Welfare Reform is Like Soup

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 11, 2008

Imagine a dinner party for which I hire a caterer who I tell exactly what to cook, give my favorite soup recipe and stand over in the kitchen making sure that they prepare it exactly as I say. When the food comes out and my guest’s spoons go into their mouths, their faces contort, noses scrunch and conversation ends. There’s just way too much salt. I go huffing into the kitchen to yell at my caterer for making the food to salty and return talking about what an incompetent and contrary company I’ve hired. Today’s New York Times reports that Hillary Clinton, who supported her husband in signing 1996 welfare reform legislation and continues to extol its virtues, says she tried to pass legislation as a Senator to remedy some of its failings but was unable to do so because Republicans would not let her. It’s like when I hypothetically yelled at the caterer. Clinton is blaming the Republicans for screwing over poor people while it was she and her husband who were responsible for the job in the first place. Clearly it’s not a perfect analogy, as the Clintons passed welfare reform under great pressure from the right, but its not that far off. And it begs that we have a memory longer than the last 36 hours. Bill Clinton gutted welfare, abandoning scores of poor women and families of color, all with Hillary Clinton’s sometimes active and sometimes tacit support. Making matters worse, the article quotes Barack Obama announcing his support for the Clinton era welfare reforms as well.

“Before welfare reform, you had, in the minds of most Americans, a stark separation between the deserving working poor and the undeserving welfare poor,” Mr. Obama said in an interview. “What welfare reform did was desegregate those two groups. Now, everybody was poor, and everybody had to work.”

But welfare reform actually let poor people languish and it passed with white people’s support. White people’s racist resentment made poor whites act against their own self interest. Obama suggests that the solution to this white resentment about undeserving Black poor people was found in welfare reform by abandoning poor people altogether. Is this what he meant when he talked about ending the racial stalemate in his race speech? Clinton and Obama will need to match their policies to their words when it comes to ending poverty and racial inequity. Welfare reform is a perfect model of what happens if they do not.