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Janine Jackson interviewed professor Felicia Kornbluh on the legacy of “welfare reform” for the August 28 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: In 1996, Bill Clinton signed something called “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,” calling it an effort to “end welfare as we know it” and to “promote fundamental values of work, responsibility and family.” Ten years later, Clinton took a victory lap with a New York Times column headed “How We Ended Welfare, Together,” shouting out “the Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to work together to take bold action,” which Clinton claimed led to a “new beginning” for millions of Americans.

Assessments of the impact of the welfare overhaul that don’t come from its architect are quite different. But Bill Clinton is right to point to how what he called “empowerment policies” met the political needs of both major parties. They also rang enough of the elite media’s bells to avoid the sort of continued scrutiny that they merit.

Felicia Kornbluh is associate professor of history at the University of Vermont; she is also president of United Academics. Her books include The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America and the forthcoming Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform After Twenty Years with Gwendolyn Mink.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Felicia Kornbluh.

Felicia Kornbluh: I’m thrilled to be here.

JJ: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, or PRA, was initially a platform of the much-reviled Contract with America, yet subsequently and to this day, purportedly liberal media, socially liberal anyway, like the New York Times refer to the PRA and to the welfare overhaul matter-of-factly as “anti-poverty legislation.” The conflation of cutting welfare and cutting poverty seems to be very important here, not least as to how welfare reform could be portrayed as successful by both Republicans and Democrats. That kind of confusion about the goals of these policy changes was there right from the beginning, though, wasn’t it?

Felicia Kornbluh

Felicia Kornbluh

FK: Yes, it certainly was, and I think you’re right to point to the way that Clinton put his spin on the law after ten years and the way that mainstream, often reputedly liberal media organs like the New York Times will still very often talk about the success or the consensus, the political consensus, around welfare.

I have to say, working now as an academic, I think social scientists and other academics have often made the same kind of mistake. They have asked the wrong questions, and therefore have gotten the wrong answers. And that has really been true since the debate that produced this law, and even more on the assessments.

So instead of asking, “How are we doing on alleviating poverty? How are we doing on providing genuine equality? How are we doing on providing a really thriving environment for children? How are we doing on women’s equality?” instead we ask “Did the welfare rolls go down?” And that’s true, they did. By hook or by crook, they went down. We ask “Who is in the labor market? How many people are in the labor market?” as though that tells us something about the social good, which it doesn’t.

JJ: The whole premise there was not very veiled from some quarters during the debate, was that people who were receiving public assistance could be in the workforce; they were just choosing not to—for laziness, childcare or however you wanted to spin it. So for many people, I think, if you can say they are no longer receiving welfare and that they are in a job, then that’s it—that’s all it was claimed to do. The devil’s in the details there, I assume: What kind of job? They came off the welfare rolls and went where? And that’s the sort of informational void that we are looking at.

The Battle for Welfare RightsFK: I would say there are actually two problems with that, and I think that kind of politics–“yay, we lowered the welfare rolls,” or “yay, we got people into the labor market”–I think it’s dumb liberalism or dumb feminism, or fake feminism, in a way that’s very, very damaging, and is far too present in our culture.

Not only do we have a labor market that is totally flawed, in which we know that there are relatively high levels of structural, that is to say, permanent unemployment–so not everyone, literally, can get a job. Not only do we know that childcare is not available for any amount of money in some parts of the country, certainly not affordable, high-quality childcare available in many, many parts of the country for many, many families.

But also, in addition to talking about the flawed labor market, the flawed childcare market, I think we also have to talk about the work that parents do. And that’s an appropriate subject for feminism, liberalism, progressivism. And what’s happened to that, what’s happened to that whole conversation around the fact that the work parents do actually is valuable, and that being with children, having children be happy and thriving, is a social good, a social value. Why do we not value that?

JJ: It seems to call for the integration, the total integration of questions about public assistance into our other questions that we are seeing activism around, like the minimum wage, student loans. If we don’t integrate those concerns, it seems hard to put forward a really holistic economic vision.

