Are Sanders and Clinton Launching a New Welfare Debate?

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Milwaukee
Time for people in both parties to stop pretending time stopped in 1996 with positions taken on welfare-reform bill.Photo: Win McNamee/2016 Getty Images

Last week, Annie Lowrey made a powerful case for reevaluating the 1996 welfare-reform law in light of a chronically sluggish economy and the rapid rise of Americans living in deep poverty. She was not, however, optimistic that this would become the campaign issue it deserved to be. 

Coincidentally or not, Bernie Sanders suddenly raised the issue on the campaign trail in South Carolina, where (and this is definitely not a coincidence) he’s trying to obtain traction with African-American voters strongly inclined to support Hillary Clinton. Flanked by two black legislators, he contrasted his vote against the 1996 law with her active support (a position that upset some of her oldest friends at the time):

What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country,” Mr. Sanders said. “And, during that period. I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform — strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.”

What Sanders did not say was exactly what he’d do on the subject of cash assistance for poor (and in many cases nonworking) families today. A hint in that direction, however, came in the form of the Clinton campaign’s response to Sanders’s attack:

Maya Harris, a senior policy adviser in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, responded to Mr. Sanders’s criticism by saying under Mr. Clinton’s administration, the black “child-poverty rate fell 25 percent, the unemployment rate was nearly cut in half, and the median income of African-American families increased by more than 30 percent.”

In a statement, Ms. Harris added, “The original intent of welfare reform was to advance this progress, and it was done with a package of reforms.” She cited the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal tax credit for low- and moderate-income working people, job training and child care, “so people would have the tools they needed to find work and take care of their families.”

Ms. Harris went on to explain the welfare reform law’s shortcomings, like the five-year lifetime limit, which she said Mrs. Clinton has pledged she would work to address going forward.

In other words, Clinton is defending the overall anti-poverty record of her husband’s administration while acknowledging that the law replacing Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant and an inflexible time limit needed fixing. So while neither of these responses add up to a renewed debate on welfare policy yet, simply raising the issue is a start.

The issue is not, of course, of interest only to Democrats. The last time welfare policy rose to the level of a presidential-campaign issue was in 2012, when the Romney-Ryan campaign launched ads attacking Obama for a largely imaginary change in the details of what the states were allowed to do with block-grant funds. There wasn’t much mystery about the racial motives involved in this claim that Obama was “gutting welfare reform.” And it was a reminder of why many Democrats hoped the 1996 law had taken the issue off the table.

But even if Democrats fear raising welfare policy again, Republican efforts to extend the philosophy of the 1996 law to other areas of social policy may make the topic unavoidable. Turning Medicaid into a state-run block-grant program is the default drive position of the GOP. And one still-viable Republican presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, has received considerable conservative applause for proposing a block grant to replace federal anti-poverty programs. Showing the negative impact of dumping poor people on the states with inadequate funding and no obstacles to using the money elsewhere is one thing a renewed focus on welfare policy could help people understand. But the first step toward that kind of debate is to stop pretending it’s still 1996 and the only options on the table are a bad status quo and a bad alternative that Democrats never intended to become permanent.