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By Melinda Henneberger, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Almost 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton made good on his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” some of his oldest friends were beside themselves. The plan, as originally conceived, had been to pump significantly more money into programs designed to move poor single mothers off of assistance and into jobs, which couldn’t be done on the cheap. Yes, Clinton had proposed a strict time limit on benefits, but he had also pledged to “make work pay.” As it turned out, only one of those two things happened.

On August 22, 1996, Clinton proudly signed a Republican bill that pushed recipients out of the program after five years and ended an entitlement in place since the New Deal. “In a sweeping reversal of Federal policy,” The New York Times story on the event began, “President Clinton today ended six decades of guaranteed help to the nation’s poorest children.”

The bill wasn’t the solo handiwork of then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had proposed sending poor children to orphanages. Rather, a Democratic president with political capital to spare was freely approving what many in his party saw as a baldly punitive bill. And Hillary Clinton, who in this early phase of her campaign has made “the-deck-is-stacked” inequality a central focus, was fully in support.

Clinton’s signing of the bill was a source of near-physical pain to someone like Peter Edelman, then Clinton’s assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, who as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy had penned one of the earliest liberal critiques of welfare’s shortcomings, in 1967. RFK’s proposed antidote, however, had been a massive jobs program. Edelman had known Hillary Clinton since 1969, when he had put her in touch with his wife, Marian Wright Edelman, who became her mentor and employer at the anti-poverty organization she had just founded, the Children’s Defense Fund.

After Clinton signed the legislation, Edelman and his Health and Human Services colleague Mary Jo Bane, both of whom had been brought into the administration as advocates of a very different brand of welfare reform, did what few in Washington ever do — they resigned in protest. In an “Open Letter to the President” published in The Washington Post, Marian Wright Edelman called it a “moment of shame” for her old friends and their party.

The Edelmans weren’t the only ones who were alarmed. New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose U.S. Senate seat Hillary Clinton later filled, warned that children would be sleeping on hot-air grates if Clinton signed the bill. The liberal icon Paul Simon, of Illinois, said, “This isn’t welfare reform; it’s welfare denial.”

The pain was all the sharper because the consensus among Clinton’s aides, both those who supported and opposed the bill, was that the move was not politically necessary. Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos told the president that he did not have to sign the bill to be re-elected, but was far enough ahead of GOP nominee Bob Dole that he’d win in November either way.

Two decades later, much of the left feels that Moynihan, Simon, Bane and the Edelmans have been proven right: In the early years, in a strong economy, many single moms did move from welfare to work. “When people think about welfare reform as a success, that’s what they’re talking about,” says LaDonna Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But since 2000, those gains have slipped away, until “now we’re almost back to where we started.”

There’s no question that a smaller percentage of Americans are getting the help they need: In 1996, 68 of every 100 families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today, only 26 of 100 do, and in 10 states, that number is under 10. Because federal aid is no longer guaranteed to anyone living in poverty, states can simply make it harder to qualify for help, and then point to the low number of people they’re serving as a measure of success.

Bruce Reed was the Clinton aide who wrote the phrase “end welfare as we know it” in one of his earliest presidential campaign speeches, and he still believes that the reform worked. “It was one of President Clinton’s proudest achievements,” Reed says, “moving 7 million people out of poverty in those 8 years — 100 times more than Reagan did” during his two terms in office.

Reed’s figures are correct. But digging into the numbers, a more complicated picture emerges. For one thing, 40 percent of those on welfare did not get a job, even in the early years.

“It did increase the work rate among never-married mothers,” says the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins, a Republican who helped write the welfare reform bill, “but that peaked in 2000 and has never gotten back to there because of three recessions.”

What’s more, as Haskins notes, the rate of extreme or deep poverty — defined as living on around $2 a day — has actually increased slightly: “There is a group at the bottom who are not better off. In the old days, they could stay on welfare forever, and now, any mom who does not have the ability to maintain her household and work at the same time is going to have trouble.”

In a campaign focused on both income inequality and the opportunity gap, how Hillary Clinton engages with her husband’s record on poverty and the safety net is liable to become a central question. And both Clintons have already said they’ve changed their minds on other issues that were central to his presidency. They no longer stand by his administration’s record on criminal justice — especially the mandatory sentencing guidelines that filled prisons and hollowed out communities — or on gay rights, which were seen so differently by much of the public two decades ago.

But welfare reform was to the Clinton administration what health care reform is to Obama’s; despite the controversy, it’s always been considered a signature achievement. At the time, there was no discernible daylight between the Clintons on the bill he signed. “I think her views were like his,” says Reed — “that the Republicans were wrong to play politics with extraneous cuts, but that there were good aspects of the welfare reform bill,” including stepped-up child support enforcement, which made it, on balance, something to be proud of. Reed notes that most of the cuts to immigrants’ benefits in the bill were later restored.

In Hillary Clinton’s first memoir, “Living History,” published in 2003, she wrote at some length about the fight over welfare reform. Clinton had vetoed the first two bills that hit his desk, but when the third one passed, she wrote, “I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage — though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system … I was most concerned with the five-year lifetime limit, because it applied whether the economy was up or down, whether jobs were available or not, but I felt, on balance, that this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.”

There were political considerations, of course: “The legislation was far from perfect,” she wrote, “which is where pragmatic politics entered in. It was preferable to sign the measure knowing that a Democratic administration was in place to implement it humanely. If he vetoed welfare reform a third time, Bill would be handing the Republicans a potential political windfall.”

