Janine Jackson interviewed Felicia Kornbluh on the 20th anniversary of welfare ‘reform’ for the August 19, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: August 22, 20 years ago, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, designed to end welfare as we know it—which it did.
Looking back, a New York Times “Retro Report” this May treated as novel the recognition that though welfare rolls were reduced in the wake of the Act, poverty was not, that for those who could find jobs, wages were insufficient to lift them from poverty, and that “all too often they had a hard time staying employed when the economy soured.” The piece also says that those using assistance “found themselves…characterized as loafers and cheats”—with no hint of just who was broadcasting such characterizations.
Well, none of this is news to the many who criticized the Act, at the time and ever since. The question is what will we do about it. Those who remember the welfare reform debate remember that it centered on unmarried women with children, overwhelmingly depicted as women of color. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter said that to this group of poor mothers could be traced “every threat to the fabric of this country.” Diane Sawyer said, “To many people, these girls are public enemy No. 1.” Low-income women were and are the target of so-called reform, so if we’re really reconsidering it, shouldn’t we start with them?
Felicia Kornbluh is associate professor of history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Vermont, and president of the faculty union, United Academics. She’s the author of The Battle for Welfare Rights and, with Gwendolyn Mink, of the upcoming Ensuring Poverty: The History and Politics of Welfare Reform. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Felicia Kornbluh.
Felicia Kornbluh: Delighted to be here.
JJ: While candidates don’t usually get very specific, the election season gives us a chance to see where politicians and parties’ priorities lie. So as you watch the current political conversation, thinking about low-income women and particularly single heads of households, what do you see? What’s there for them?
FK: What I see is absence. I don’t know if that’s a thing that one can see. It’s something I perceive in the mainstream political discourse, and then mirrored right back in mainstream media. And, unfortunately, even though in some ways I was very sympathetic, am very sympathetic, to the Bernie Sanders movement, Sanders’ rhetoric and the media who covered him also didn’t really capture it. You know, a class-based politics, a traditional class-based politics, a traditional social democratic politics, doesn’t reach the folks who were most damaged by welfare reform, and it doesn’t reach the real problems.
JJ: You call it the hole in the middle of the doughnut. There’s a way that you can address workplace issues and you can address sexism, sort of, and yet you can still leave what you might call the intersection out.
FK: Yeah, this is the big disappointment that I had over this whole last political season. The week that he announced his candidacy, Bernie Sanders was being kind of beset by the Hillary Clinton people, who were courting all the Democrats in our state, in Vermont. So a lot of Democratic officeholders came out for Hillary right before Sanders was going to announce his candidacy. And Phil Fiermonte, the field director of the Sanders campaign, contacted me as a labor leader, and contacted a lot of other similar folks, about endorsing right away. And the first question I asked was, is he going to talk about welfare reform? And they didn’t answer the question, and I asked again, is he going to talk about welfare reform, and they didn’t answer the question, and that was a little bit emblematic.
And the Hillary Clinton people, they didn’t, I guess, need to ask for my support, so I never had that conversation with them. But I did lobby Hillary when she was in the Senate on this issue, and she refused to meet with our delegation, of feminist academics. And when I said to one of her staff people that we didn’t consider welfare reform to be a feminist act, and if she wanted to call herself a feminist, she had to take some real action on this, they basically slammed the door in my face, they were so angry at me.
I mean, certainly a Trump politics is horrible. But even the two main camps of Democratic politics: on the one hand, kind of social democratic and class-based, Bernie Sanders-y, and the other the Hillary Clinton one, which is sort of gender sensitive and sort of racially sensitive. And there was all that nice, touching stuff at the Democratic National Convention about people whose stories wouldn’t be possible anywhere but America, because they’re African-American and their parents were, you know, working class or whatever; that stuff is all very heartwarming, but it does not reach these issues. It does not talk about systemic, structural, ongoing ways in which our society is generating poverty and inequality, and it’s generating it way more for low-income women of color than it is for anybody else.
JJ: Well, let’s talk about that. And what’s outside this frame, that what we need to do is put people to work and pay them fairly—which no one is against!—but it leaves out certain realities about the relationship between the workforce and the actual economy and people’s actual lives.
FK: Yeah, but we seem to have forgotten, strangely, that our economy and our society are actually generating enormous, enormous wealth right now. The tech economy is generating enormous profit, and that seems likely to go on. The problem is, of course, that that’s not being distributed fairly. There’s no reason that we should be creating jobs where we don’t need to create jobs. What we need to do is recognize that the jobs we have, the industries we have, are highly, highly productive, in the sense that per every worker, they’re producing an enormous amount of stuff and an enormous amount of wealth. That’s fine, but then we just need to move the money around.
And there’s no reason in the world that we can’t as a society say, look, there are some things that people do outside of the conventional labor market that are very socially valuable. You know, raising your kids, that’s very socially valuable. Taking care of your ill and elderly parents, other family members or friends, it’s very socially valuable.
