In 1996, the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans worked hand in hand to pass what they called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, colloquially known as “welfare reform.”
The legislation famously “ended welfare as we know it,” replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The newly created TANF placed a time limit on how long the federal government would extend financial assistance to poor families.
Kasich was one of the legislation’s prime movers. After clashes between Clinton and the Republicans over earlier versions of the bill, Kasich introduced what went on to become the final legislation in June 1996. By late July, the administration and the Republicans had solved their disagreements, and a conference bill coasted to passage by a 328-101 vote (Bernie Sanders, another presidential contender, opposed it).
“It was pretty amazing today to watch the president of the United States come on television and say that he was going to, in fact, sign this welfare bill,” Kasich boasted on the House floor on July 31, 1996.
He invoked the civil rights era to tout the cutbacks in funding to the poor, saying:
We marched 30, 40 years ago because we thought people were not being treated fairly, and we march today for the very same reason. What I would say, and maybe let me take it back and say many of my friends marched. I was too young, but I watched, and I respect it. What I would suggest at the end of the day, however, is that we all are going to have to stand up for those who get neglected in reform, but frankly this system is going to provide far more benefits, far more hope, restore the confidence in the American people that we have a system that will help those that cannot help themselves and at the same time demand something from able-bodied people who can. It will benefit their children, it will help the children of those who go to work.One of the leading dissenters in the House was Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. “The bill we are considering today is a bad bill. I will vote against it and I urge all people of conscience to vote against it. It is a bad bill because it penalizes children for the actions of their parents,” he thundered. “This bill, Mr. Speaker, will put 1 million more children into poverty. How, how can any person of faith, of conscience vote for a bill that puts a million more kids into poverty? … What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul? Mr. Speaker, this bill is an abdication of our responsibility and an abandonment of our morality. It is wrong, just plain wrong.”
Kasich’s response to opponents of the bill was terse: “People are not entitled to anything but opportunity. You can’t be on welfare for generations.”
Kasich explained: “America has been crying for this bill now for a generation. They’re sick of generational dependency and, frankly, they wanted a fundamental change. I’m glad the president’s going to sign the bill, and I want to compliment him for that.” He concluded: “And this is one of those successes that when we get old and we’re all in our rocking chairs, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Thank God we were able to make America a little bit better.’”
Bill and Hillary Clinton both advocated strongly for the changes.
President Clinton used the story of a black mother named Lillie Harden he had met in Arkansas during a panel on welfare reform. He touted her story of going from being on AFDC for two years to getting a job at a supermarket. He cited her response to a question about what she liked best about being off of welfare: “When my boy goes to school and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer.”
Clinton invited Harden to the signing ceremony of the bill, and also cited her during his debate later that year with Bob Dole. “I want to make more people like that woman, Lillie Harden. So I’ve got a plan to do it. And it’s just the beginning,” he said.
Hillary Clinton was involved with publicly advocating for passage and implementation of welfare reform in her role as first lady. In a Newsweek cover story in 1993, she weighed in on the upcoming welfare reform debate.
“How do we as a society address the 15-year-old mother on welfare? What do we owe her? Can we demand a set of behavioral standards from her?” asked the interviewer. “Sure, I’ve been talking about that since 1973,” replied the first lady. “You know, I am one of the first people who wrote about how rights and responsibilities had to go hand in hand.”
“When you talk about moving someone to work from welfare in two years, what happens to people who don’t want to work? Would you impose sanctions?” followed up the interviewer. “Oh, I think you have to. What happened in Arkansas is that people who refused for whatever reason to participate had their benefits cut,” she replied.
Hillary Clinton continued to defend the welfare cutback over the years. “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own,” she wrote in a 1999 op-ed. In a 2002 interview she said the policy has resulted in recipients “no longer” being “deadbeats — they’re actually out there being productive.”
Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for welfare reform strained her relationship with her mentor and former boss, Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund. After the signing of the bill, Edelman wrote that “President Clinton’s signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.”
During an interview on Democracy Now in 2007, Edelman described her changed relationship with the Clintons, saying, “Hillary Clinton is an old friend, but they are not friends in politics.”
During her 2008 campaign for the presidency, Clinton defended the policy, saying, “Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance. It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work.”
Journalist Jason DeParle followed up with Lillie Harden nine years after she had briefly been part of the national discourse. He discovered that she had a stroke in 2002. She was unable to get on Medicaid because she was no longer on welfare, and she couldn’t afford her $450 monthly bill for prescription drugs. “It didn’t pay off in the end,” she said of her work. Harden died in March 2014, at the age of just 59.
The misery Harden experienced was similar to that of millions of other Americans who lost access to a crucial government lifeline. This past fall, a pair of researchers published a book looking at extreme poverty in America, defined as living on less than $2 a day. They found that 1.5 million American households — including 3 million children — are now living at or under this threshold.
While no one policy alone explains this shocking number of Americans in extreme poverty, the authors do note that the number has doubled since 1996, the year that welfare reform was signed into law.
“By 1996, welfare was putting a sizable dent in the number of families living below the $2-a-day threshold,” wrote authors Kathryn J. Edin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and H. Luke Shaefer, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan. “As of early 1996, the program was lifting more than a million households with children out of $2-a-day poverty every month. Whatever else could be said for or against welfare, it provided a safety net for the poorest of the poor. In the late 1990s, as welfare reform was gradually implemented across the states, its impact in reducing $2-a-day poverty began to decline precipitously. By mid-2011, TANF was lifting only about 300,000 households with children above the $2-a-day mark.”
Zooming in on one state, Mississippi, the researchers wrote that the TANF rolls there “have seen an astonishing decline, more so than in most other places. As of 1965, the program was serving 83,000 residents, and that number grew to nearly 180,000 at its peak. By 2002, however the rolls had plummeted to only 40,000 and by the fall of 2014 that figure had fallen even further, to only about 17,000 statewide, around 0.6 percent of the state’s population.”
Neither Kasich nor the Clintons have indicated they would be willing to revisit the decision to “end welfare as we know it.” There appears to be agreement that the 1996 law was the right step forward for America — proof that despite laments about a lack of bipartisanship, there is an issue elites in both parties can agree on: cutting back a lifeline to the poor.
Top photo: The Seashore Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, which serves homeless and indigent people.