Clinton's Oratory Misses Truth on Work, Welfare


Clinton's Oratory Misses Truth on Work, Welfare

Sep 7, 2012 4 min read
Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy

Robert is a leading authority on poverty, welfare programs, and immigration in America.

By all accounts, Bill Clinton seemed to thoroughly enjoy delivering his prime-time speech to a rapt audience at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. In his 48-minute tour de force, one of the former president’s whistle stops was welfare reform.

Clinton warned his listeners that the charge he was about to rebut was “a real doozy”:

President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work.

Apparently it was a laugh line brimming with irony.

For those of us who didn’t get the joke, Clinton went on to explain Wednesday night that the Obama administration would waive the work requirements of the 1996 welfare-reform law only if states had “a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent.”

“You hear that? More work,” Clinton said. “So the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true.”

The truth is that the Obama administration has jettisoned the two performance measures contained in the law: requiring welfare recipients to participate in work activities and reducing dependence by decreasing welfare caseloads.

The administration intends to redesign the program created by welfare reform, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), centering it on a new performance measure: “employment exits.” Congress explicitly excluded this indicator from the 1996 reform because it is a bogus and misleading measure of workfare and dependency reduction.

For decades, welfare bureaucracies have kept statistics on employment exits, which track the number of recipients leaving welfare because they find jobs. These statistics, although they sound impressive, are meaningless as a measure of success in welfare reform. How can that be? The answer is that welfare caseloads always have routine turnover.

Because of routine turnover, the larger the caseload, the greater the number of employment exits. More people leave welfare simply because there were more on to begin with. Paradoxically, as caseloads increase, the number of employment exits also increases. As caseloads fall, the number of employment exits falls.

Thus the Obama administration’s new performance goal (increases in employment exits) is positively correlated with increases in welfare caseloads and negatively correlated with actual reductions in welfare dependence.

By this measure, TANF’s pre-reform predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was a stunning success. Prior to welfare reform, caseloads soared and employment exits nearly doubled. By contrast, according to this new performance goal, the post-reform TANF program has been a complete failure: Caseloads have plummeted and employment exits have declined.

But to tell the whole truth, we need to go back further than the July 12 memo gutting welfare reform issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The historic record of the past two decades shows that liberals consistently blocked, resisted and undermined the work requirements that made welfare reform such a success.

It goes back to the 1990s when a Republican Congress made welfare reform part of their Contract with America. Liberals denounced the reform as an “awful” policy that would do “serious injury to American children.” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) warned that welfare reform would “force 1.5 million children into poverty.”

So strong was the liberal opposition that President Clinton twice vetoed welfare reform before he signed it. But the polls were clear: Workfare was extremely popular, with upward of 80 percent of the public supporting it. Clinton bowed to public pressure.

Warned that he would lose his reelection bid if he vetoed welfare reform a third time, Clinton finally signed the bill. He couldn’t convince diehards in his administration, however. Most of his Cabinet opposed the bill; Peter Edelman quit his HHS post when Clinton signed it. 

Opposition from the left never faded. When TANF faced reauthorization in 2001, liberals aggressively sought to repeal the federal work standards; in 2006, they repeated the attack. For the most part, liberals lost those battles. Now they’ve gone through the back door, to accomplish through bureaucratic fiat what they couldn’t do legislatively.

In his late-night convention speech, Clinton relied on the judgment of self-appointed “fact checkers” in stumping for the Obama administration’s welfare changes.

“Fact checkers” have insisted it’s not fair to charge Obama with gutting the work requirements because the administration has not, as yet, released any actual waivers. To determine whether Obama has “gutted” anything, one would need to know the specific content of the future waivers.

This is a little like apprehending a five-time recidivist bank robber after he has broken into a bank vault, and declaring that it’s a “pants on fire” lie to say he was robbing the bank because he hasn’t actually removed any money from the vault yet. At worst, Obama’s defenders protest, it’s a case of breaking and entering.

The facts of this case are clear, though. The Obama administration has violated the intent and letter of the TANF law. It has jettisoned the work and performance requirements stipulated by Congress in that law, asserting that, in the future, no state will be required to follow them.

In place of those legislated work requirements, the administration asserts, it will unilaterally design its own “work” systems without the involvement of Congress. The administration’s proposed performance standards are, at best, farcical, showing the pre-reform welfare system superior to the reformed one.

Clinton’s oratory was masterful. But his mastery of the facts of welfare reform, and the evidence of its undoing, left much to be desired. The ironies of the moment aren’t at all amusing — not for President Clinton’s record, not for the crowd in Charlotte, not for welfare recipients, and not for America.

— Robert Rector, a leading authority on poverty and the welfare system, is senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation. He is the author of the new report “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”

First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."