Why should we create a whole nursing home industry, when there are people who would rather do that work for their own kin? Why should we create a childcare industry in which, by the way, the employees are almost always dramatically underpaid and overworked? Why do we create that industry, and demand that people put their kids in childcare, when instead, people would actually be pretty happy, a lot of folks would be pretty happy, to take care of their own children? It’s built out of a very deep social forgetting, and it’s built on racism and sexism.
JJ: And the idea that it’s not noblesse oblige, it’s not that we create this value and then, hey, we’ve got it, perhaps we could distribute it in a way to be generous. It’s really that these people that we’re talking about who reproduce the labor force, as you say, as mothers do, as parents do, contribute to this value that we’re talking about. They contribute to this economy and this productivity.
FK: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And if we go back, not that far back in our history, as Bernie Sanders reminded us in his campaign, in the Eisenhower years, for example, under a Republican president, taxes were dramatically higher than they are today, and then the money was redistributed. Well, a lot of it went to the so-called defense industry, that’s not so great, but it went to a lot of other things as well. And I think the reason was that there was an understanding that our society as a whole, the framework of it, the roads and the bridges and the different kinds of educational opportunities that are paid for at least in part through public sources, that those all contribute to whatever wealth there is.
JJ: Exactly. And when we look back at how we got to where we are, the New York Times says “the political stars aligned” in 1996, and that was what generated this reform act. But we, you and I, have talked about it a year ago as an intentional choice that was made, and we’ve talked about how we have an opportunity, and we need to kind of reopen that moment in which the Democratic Party said, essentially, we’re going to throw certain people under the bus. We’re going to save the party by—people who are incarcerated, people who are on welfare, were sort of set aside consciously. And now, when we talk about that, we say, oh, you know, it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted. But it’s not good enough to kind of whistle past it and say, oh, how can we patch up the holes that were left? We really need to revisit that moment and think about the choice that was made.
FK: Yeah, I think it would be more accurate to describe it as a kind of original sin of the modern Democratic Party. And we have to think, I think simultaneously, about welfare reform; about NAFTA, the trade deal; about the 1994 crime bill; we have to understand all those things as being of a piece. It wasn’t accidental and it wasn’t even just a matter, I think, of short-term political strategy. It was a worldview that was internationalist in a very pro-corporate, pro-business way, and, you know, neoliberalism is a term that’s thrown around a lot, but I think that’s the most accurate way to describe it. It was neoliberal in the sense of being against any kind of protective trade barriers, and in favor of a small state that would throw people on the wellbeing of the labor market. Everybody I know said that it was going to be a disaster, and that’s pretty much the way it’s turned out.
JJ: And that takes me on to another point. This New York Times “Retro Report” described the 1990s as a time of tough-on-crime policies and loosening regulation on banks, and they describe that as ideas that were kind of consensed upon at the time, but that are “now” being attacked nearly daily, now in 2016. That’s bothersome because, of course, many people are not just now questioning crime policy or banking policy, and likewise are not saying, gee, it turns out that cutting welfare and cutting assistance didn’t actually in the long term reduce poverty. We can’t accept this revisionist history of who was for what, and whether we all agreed. I mean, that seems important too.
FK: It’s very important. It’s very important. And I think that’s a media failing. I think it’s a failing of liberal interests groups, too. Like in the labor movement, for example, which I’m part of—labor groups are not willing to go back and say, hey, you know, we support Democrats, but in the ’90s we were fighting with the Democrats about many of these issues. And they’re not willing to withhold their support, they’re not willing to stand up and say, we were betrayed by you guys.
And the same thing for all those nice liberal think tanks in Washington that are all dependent on foundation money, which reduces their ability to really critique things. They had a wide array of opinions about these issues in the ‘90s, about welfare reform and about the rise of the carceral state, as we call it, and about these trade deals.
Now it’s all kind of small bore, like, how can we help states survive in the climate as it exists? How can we find one little tweak here or there, how can we prevent the next depredation from occurring? And we need to go back and open it all up, have some kind of truth and reconciliation encounter about this. Like, it’s not OK, we didn’t agree back then, we fought furiously. You know, my side was defeated, and my side was right.
JJ: Yeah. Well, the New York Times in that piece says that liberals—they call them liberals—thought that welfare reform “presaged misfortune.” And I have trouble with both of those words. “Misfortune,” I think, is an inapt description of hardships that result from conscious policy.
But also “presaged”; it sort of implies that critics were looking at a crystal ball, when in fact they were basing their concerns on social science, on what we knew about what happens when you reduce cash assistance, when you offer assistance in various forms. There was science on that. And the question, I think, is why does one anecdote continue to outweigh a dozen studies? Why does not all of this social science work that’s been done break through?
