I chuckled, but the quip seemed slightly dated. Two decades ago this month, after all, Hillary Clinton’s husband teamed up with a Republican Congress to implement historic welfare-reform legislation. Around half of the Democrats supported it, along with nearly all of the Republicans. It was a truly bipartisan effort, one that looks otherworldly in today’s political environment.
The reform had flaws, and not everyone got everything they wanted. The food-stamp program was trimmed, while Medicaid coverage for children was expanded. Cash benefits for drug addicts were cut, as were most welfare benefits for noncitizens.
The final product was a compromise, which is how major legislation used to get done. During his 1992 campaign Bill Clinton had pledged to “change welfare as we know it,” and with some nudging from the GOP—which controlled the House and Senate after the 1994 midterm elections—he finally did.
The goal was to preserve the safety net while also reducing dependency and rewarding work. What had been an entitlement—simply giving people cash without expecting anything in return—became a program that stipulated time limits and job requirements. But what works in Wisconsin and Florida might not work in California and Tennessee, so states were given money and freedom to innovate and craft welfare policies to their liking.
In the late-1980s and early ’90s, welfare dependency rose by a third. Polls showed strong public support for reforms that favored work over handouts, but the political left was divided. Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services at the time, urged the president to veto the bill, as he’d done twice before, and several high-ranking HHS officials quit in protest when Mr. Clinton signed it.
Leading Democrats predicted doom. Sen. Pat Moynihan declared that “those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.” Rep. Dick Gephardt said, “more than one million children could be forced into poverty because of this bill.” The New Republic magazine told readers that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be more miserable than ever.”
None of this came to pass. Between 1995 and 2000 welfare rolls declined by 53% nationwide. California, the nation’s most populous state, had 2.7 million welfare recipients in 1995. Five years later the number was 1.5 million, a 44% decline. The majority of welfare recipients are white, but the welfare use rate is higher among blacks, who have more of the female-headed families that characterize most of the welfare population.
So it’s significant that by the end of the 1990s black poverty, black child poverty and poverty in female-headed families had reached their lowest levels ever, while employment rates for single mothers rose. Even today, after two recessions, black poverty and child poverty in the U.S. remain lower than in the early 1990s, the high-water mark for welfare caseloads.
So welfare reform, in the main, succeeded on its own terms. On balance the system is better than it used to be, even if that hasn’t stopped progressives from trying to turn back the clock. States have loosened work requirements, increased exemptions and even broadened the definition of “work” to include merely searching for a job.
The Obama administration eased eligibility requirements for food stamps with predictable results. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of recipients grew by nearly 69% nationwide. Incentives matter. When welfare pays significantly more than an entry-level job, the rational choice is unemployment.
Still, government policy has its limits, and no one knows this better than those who work with the poor. At a Manhattan Institute symposium on welfare reform earlier this year, Bishop Shirley Holloway, who runs a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that helps people recover from alcohol and drug addiction, explained where welfare reform came up short.
“We talked about getting people off of welfare but what we didn’t talk about is changing the . . . mindset that got them on welfare,” she said. “When you talk about somebody who runs into hard times because they got laid off, but they have the foundation to pick themselves back up . . . that’s one thing. But when you talk about generations that have only known welfare. Their mother was on welfare. And their mother was on welfare—now you’re talking about a way of life.” Social policy can’t cure dysfunction, but it can certainly exacerbate it.
Hillary Clinton has tried to distance herself from her husband’s achievements on crime and trade to accommodate a party that has moved further left in the Obama era. So far, however, she’s stood by welfare reform. Bully for her.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).