She was nonetheless sorry, she wrote, that “Bill’s decision, and my endorsement of it, outraged some of our most loyal supporters,” including the Edelmans, and “(i)n the painful aftermath, I realized that I had crossed the line from advocate to policy maker. I hadn’t altered my beliefs, but I respectfully disagreed with the convictions and passion of the Edelmans and others who objected to the legislation.”

In the book, Clinton came very close to suggesting that they were naive, and said outright that that kind of purity was easy for people in their position: “As advocates, they were not bound to compromise, and unlike Bill, they didn’t have to negotiate with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole or worry about maintaining a political balance in Congress.”

Engaging with the entwined issues of inequality and poverty will inevitably mean engaging with the consequences of the welfare bill Bill Clinton signed, though she has not done so yet. Asked if she would distance herself from welfare reform as she has from ’90s-era mandatory sentencing, a Clinton campaign spokesman issued this statement: “Hillary Clinton has a long record fighting for everyday Americans and their families, and she is running to make sure all families are not only able to get ahead, but stay ahead. In the coming months she will discuss more details on her approach to addressing children and families living in poverty, including how best to support those families who rely on the safety net of welfare to temporarily keep their families afloat during the hardest of times, as well as other ideas to further strengthen families and help them move forward.”

Many anti-poverty advocates are hopeful that Clinton will address the holes in the safety net head-on, finally repairing the system that she and her husband had a hand in creating: “Welfare reform needs to be revisited,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and a former national co-chair of Catholics for Obama. “I think Hillary needs to stand up and say, ‘My husband and the Republicans in the ’90s really thought they’d put together a package that was going to fix welfare and poverty but didn’t fix either one.’ She needs to call America to the barricades in the struggle against deep poverty.”

Will she? Robert Putnam, whose new book on the inequality of opportunity in America today, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” said Clinton had “used extremely well chosen words, I thought, that kids everywhere should have the same opportunities as her granddaughter.” Speaking that way, he added with a laugh, “emphasized the ‘It Takes a Village,’ and Children’s Defense Fund part of her resume’ — and she has a rich, complicated and not always internally consistent one — but she didn’t just discover this issue yesterday.”

Already, at this early stage in the campaign, Clinton is speaking with more specificity on the subject than her rivals on the right, calling for more support for child care and early childhood education. At Effie O. Ellis Early Learning Center in Chicago last week, she criticized Republicans in Congress for making America “turn its back on our children and working parents.”

Yet even as Clinton talked about fairness, those she called by name were not the have-nots, but members of the middle class: “When we talk about child care, we’re talking about the economy, we’re talking about families, we’re talking about fairness. We’re talking about all the values that we believe are necessary to raise healthy, successful, productive children in society today. … I want you to get ahead and stay ahead. And I want the words ‘middle class’ to mean something again.”

At the same stop, in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, she listened to Lakesia Collins, a single mom of three boys who makes $10 an hour: “It kind of hurts me that I can’t afford things for them, but I’m able to work. It really is shameful for me because I can’t give them what they need because I don’t make enough money.” Work still doesn’t pay, in other words.

Those completely left out of both our safety net and the policy debate so far include older women who have done physical labor all their lives — what do they do after their bodies start to give out? — and mothers who are not disabled enough to qualify for SSI, but are not able enough, for a constellation of reasons, to go straight to work, either. “I’m a true believer in work,” says Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “but our programs are set up as, ‘You do it now or you never do it.'”

Some remedies for inequality that are being discussed, on and off the campaign trail, include raising the minimum wage, extending Earned Income Tax Credits, subsidizing wages and doing more to support job training and job readiness, along with more macro solutions like financial sector reform, rethinking trade agreements and bankruptcy rules, and allowing the government to negotiate health care costs.

Peter Edelman, who supports Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, doesn’t expect her to revisit the ’90s when it comes to welfare reform. But then, he’s been mistaken about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s intentions before — for instance, the month before President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, when Clinton remarked that “You can put wings on a pig, but you can’t make it an eagle.”

“So a bunch of us hear that and think he’s going to veto it,” Edelman remembers, “and that’s what he wants us to think.”

Those arguing for the bill inside the White House back then included Reed, Rahm Emanuel, Mickey Kantor, and Al Gore, while those who opposing it were Donna Shalala, Robert Reich, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes.

The principle concern among those arguing against it was that it ended the legal right to aid. And while the states always set the amount of the benefit, Edelman says that they now they can effectively say, “You look like you could work; go away.”

A lot of states, Reed notes, “have stolen that money — legally — and use it for other things.” In Texas, for example, more than half of the federal welfare dollars support child welfare programs, and some states, according to Pavetti, have even used it for college scholarships. Though it does have to be used for low-income residents, she says, “it all depends where the shortfalls are.”

“There is no welfare in big chunks of the country anymore,” Edelman argues, “and because too many of the Democrats own a piece of it, nobody says it’s a terrible failure, but it is. You want people who can work to work, but we have a deeply damaged safe net.”

More than any presidential election since the civil rights era, this one is likely to focus on those who have fallen through that net. And more than any other contender, Peter Edelman’s old friend Hillary Clinton knows what’s at stake.

Photo: This is a woman no stranger to campaigning. U.S. Embassy via Flickr

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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