Tuesday, August 23, 2016
vox | Contrary to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, welfare had created chronic dependence on subsidies like Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). But rather than adjust the policy or address the core reasons so many people were stuck in the cycle, the conversation focused largely on vilifying welfare recipients as corrupt drains on society, leeching off hard-working American’s tax dollars.
And even though white and black families made up similar numbers of AFDC cases between 1983 and 1995, black women were the face of both welfare’s failure and the culprits who corrupted it, and an indictment of the Democratic Party that supported them.
Clinton, however, offered a different vision. After some back and forth with the GOP, the AFDC was effectively renamed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Through block grants, the policy required recipients to find a job two years after they began seeking benefits, and put a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits. Also among its goals was a push to promote two-parent households and marriage, drawing heavily from dubious ideas that women were using out-of-wedlock births to cash in on welfare checks.
PWRORA helped Clinton effectively dismantle a social safety net for the poorest Americans with a program that incentivized them to seek work because there was little money invested in supporting them otherwise.
Clinton also found a way to rebrand the political party he led by putting an end to the system championed by Democratic presidents before him. But he did so by following Reagan and other Republicans.
Clinton drew the ire of liberals, including Mary Jo Bane, Wendell Primus, and Peter Edelman — prominent officials at Health and Human Services under his administration who resigned in protest.
In a 1997 Atlantic essay titled "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," Edelman, a longtime friend of Clinton, lambasted just what was wrong with PRWORA: "The bill closes its eyes to all the fact and complexities of the real world and essentially says to recipients, Find a job. That has a nice bumper-sticker ring to it. But as a one-size-fits-all recipe it is totally unrealistic."
A part of this was simply politics. Clinton entered the White House as a Democrat appealing to "white flight Democrats," or those voters prepared to leave the party out of resentment for its growing alignment with the concerns of racial minorities. And like his infamous "Sister Souljah moment," welfare reform helped him capture racial resentment to his advantage.
In the 1990s, Clinton sought to champion both hard-working Americans and nonworking Americans alike by gutting government subsidies for the nation’s poorest, who, due to welfare, had little if any reason to work like their counterparts.
But with Harden, Clinton did what his GOP counterparts couldn’t: advocate for welfare reform without completely alienating black constituents. By pushing personal responsibility, Harden helped Clinton chastise welfare without completely vilifying black women. Harden showed that the "welfare queen" could be redeemed, transforming the face of welfare’s alleged problems into the same fare of welfare reform’s promise.