FK: I think that is absolutely right, too. I have been very encouraged—in general, our political climate is depressing, and the fact that nobody is even talking about what we used to call welfare is really concerning—however, the Fight for 15, by workers who most people think don’t have any power in our political system, and the incredible successes this movement has had, is very encouraging. And Black Lives Matter I think is also really encouraging.

And I think if we talk about how black lives matter in what we call the criminal justice system, I think we can also talk about how black lives matter in the anti-poverty world, and we can ask why we continue to have a system that impoverishes and starves—and actually kills, according to some data—lower-income people, not exclusively but disproportionately African-American and Latina.

JJ: Let me ask you about the actual harmful impacts of the way the system is now, because I do believe there is a–not the consensus that we see media talk about, but I do think the quietness from even the left indicates that people think that welfare reform was not as bad as it could have been. While not being supportive of it, they think that it could have been much worse. And I think some stories and realities are being missed there in terms of ways that the program does not just not do all that it could, but in fact does harm. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.

FK:  I’ve been analyzing it in two major ways: looking at the very direct effects and looking at a series of indirect effects. Some of the direct things have to do with the requirements of the program. The leading thing is that people lost what used to be a legal entitlement to benefits. Like in food stamps, or what we call the SNAP program, which people still have: If you really need it and you qualify according to the income guidelines and so on, then you can get that benefit. You can get the SNAP benefit.

But you can no longer get this other benefit that we call welfare, or TANF,  the classic aid for low-income parents and children. In that case, you have a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits, and if you hit that five-year limit, you will never again get any sort of assistance. So we wind up with the people who reach that time limit, they are not just poor but they are incredibly poor, people living at half of the already inadequate national poverty line.

So we can see some very direct effects, and then we can see some more indirect things. And we have to look state by state and we have to be a little bit clever about the data, but we can see, certainly, food pantry utilization going up, we can see domestic violence rates going up, and we can see family homelessness going up, like moms with kids living on the streets or losing their shelter. We can understand a lot of those things as being related to welfare reform.

And then even looking more globally, we progressives do ourselves an enormous disservice when we don’t really examine what happened in the ’90s and how terrible a kind of Clinton Democratic politics were for us, because it has undercut every type of argument that we have made for every kind of generous or expansive or humane move in terms of domestic politics, because the opponents have this tool—they can basically use the welfare reform discourse, and bring back those racial and sexual stereotypes, to kill anything. They went after the ACA with this, they went after food stamps, they are now going after disability benefits using the same playbook, and we have to go back to the ’90s and say, “Look, that playbook is no good, and we will not let you vilify people this way.”

JJ: It’s important for folks who maybe don’t remember it to realize that this isn’t a question of intentions gone awry; all of the contradictions and hypocrisies were built into this from the get-go. You recently confirmed that, I understand—found some draft testimony that showed that at the time that it was being debated, the researchers who were purportedly being called on by Congress to give information, they knew that these changes could increase participation in the workforce without increasing incomes and without decreasing poverty. So this is not a surprising thing that was revealed after years of the policy being in place; this is something that we knew.

Bill Clinton signing the "welfare reform" bill

Bill Clinton signing the “welfare reform” bill.

FK: Yes, and many people said it at the time. I was working with other feminists, activists and academics, and we could pretty well predict some of these consequences.

I think we really have to understand the politics of the ’90s, and I think there was a kind of deliberate political choice that drove all of this: From the perspective of the Clinton administration and certain people in the Democratic Party, it was a very explicit idea, that certain people would have to be cut adrift, that it was really going to be OK. They were willing to pay the price with other people’s bodies, with other people’s well-being. African-American women and low-income women and their kids would be cut adrift because the Democratic Party couldn’t afford to defend them, and wasn’t willing to pay that price.

