Bill Clinton Killed the Myth of the Welfare Queen

tags: Bill Clinton, Welfare Queen, welfare reform

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.

… For the better part of a generation, conservative and right-wing candidates vilified Americans on welfare – the “undeserving,” typically minority poor – in their appeals to their base and the white working class. In 1976, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan introduced the nation to Linda Taylor, a 47-year-old Chicago welfare recipient whom Reagan made infamous as the original “welfare queen.” “If you are a slum dweller,” Reagan claimed in what now seems a very Trump-esque speech, “you can get an apartment with 11‐foot ceilings, with a 20‐foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and play room, and the rent begins at $113.20 and that includes utilities.”

At the time, Reagan’s tough stance on welfare encapsulated the conservative critique of what was wrong with big-government liberalism. And it struck a nerve with a public grown cynical about the Great Society. In 1976, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, 63% of Americans thought the federal government spent “too much” on welfare.  Reagan’s tales of welfare cheats and incompetent bureaucrats – with their wink-and-nod racist subtext – enraged blue-collar and middle-class Americans alike. Welfare reform, which Reagan also championed in California, became a signature issue that helped propel him to national prominence and then to the White House in 1980. It also became a core component of the broader conservative movement, enshrined by Newt Gingrich and his conservative revolutionaries in the 1994 Contract with America. Even today, die-hard Tea Party Republicans continue to lobby to cut benefits to the poor.

Yet Trump – despite his unerring instincts to leave no wedge issue unexplored – has been strikingly silent on welfare and poverty. His appeals for “law and order” in the “hell” of inner cities are no less implicitly racist than Reagan’s warnings of a “permanent culture of poverty.” But America’s poorest women and children – once the target of decades of right-wing vitriol – have largely escaped the crosshairs.

The reason is that welfare simply isn’t the toxic wedge issue it once was – to the benefit of America’s poor. Compared to their decided hostility toward the poor in the 1970s and ‘80s, Americans are now decidedly more sympathetic toward a strong governmental role in fixing poverty. At the same time, the federal government’s role in reducing poverty has grown over time, not shrunk. In fact, the footprint of federal anti-poverty efforts, which now includes broad expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the working poor, food stamps, Medicaid and child care subsidies, is much larger today than in the years when federal spending was a political albatross for progressives. Yet there’s no widespread middle class backlash; no grassroots taxpayer revolt; and no resuscitation of another Contract with America to strip the poor of their benefits.

The credit for these dramatic shifts belongs to former President Bill Clinton and the historic welfare reform legislation he signed in 1996. But it’s an achievement for which Clinton gets far less praise than he deserves….

Read entire article at Washington Monthly

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