On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, aka "welfare reform," into law.
Current articles at USA Today and in the Washington Post would make readers believe that credit for this accomplishment belongs entirely to Bill Clinton, and that it was his advocacy that brought it all about. The truth is that "ending welfare as we know it" was a 1992 Clinton presidential campaign promise which languished in inactivity until 1996. The promise would have remained a long-forgotten slogan if it hadn't been for the persistence of the Republican-dominated Congress and the looming 1996 presidential election. That combination forced Clinton's hand — against his will.
There are other problems in the two papers' reports, but this post will primarily rebut their historical revisionism.
At USA Today, Michael Burke wrote the following concerning the bill's authorship and passage (bolds are mine throughout this post):
Overhauling welfare was a hallmark of then-President Bill Clinton's time in office. When he signed welfare reform into law on Aug. 22, 1996, he declared at a ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden that it would "end welfare as we know it."
Twenty years later, few would dispute the accuracy of that prediction. Welfare is, and has been, a vastly different system than it was prior to the law, which gave states wide control over their own welfare programs by allocating to them block grants.
At the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Max Ehrenfreund wrote:
Twenty years ago, President Clinton kept a promise. "I have a plan to end welfare as we know it," he said in a television spot during his campaign for office. He did, on Aug. 22, 1996.
The law that the president signed that day, together with other policies enacted by Congress and the states, profoundly changed the lives of poor Americans. It was intensely controversial at the time — a controversy that is heating up again today. New data on the hardships of poverty in the aftermath of the recent recession have exposed what critics say are shortcomings of welfare reform.
Clinton ended the traditional welfare system, called Aid to Families With Dependent Children, under which very poor Americans were effectively entitled to receive financial support from the federal government. In the new system, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, applicants must meet a range of strict requirements that vary by state to get help — working, volunteering, looking for a job or participating in skills training.
Both versions above vastly miscast Clinton's genuine interest in carrying out his 1992 campaign promise. We can go back to the front page of the Washington Post itself, where on August 23, 1996, Barbara Vobejda covered the previous day's signing ceremony:
President Clinton signed historic welfare legislation yesterday that rewrites six decades of social policy, ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor and turning welfare programs over to the states.
"Today, we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton said at a White House ceremony, where he was flanked by three former welfare recipients. "But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began."
Clinton's endorsement of the bill, which requires recipients to work and limits benefits to five years, fulfills a 1992 campaign promise that came to symbolize his image as a centrist Democrat. But yesterday, as the bill passed its final hurdle, there seemed to be less an atmosphere of celebration than a cloud of controversy hanging over the Rose Garden.
Gone were the Marine Band and Democratic congressional leaders who had attended bill-signing ceremonies earlier this week for bills increasing the minimum wage and making health insurance more accessible. Republicans, who had prodded Clinton for months to sign a welfare bill, refused to give him credit. And the divisions among Democrats over the legislation were readily apparent.
... the bill's enactment is likely to be remembered as a defining moment for Clinton, who vetoed two previous versions and battled with himself over whether to reject this measure as well.
Yesterday, he labeled the measure "far from perfect," criticizing provisions that reduce spending on food stamps and deny aid to many legal immigrants. But he offered an explanation why he was signing it. "We can change what is wrong," Clinton said. "We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right."
As Kay S. Hymowitz at City Journal noted as the legislation's tenth anniversary loomed in 2006, "Cries (at the time) from Democrats of 'anti-family,' 'anti-child,' 'mean-spirited,' echoed through the Capitol, as did warnings of impending Third World–style poverty." The predicted Armageddon didn't happen, even as the official welfare rolls declined from a mid-1990s peak of over 14 million to 5.8 million when Clinton left office in January 2001.
Republicans, led by Senator Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were still smarting from late-1995 budget standoff and related government shutdown — another supposed Armageddon that wasn't, but which still, thanks to the then-dominant pre-Internet media, hurt their standing with voters. What still survived, however, was intense popular disdain for the program known as "welfare," aka the Aid For Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and Americans' overwhelming support (81 percent) for work requirements and a time limit on benefits.
Meanwhile, having used the budget stalemate to recover from the disastrous 1994 "Gingrich revolution" congressional elections, and with the 1996 presidential election looming against Dole, an opponent they considered eminently beatable, President Clinton and most of his team were feeling unstoppable.
Meanwhile, as the legislation progressed through Congress, the Media Research Center's August 2, 1996 CyberAlert described a "campaign of fear" conducted by the national media persistently "attacking from the left the welfare reform bill."
In an episode I expect almost everyone in the media covering the anniversary today will conveniently forget, then-White House pollster Dick Morris threw cold water on Team Clinton's overconfidence, as seen in this review of the actual history seen in in a 2006 Wall Street Journal editorial (also found here for Journal non-subscribers):
By the time it finally passed in Washington, the concept had been percolating in the states going back at least 30 years to Ronald Reagan’s tenure as California Governor. The Gipper took his ideas to Washington, proposing a work requirement, among others things. His 1986 proposal, “Up From Dependency,” was offered too late in his term to pass a Democratic Senate, but it advanced the debate.
Reform really took off in the early 1990s as Governors, led by Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, took the initiative. They battled for waivers from the feds, and then one of their own, Mr. Clinton, decided to run for the White House in 1992 using welfare reform as a way of proving his New Democrat bona fides.
He quickly shelved the idea in his first two years, bowing to a Democratic Congress. But when Republicans won the House in 1994, they made it one of their priorities. Mr. Clinton declared this week that the bill he signed was a “bipartisan” triumph, and in a narrow sense it was. But 98 Democrats opposed him on the House floor, including many of the Democrats who would chair committees in the House if they re-take Congress in November. Mr. Clinton also vetoed reform twice before finally signing it in 1996 after his political guru Dick Morris told him it was the one issue that could cost him re-election. Make no mistake: This was a conservative reform opposed every step of the way by the political left and its media allies.
As I wrote in reaction to the Journal's editorial:
Plenty has been written about what the Gingrich Revolution did or didn’t do, but no one can take away from it the fact that it finished the job of passing welfare reform by backing the opposition’s president into a corner and forcing him, while kicking and screaming, to do what he had to do to maintain his electoral viability.
Another underappreciated aspect of welfare reform is how the movement of millions of Americans from the welfare rolls as tax consumers to employer payrolls as taxpayers contributed to the federal budget surpluses seen in fiscal 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Fortunately, the states have primary jurisdiction over how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the welfare reform era program. This explains why during the Obama era, as of March 2016, total "traditional welfare" rolls have fallen a bit further to 3.84 million.
That number would be far lower if it weren't for the fact that California, which the press continues to tell the nation has an economy which is supposedly doing well. If that's so, maybe these crack journalists can tell us how the Golden State, which has just 12 percent of the nation's population, can have almost 43 percent (1.681 million, as of March, up from about 30 percent 10 years ago) of its TANF recipients.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.