And the bargain would be then they would save the Democratic Party, they would save Clinton’s political career, and I guess they thought they would also be able to save some type of progressive agenda, maybe around healthcare or something like that. As it turns out, they didn’t do that much for us, and they did unleash this terrible, terrible policy with all of these wide ramifications.

JJ: Where I blame media for that was in providing some kind of cover for those sorts of maneuvers by continually casting whatever draconian, increasingly, or harmful or punitive policies were coming down by giving them a little bit of the shroud of “this is an anti-poverty program.”

I looked back over this coverage and found tons of stories about individuals who came off of welfare and did go back to school and did get a job, highlighting those stories that indicate that the program works, “even though there are flaws….” I really do think that, as cynical a move as it was, certainly, from the Democratic Party, I think they had some help from the elite media in putting that over for folks.

FK: Yeah, they certainly did. It was all part of what was called “a new Democratic project,” and that was the project that came out of the late ’80s, early ’90s—and Clinton was a national spokesperson for it well before he became president. And that was very appealing to the Washington Post, the New York Times and NPR. It was a kind of rebranding of the Democratic Party and of a certain kind of centrist liberalism that a lot of those institutions, those media institutions, were kind of invested in and believed in. It’s hard to understand; at the time, if you were listening from a race-conscious perspective, it was just all grotesque, but I guess those institutions had none of that orientation; the fact that there were these massive exclusions just didn’t really seem to matter to them, or to hit them, at all.

JJ: It was downright creepy. I remember, I was at FAIR then, and we remember spotlighting Diane Sawyer, multimillionaire, getting down on the carpet to get into a teenage mother’s face on national television, to say, “Why should I pay for your mistake?”—claiming that she was speaking on behalf of taxpayers. There was a real craven moment there, which I think media really helped along in the name of some kind of economic “rationality,” that was all going to come clear in the end.

Let’s come forward, now we are 19 years into this, and as we’ve said, we’re not seeing the attention to what used to be called welfare from the press that might help us see how it is integrated.  But at the same time, lots of people are not even looking to media for that kind of economic understanding anyway. So there is, as you say, a tremendous opening of a relifting of these issues, and their integration with a whole lot of other things that we are seeing activism around.

FK: I think it is possible, for those of us who are in the hope and optimism business, I think it is possible to have some optimism and hope. I’ve heard people speaking recently, and I’ve even seen this in the New York Times, for example, about the need for a basic income, and that’s a 1960s/1970s idea that has been kicked around for a long time; it was quite popular in the ’70s, and it’s an idea that may be coming back, because unemployment is so high, because inequality is so vast and because our technology is just obliterating jobs, or people are going to have some marginal kind of work, servicing the 1 Percent.

It just becomes more and more urgent as a society, and as a set of movements, that we really have some alternatives, some solutions that we could start to talk about, a humane and social economic policy that would say: for a period of time, maybe it’s OK if you are raising your kids or you’re taking care of your ill parents, maybe it’s OK if you go back to school, and we support you as a society in doing that. If we’re generating lots of wealth, let’s take it away from the people who have too much of it and spread it around and create a humane society. It starts to seem crazy that we don’t do something like that.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, Felicia Kornbluh, we’re talking about big visions and maybe they’re nearer than we think, but if we really look right down at our feet right now, are there ways to improve or ameliorate the harms of TANF, of the program as we have it? Or is it really kind of a “let’s throw it out and start again” model that we are looking at?

FK: Personally, I’d like to throw it out and start again, and to have a kind of truth and reconciliation process where we go back to the ’90s and we say, OK, look, some progressives bought into this, some feminists, the Democratic Party to a large degree bought into this. It’s kind of an original sin of modern politics, and we need to take account of that.

Maybe more short term, there are a lot of battles to fight at the state level, because that is where this has been implemented. And so if people want to hook in, that is where I would look. Pay attention to how your state is implementing this, pay attention to what the local rules are: Is there a family violence option in your state? Not every state has one. If so, are people who are victims of domestic violence really getting the support that they are supposed to get under the legislation? Those are the kind of places I would look.