Punitive 1990s Welfare Reform Due for Overhaul

Interview with Felicia Kornbluh, associate professor of history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at University of Vermont, conducted by Scott Harris

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 as a so-called centrist New Democrat, he pledged to “end welfare as we know it.”  As he neared the end of his first term in office he signed into law the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” which replaced the existing Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, with TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families. TANF limited the time period recipients could receive benefits to no more than five years in their lifetime.  However, under the law, states were allowed to shorten the benefit period, which many did. Clinton’s welfare reform required recipients to work, participate in community service or get vocational training. Those who didn’t or couldn’t participate lost their benefits. 
In response to Clinton’s signing of the welfare reform bill, two high-ranking officials in his Department of Health and Human Services resigned in protest. One of those officials was Peter Edelman, whose wife Marian Wright Edelman was president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.  Opposition to the welfare overhaul was widespread over the program’s serious erosion of the nation’s social safety net, that surrendered the fight to lift people out of poverty — primarily hurting single women and their children.
Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Felicia Kornbluh, co-author along with Gwendolyn Mink of the new book,”Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective.” Here, she talks about their important and overdue assessment of welfare reform’s impact on women and the nation at large.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: So the assumptions are that people don’t need it. That it’s entirely a group of non-white people, that somehow people are defrauding the government, you know, that they’re getting benefits in numerous places or in numerous names. Ronald Reagan ran for office in the ’60s when he was running for governor of California, and then later when he was running for president talking about the quote “welfare queen,” who supposedly was, you know, getting a zillion different checks in different names and you know, with getting rich off the system.

And that idea just hung around for so long. Our society is really uncomfortable with the idea that there are women who are raising kids without men in the picture or without men who are supporting the women. And I think it’s also a lot of, you know, stuff about race. It’s stuff that runs really deep in our culture.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In 1996, when welfare reform was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, can you speak to what changed in welfare briefly and the consequences for people out there in the country. And I know you’ve said that people actually have died because of these new policies that were implemented back then in the mid-’90s.

FELICIA KORNBLUH: What the law did was it said that welfare – this economic support that the government provides for low-income moms and kids – would no longer be an entitlement. And what that means is that a woman who’s raising young kids and who gets into a bad situation like, let’s say she has an abusive partner and she needs to get out of that situation. In the old days, if she met certain criteria, if she was poor enough and met whatever other criteria that her state established, that she could be assured that she would get some assistance. Right?

But the 1996 law said, no, this is no longer an entitlement. That means that you’re no longer guaranteed the assistance and moreover, what they said was that there’s a federal maximum of five years during which you can get any aid and that’s it for your whole life. So you know if you’re unfortunate enough to have two periods in your life when you’re extremely poor and you get into that kind of a bad situation, if you hit that limit, then that’s it. You can never ask for help again.

BETWEEN THE LINES: This sort of punitive framework for welfare persists today, of course, and we now have the Republican Congress recently passing work requirements to get Medicaid. But we have a new Democratic House that will be taking office in January, controlling the U.S. House of Representatives. Are you expecting any kind of focus on welfare reform and maybe reforming what was put in place back in the mid-’90s?

FELICIA KORNBLUH: I think it is an exciting time. I don’t know what the House of Representatives is going to do. I’m not really sure what they can accomplish as just one portion of the government, but I do think that there’s a real live debate going on within the Democratic party. And we started to see it in the 2016 Democratic primaries in the presidential race and that of course – there was a fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – but even beyond that, I think there was really a fight about the future of the party and about how to assess how to assess its path.

In terms of an agenda, I see it as two-pronged. I think that we do need to do something more about poverty and it could be through this legislation or through some other legislation. You know, I’d be open to some kind of universal basic income type of strategy, understanding that mothers who are raising children may need a higher level, of basic income than people who don’t have those responsibilities.

And I also think that we should be moving forward as a society to do things for everybody. You know, for all of the families that are stressed out and working too hard. And having a really rough time balancing between their work responsibilities and their family responsibilities. I know so many people who are caring for their ill and elderly parents. People who have disabled kids. I think that as a society for reasons that I never quite understand, we just have done such a terrible job of really meeting people’s needs. So that’s what I would hope a Democratic or a progressive or a feminist agenda would look like in the future if we really do care about families. If we really do care about kids, it seems like kind of a no-brainer.

Join in on the commentary on Facebook or Twitter.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary