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Est. April 5, 2002
September 29, 2016 - Issue 668

Ending Welfare
As We Know It
But Not Really

"It should now be clear that welfare reform
had little to do with fighting or reducing poverty. 
According to interests who supported this
egislation the key problem was 'dependency.'"

The twentieth year anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act (1996) has spurred a boom let of articles and reflections about federal legislation to “end welfare as we know it”, to quote then President Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, most of the commentary in mainstream media has focused myopically on whether welfare reform was effective, or not, in reducing poverty, as if this were the original aim of this policy. Many of the discussions have been framed in narrow ahistorical and policy-wonkish reflections. There is a presumption that welfare reform could be treated as a policy silo, disconnected from other and broader political and economic developments in U.S. society.

I would propose two reflective thoughts about this policy’s twentieth year. First, it should now be clear that welfare reform had little to do with fighting or reducing poverty. According to interests who supported this legislation the key problem was “dependency.” This concept was discussed widely as a social disease that could be treated effectively with policies and regulations forcing poor people to act more like hard-working and responsible Americans. An important part of this narrative was that poor families, and especially Black and Latino families, lacked middle-class family values. In a number of simplistic ‘tough love’ articles in papers like The New York Times, and others, it was offered that punishment in the form of sanctions, family caps, forced work for modern day alms, or barring families from social services like public housing, was justified in order to prevent or discourage poor people from becoming complacent or apathetic regarding their obligations to society.

President Bill Clinton’s proud espousal of this legislation blessed, in effect, oppressive ideas emerging from conservative think tanks such as the CATO Institute a bit earlier where in one of this organization’s reports, it was stated: “…by removing the economic consequences of an out-of-wedlock birth, welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid such pregnancies” (1994). And we should not forget the urging by U.S. Representative John Mica, quoted in The New York Times on March 27, 1995: “Don’t feed the alligators…unnatural feeding and artificial care create dependency. When dependency sets in, these otherwise able alligators can no longer survive on their own…I submit to you that with our current handout, non-work welfare system, we’ve upset the natural order.” Except for using alligators as metaphor, this idea was adopted in the very Preamble of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. I would be remiss not to mention that these kinds of approaches were also supported by many liberals and their think-tanks.

But the attack on Black and Latino families and their communities did not stop, or begin with ‘ending welfare as we know it’. In terms of intent and impact welfare reform cannot be understood separately from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994) calling for 3 strikes provisions resulting in the criminalization and imprisonment of thousands of Blacks and Latinos for minor offenses; it included billions of dollars for prison construction, even if funding had to be diverted from drug treatment and prevention programs. During President Bill Clinton’s first term 129,000 new federal prisoners were added, and in his second term this number jumped to 673,000 new federal prisoners. Other policies were also part of a package of ideas and ideology about poverty and race. This included the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996), calling deportation for minor offenses. The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (1998), imposed forced community service in return for subsidized housing; and in violation of the United Nation’s position on collective punishment as a human rights violation, this law now permitted an entire household in public housing to be evicted if one of its family member were to be arrested or convicted of a crime. These punitive laws served to protect the massive concentration of wealth and justify such, or at least make it invisible to working-class and middle-class sectors, by couching it as, “ending welfare as we know it”, but not really ending welfare as we know it, for the wealthy.

My second reflection, therefore, is that welfare reform has to be remembered and analyzed as but one piece of a broad strategy that served to massively concentrate wealth and at the same time neutralize any potential ideological opposition to de-regulation the national economy, or to the local effects on communities resulting from the waves and concentrations of foreclosures associated with banking and commercial de-regulation. Ending welfare as we know it did not apply to the financial sector which spent $187 million just in 1999 in lobbying, according to the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States (January 2011) for the “shattering” of the Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933 in order to separate commercial from investment banking due to potential conflicts of interest.

According to a report published by the Urban Institute, The Impacts of Foreclosures on Families and Communities: A Primer (July 2009) the foreclosure crisis emerging from this de-regulatory period resulted in the lowering of living standards in many communities in terms of the loss of housing and displacement, health, public safety and on children in public schools. But accompanying the de-regulation of financial sectors was an ideological and pseudo-moral onslaught on poor and working-class people via the other, ‘ending welfare as we know it.” And the fact that this onslaught was primarily borne by Blacks and Latino families and communities was appeased through a set of divisive and racialized symbols, images and civic discourse engaged in, by both Democrat and Republican partisans taking attention away from the massive concentration of wealth and growing inequality in U.S. society, or from the need to really ‘end welfare as we know it’. Editorial Board Member James Jennings, PhD is Professor Emeritus of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University. He has published numerous books and articles on race, poverty and neighborhoods, including Welfare Reform and the Revitalization of Inner City Neighborhoods (Black American and Diasporic Studies) (Michigan State University Press, 2003), and co-author of “Race, Neighborhoods, and the Misuse of Social Capital” (Journal of Poverty, 2004). Contact Dr. Jennings and BC.




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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