In hindsight, it is obvious that efforts to prevent passage of welfare reform in 1996 were far too little and far too late. Proposals to "reform" welfare had been popping up once a decade or so, suggested by Republicans and Democrats alike, only to get bogged down by the complexity of the issue and a grudging, if unspoken, realization that welfare might actually be necessary. But this time, to the astonishment of many, a draconian bill passed and the president signed it.

What happened? What was different about the political landscape in the mid-1990s that opened the door to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) becoming law? And, most important, what is the likelihood that progressive forces will regroup, change their ineffectual ways, and actually apply some muscle to the reauthorization fight that’s on the horizon in 2001?

Too Little, Too Late

The lessons of 1996 hover over the current debate. With few exceptions, national civil rights, feminist, and immigrant rights organizations–the very entities that claim to represent constituencies now being harmed by this law and that have the most capacity to influence the debate–failed to throw their full weight into the fight. And labor largely sat out the 1996 struggle, despite concern about how the influx into the labor market of people working off welfare checks would affect the wages and employment status of union members, especially in the low-wage service sector. The major liberal organizations failed to make welfare a priority on their public policy agendas. They left unchallenged one of the most egregious betrayals by a Democratic president in decades.

Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Regulating the Poor, notes that by 1996, the rightwing had been spouting anti-welfare rhetoric, virtually unchallenged, for 30 years. "The public opinion battle was lost because the right had been working on this issue for a long time, and nobody countered with another view. They had a clear field to define welfare as the cause of poverty, as well as a whole variety of pathologies, teenage pregnancy, dependence, and so on."

The right successfully portrayed welfare as a tremendous tax burden that simultaneously kept people within its web poor by creating a humiliating dependency. Legitimate dissatisfaction with AFDC and related programs fed the public disenchantment and immobilized liberals and progressives, who found themselves unable to articulate an alternative to the right’s illusion of ending poverty through privatization and the free market.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights officially opposed the welfare reform bill, but neither the Conference nor its constituent members–the NAACP, MALDEF, the ACLU, and virtually all of the other major civil rights and feminist groups–made fighting the bill a true national priority. Roger Vann, president of the NAACP’s huge Connecticut chapter, acknowledges that welfare issues have gotten little attention in his own chapter, reflecting "a rift within our community between the black middle class and folks in abject poverty."

The Committee of 100, a group of academic feminists, "pushed national women’s organizations to take a public position and put real organizing resources into the fight, but was largely unsuccessful," according to Fox Piven, who is a member. Congresswoman Patsy Mink (D-HI), author of the liberal alternative to PRWORA, which garnered only 100 votes in the final House count, was disappointed in the national feminist leaders and organizations. "If they had raised the feminist issue," she says, "it might have made a big difference. The idea was work, work, work, put ’em back to work, without any thought of what you had to do to get a job with a decent wage, and as though caring for children is not work."

Mink says that many feminists "were swept into the idea that this was a good alternative to get women jobs and child care. From their middle-class perspective, they thought this would be a good thing. They gave no thought to women forced to go to work without the proper tools, the training, the safety measures."

Cindy Marano, then executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, says that "the Beltway women’s organizations had taken a position against the Act, but didn’t want to use up any of their political capital in making that a public campaign. They never threw their political weight into the dialogue."

President Clinton’s turnaround on welfare was a betrayal that few liberals expected. By 1995, Clinton had suffered the ignominious defeat of his grand health care reform plan, was facing a newly elected right-wing Republican Congress that thought it couldn’t be stopped, and was seriously worried about his reelection prospects. Once Clinton decided to lead welfare "reform," Fox Piven says, Congressional Democrats rolled over, and so did the majority of D.C.-based advocacy organizations.

Since the passage of PRWORA, some improvements have been won on behalf of specific constituencies, but these were relatively politically safe for members of Congress. Feminist groups, for example, achieved exemptions from work requirements for domestic violence survivors. Immigrants, originally hit the hardest–even legal immigrants, including the elderly, were made entirely ineligible for benefits–achieved the most: restoration of SSI and food stamps.

Even so, the battles were hard fought. Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza expresses shock at the level of denial that existed in Washington about welfare reform. "We were desperately trying to demonstrate what would happen to people, but couldn’t get anybody to believe how bad it would be. It sounded so extreme that from the president to congressional offices, people would say `That can’t be right.’ It finally dawned on the rest of the country when SSI recipients got cut-off letters, and we had people committing suicide."

Context for Reauthorization

Many of these issues will be played out again as welfare reform comes up for reauthorization in Congress in 2001. In essence, the PRWORA abolished AFDC and used those funds to create gigantic five-year block grants to the states to run the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs through 2001. Thus, "reauthorization" of that block grant funding will soon be on the table, and the debate will be heating up as the end of the first five years approaches.

The political and economic context defining the parameters of the reauthorization fight is complex. The booming economy has mitigated, for the time being, some of the worst predictions regarding the impact of welfare reform. At the same time, the fact that we probably haven’t yet seen the worst means that the case against welfare reform is more difficult to make.

The presidential race will also be a major factor. It will offer an opportunity for welfare activists to be heard. On the other hand, the dialogue is dominated by Democrats who are desperate to claim credit for the "success" of welfare reform and Republicans who refuse to take a back seat to anyone in promoting forced work.