FK: Well, that’s a good question, and I think to some degree it’s hard; I’m not really sure why. I’ve been reading a lot of recent books on poverty this summer. Matthew Desmond at Harvard has this great book called Evicted, about people who are losing their housing. There’s a slightly older book by the very important sociologist from Berkeley, Loïc Wacquant, about the relationship between welfare policy and incarceration and so-called criminal justice policy.
There is good work out there by very prominent people—like this guy Desmond at Harvard has gotten a lot of attention—and yet it seems to operate in one sphere. There’s a poverty conversation going off in a corner somewhere, and then there’s this other conversation about politics or what’s reasonable to expect from the Democrats or what’s acceptable from a candidate like Hillary Clinton, and those don’t seem to overlap very much.
JJ: I think that’s exactly right. It almost has to do with beats. Because I think of this piece by Eduardo Porter last year at the New York Times, that was “The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor,” and it really was an amassing of social science research on this particular question of how cash assistance is spent, which really gets to a lot of the moralizing arguments. And what he wound up saying was, “evidence has not caught up with the popular belief that welfare reform was a huge success.” And this is a reporter in the New York Times, but still talking about a climate of opinion that is affected by media. So the information is out there, and yet it somehow doesn’t redirect the narrative.
FK: Yeah. And I think thinking about it in terms of poverty—without nuancing it in a careful way, so that we know that we’re really talking about race and gender here—doesn’t help either. When we pretend that there’s some kind of a neutral poverty conversation, that’s not true. There’s a kind of a scrim or a cover of racialized and gendered understanding that is operating here that I think a lot of people are really committed to, whether they realize it or not.
And I think a lot of it also is mainstream media people and some academics, they ask the wrong question, and the question you ask produces certain results. So if the question is, did welfare reform reduce the welfare rolls, then the answer is, yeah, that was what it was designed to do. None of us would have claimed otherwise 20 years ago; we all knew that was going to happen. When you put a whole bunch of strictures in place and you make it difficult for people to access welfare and you make it easy to throw them off the rolls and you create incentives for the states and localities to throw them off, then people get thrown off the rolls, or they leave the rolls because they don’t want to be harassed, and then you reduce the welfare rolls.
If you consider that success, then you’re just kind of stuck in your hamster wheel. We need to ask different questions, and we need to insist that the media and politicians ask different questions.
JJ: And what are those different questions?
FK: Well, we need to talk about people’s wellbeing. We now know from really good data that some people who are in the labor market have done better, not through the magic of the labor market, but because the Clinton administration and subsequent administrations increased the earned income tax credit. So they’re actually—we could call it welfare, actually, or we could call it transfer payments. There actually is money being funneled to the lower end of the waged labor market through the earned income tax credit and other kinds of incentives, and that is making some people less poor. If they have some wage earnings, some labor market earnings, they also are getting an earned income credit, which for some people is more than they’re earning. So we’re subsidizing the low-wage labor market, we’re allowing employers to pay people crappy, crappy wages, and the federal government is helping.
But then, for people who are not in the labor market, we know that what we’re facing now is extreme immiseration, people are just completely falling off the charts. They’re selling their blood, they’re selling their bodies, they’re engaging in petty drug crime. That’s why the numbers of women in jail are going up faster than the numbers of men in jail. That’s why we have women losing their kids to foster care. It is fueling the drug crisis. It is a world of misery. And as a society, we have to take some responsibility for that.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, I’ve heard the idea from folks from the Mobilization for Black Lives and elsewhere, it’s just what you’re just talking about, the idea of keeping our focus on the most vulnerable, those with multiple vulnerabilities, as the hallmarks of change. Because it’s easy to imagine policies that would leave them behind, but work that would uplift them would almost certainly uplift others as well. And there could be something in that for media, talking about life as if, in this case, as if poor women matter.
FK: Right. It’s almost the opposite to the sort of liberal dream of the Bill Clinton era. The liberal dream of the Bill Clinton era was that somehow the Democratic Party could usher in universalistic policies. This was their idea with Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan and Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan, that they would create some kind of universal benefit, class-blind, gender-blind, and that would incidentally, without us having to talk about race and gender, that would incidentally help folks on the bottom. Didn’t turn out that way.
And I think what we’ve learned is that, at least in the United States, we can’t play that way, we have to start the other way around. Reporters have to be willing to ask those questions, citizens have to be willing to ask those questions, like what is happening to people who are on the bottom. And the more—I think it’s absolutely right, the more we raise up their standard of living, the more we make it possible for everybody to survive in a decent way, to balance work and family responsibilities, to have some time for reflection, some time for a decent life, to preserve our health and our wellbeing in a really robust way.
JJ: Felicia Kornbluh’s book is The Battle for Welfare Rights and, forthcoming with Gwendolyn Mink, Ensuring Poverty: The History and Politics of Welfare Reform. Felicia Kornbluh, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
FK: Thank you.