp departure from the philosophy behind the 1994 crime bill signed by her husband.

But President Hillary Clinton would likely face the same challenges that Bill Clinton did in the 1990s: a Republican Congress and a country that has decided that accepting government help is a sign of personal failure rather than a legal right.

“My feelings about welfare ran deep and were probably more complicated than my husband’s,” Hillary Clinton wrote in Living History, at the start of her own career in public office. “I had spent time as an advocate for children and women caught up in the system and I knew that welfare was often essential as a temporary support for poor families.” But after describing Edelman’s resignation and the general liberal outcry against their bill, Clinton concluded: “In the painful aftermath, I realized that I had crossed the line from advocate to policy maker.” It seems unlikely that running for president will inspire her to cross back.

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lives in New York. Her article “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” appeared in the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This report was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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