And then there’s the matter of the stark racial stratification that has evolved from welfare reform. Long perceived inaccurately as a program primarily benefitting people of color–the majority of AFDC recipients were white–the reality of welfare has finally caught up with that myth. After PRWORA, the percentage of white recipients dropped sharply, so that they now comprise less than one-third of the TANF rolls.

Activists, however, are torn about how much to focus on race. Gary Flowers of Rainbow/Push says the organization plans to push for state legislatures to produce "a disparate impact analysis. How did the legislation in ’96 impact people of color and women? Because states now control much of the application of welfare reform, state legislatures need to enact anti-discrimination clauses and increase the comprehensive training of those entities delivering assistance."

Debbie Weinstein of the Children’s Defense Fund thinks that "people are open to the issue of fairness, and when we can demonstrate that people are not getting access in a way that appears to be race-based, that should be of tremendous concern to policy makers." The Committee of 100 developed an "Immodest Proposal" explicitly acknowledging the importance of racial analysis in the debate, stating that "the debate preceding the 1996 welfare law made the color of poverty the fault of the poor. We insist that the color of poverty is the consequence of racism and related forms of discrimination."

According to Rini Chakraborty of the California Immigrant Welfare Coalition, how to fight for policies that address the "particular vulnerabilities of the poorest caregivers, especially women of color," or undocumented immigrants, who "are shut out of everything anyway," are issues that confuse progressive strategists, even those who acknowledge the devastating effect of the right’s racial attack.

Karen Johnson, a national vice president of NOW, says that the disparate racial impact of welfare reform should, but probably won’t, be of much concern to a white, male Congress, where "there’s no sympathy or empathy for people of color or for women." And while activists understand the importance of highlighting racial stratification, there is also a strong desire to deracialize poverty, both to destigmatize people of color and to encourage whites to join the anti-poverty coalition. But activists can’t have it both ways, and are in grave danger of becoming trapped in a political framework that has liberals and conservatives alike seeing race as a narrow and illegitimate "special interest."

Some evidence is emerging that the myth of welfare reform’s success is beginning to erode. A recent national poll conducted for Jobs for the Future reports that only 19 percent approved moving people off welfare into jobs as quickly as possible if the jobs offered little chance of advancement. If people were still in poverty after leaving the welfare rolls, 52 percent would not feel that welfare reform had been a success. And 69 percent said that a family of four needs at least $35,000 a year to make ends meet, which is more than only the tiniest percentage of people leaving welfare will be likely to see for some time. These numbers suggest that the public might be ready to support stronger job supports and removal of time limits that are forcing large numbers of people into poverty. The question is whether activists will be willing to make these argument–and to talk honestly about race.

What’s on the Horizon?

No one thinks we’re likely to win restoration of an entitlement to cash benefits in 2001, but activists do hope for a chance to raise the level of debate. Even maintenance of the 1996 funding level will be very difficult if states still have unspent surpluses gained from declining welfare rolls. Convincing states to use these extra TANF funds to support people in poverty will be crucial to continued federal funding.

Will anyone challenge the "work first" orientation and the related racialized division between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor? The Committee of 100’s Immodest Proposal hones in on this issue and calls for a broadened perspective on women’s poverty: "Our economic system undervalues caregiving work when it is performed in the labor market and penalizes caregivers when they work outside the labor market caring for dependents." Debbie Weinstein says that there will "certainly be some efforts to exempt people who have serious problems [with working], but the major fights will be to count education and training as work requirements, win childcare provisions, and services that are necessary to overcome barriers to work."

National organizations must prepare to mobilize pressure from their constituencies and to challenge the complacency of the Democratic Party, no matter how appalled they are at the thought of George W. Bush in the White House. Patsy Mink says that the "level of activity has to be intense and has to begin now during the presidential campaign."

Vann looks forward to strong national leadership from NAACP President Kwesi Mfume, who was the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1996 when the PRWORA was passed. "It’s important for our president to step out, set the tone, say it’s going to be a huge priority over next five years, and for the Washington bureau to provide message materials and other resources."

The face these organizations present to the world, though, doesn’t suggest they will make welfare a priority any time soon. The NAACP and Rainbow websites, for example, barely mention welfare reform. The NAACP site features its work on racial profiling, economic development, and the representation of blacks and other people of color in the network television lineup. The Rainbow/Push Coalition features its Silicon Valley and Wall Street projects, as well as work on education and criminal justice. Safety net issues, while they appear to be on the legislative agendas of both groups, seem a long way from center stage.

Mink wants feminist groups to "put the same energy into welfare as they put into reproductive rights and violence against women," but is not so sure they will heed her call. Ralph Neas, former executive director of the Leadership Conference, says that the Conference constitutes "a good legislative coalition, but the challenge is making sure that what works well in Washington also works well at the grassroots level, and that there’s more coordination at that level."

Indeed, grassroots organizations could play a key role in the reauthorization debate over the next year, articulating the view from the ground, and helping to press the national organizations and Democratic politicians to take a stronger stand the second time around. Some efforts along these lines are beginning to gel, but whether they will come together in time to have a real impact remains an open question.

Rinku Sen is former co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.