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Bill Clinton’s cruel legacy

Welfare vanishes as poverty soars

Published Feb 4, 2009 3:34 PM

As millions are being thrown out of their homes and losing their jobs, state governments are reducing the meager assistance available to the poor and unemployed.

Some 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008. The announcement of 500,000 to 600,000 more layoffs in January is expected soon and hundreds of thousands of job cuts are already slated for February.

Protest at Michigan State Capitol during
governor’s State of the State address.
WW photo: Alan Pollock

Yet the number of people getting cash assistance during this crisis remained “at or near the lowest in 40 years.” An article in the Feb. 2 New York Times reported the grim figures.

Eighteen states actually cut their welfare rolls in the midst of the crisis. Michigan, one of two states with official unemployment of more than 9 percent, cut its welfare rolls by 13 percent. Of the 12 states where unemployment grew most rapidly, eight of them either cut the rolls or kept them the same.

Of the 10 states with the highest child poverty rates, eight kept caseloads level or further reduced the rolls. Five states had double-digit reductions in the welfare rolls, including Texas, which ended assistance to 15 percent of recipients.

These cuts, primarily aimed at women, come at a time when joblessness among women without a high school degree and aged 20 to 24 rose to 23.9 percent—from 17.9 percent a year ago. Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy in Austin, Texas, told the Times, “We’re really just pushing families off the program.”

Rhode Island closed the cases of 2,200 children because their families had been on the rolls longer than the 60-month lifetime limit.

Bill Clinton destroyed welfare, pushing millions into poverty

The program under which welfare benefits are dispensed is called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This draconian program was put in place in 1996 under the Clinton administration. It replaced a 60-year-old program initiated during the New Deal entitled Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Bill Clinton came to office pledging to “end welfare as we know it.” That was shorthand for “We shall destroy welfare.” And that is what Clinton did, in a bloc with the Republican-controlled Congress under the leadership of right-wing reactionary Newt Gingrich. After signing the law, Clinton gloated that “The era of big government is over.”

Of course, Clinton did not mean the “big government” of the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA, etc. What he did was carry out a long-sought-after goal of the ruling class: letting them get their hands on the cash that had been given to single mothers with children who were left under capitalism to flounder on their own in poverty. They further wanted to drive millions of impoverished women off the rolls in order to create a vast, low-wage, highly exploitable addition to the workforce.

Under AFDC, women with children who met conditions of low or no income, as well as individual men with low or no income who were unemployable, were entitled to apply for assistance. The cash assistance was minimal and the process of applying for it was cumbersome and degrading. Submitting to harassing, invasive monthly inspections to retain your benefits was even more degrading. Since the benefit was primarily for single mothers, women had to conceal any relationship with a male just to keep the pittance doled out by the capitalist state.

Nevertheless, AFDC was vital to the existence of millions of women and their children. Because of generations of racist discrimination, they were disproportionately African-American and Latina, but millions of poor white families also benefited. It was a basic support at the level of survival. And it was guaranteed by law to anyone who qualified.

Under Clinton the entitlement came to a cruel end. TANF gave block grants in fixed amounts to the states to pretty much do with as they pleased. The states were required to move millions of poor women off the roles in infamous “welfare to work” programs. Many reactionary governors relished the prospect of driving into the workforce these poor women, who often wound up forced to take low-paying, menial jobs either in the public or private sector.

Workers had to put in a full week at these low-paying jobs to earn diminished welfare benefits and could only get them for five years total during their lifetime. Women who tried to go to school to get a skill were often forced to choose between benefits and school if their education forced them to reduce their work hours.

The bill was so draconian that Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Peter Edelman resigned in protest and wrote a long indictment in the March 1997 issue of Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”

At that time this author wrote an open letter to Edelman in the March 27, 1997, issue of Workers World newspaper, entitled “Let’s Overturn the Welfare Law.” (workers.org/ww/1997/edelman.html)

Our letter said in part: “We are inclined to agree with the title of the article ... [although Clinton] has done many terrible things. These include the crime bill with its funding for prisons, police and capital punishment; the anti-terrorism bill that increased the FBI’s repressive power and did away with the right of habeas corpus; extending the criminal blockade of Cuba by signing the Helms-Burton Act; continuing the murderous sanctions against Iraq and many other reactionary measures.”

The letter cited how Edelman showed that “a total of 11 million families—10 percent of all American families—would lose income under the bill. This included more than 8 million families with children, many of the working families affected by food-stamp cuts, which would average about $1,300 per family.”

“You show,” continued the letter, “that almost 800,000 immigrants will lose Supplemental Security Income benefits and food stamps to the tune of $24 billion over six years. And that 100,000-200,000 disabled children, mostly those with multiple disabilities, will lose SSI.”

Edelman said at the time, “This is hardly a welfare bill ... these are just cuts” for poor and working families.

The open letter concluded with a call to point the finger at the Pentagon, the bankers and the capitalists and to call forth a movement to overturn the law.

The other shoe has dropped

Most importantly, the new law set a fixed amount for the total national welfare bill, regardless of how many people needed assistance. Not only was this totally vicious, highly racist and unjust at the time, but it inevitably would lead to disaster for all workers. The minute there was an economic crisis and the workers ran out of unemployment benefits, the masses of unemployed would be plunged into dire poverty and suffering.

Now the country is in the midst of an enormous and growing economic crisis that is engulfing wider and wider sections of the workers. But because of the Clinton destruction of welfare, with the switch from AFDC to TANF, caseloads have fallen every year since 1994. The present level of 4.1 million has not been seen since 1964. The fact is that cash benefits paid out under TANF as of October 2008 were only 30 percent of the benefits that had been paid out under AFDC.

The Clinton group has largely moved into the present administration, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rahm Emanuel, among others. This is the group that helped Clinton and Gingrich wield the ax that fell upon the workers and the oppressed and that is intensifying suffering now.

The only road to reverse this devastating onslaught against the workers and the oppressed is to mobilize a massive fightback campaign that demands not only minimal benefits, but the full guarantee of a job at living wages with benefits or a livable income. This should be the true entitlement of the multinational working class.