The final triumph of welfare reform

The Third Way was supposed to end welfare politicking as we knew it, but no one told Republicans

Published September 20, 2013 4:57PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor                                                                                     (AP/Alex Brandon)
Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor (AP/Alex Brandon)

House Republicans voted yesterday to cut $40 billion in funding for SNAP -- the anti-poverty program commonly known as "food stamps" -- because, as Jonathan Chait ably points out, they are dedicated top-down class warriors. Republicans voted to gut SNAP not long after they voted to preserve agriculture subsidies, and indeed to spend more on farmers than bleeding-heart liberal President Barack Obama wants to. Crop subsidies overwhelmingly benefit rich (and white) people. SNAP, not so much. These are the sorts of positions that make "they hate poor people" sound not particularly hyperbolic.

Here are the facts: Participation in SNAP has surged because of the recession and the still ongoing jobs crisis, nearly all food stamps recipients are quite poor, and there is very little "fraud" evident, though there are anecdotal and possibly apocryphal examples of "abuse" that circulate in the conservative media sphere like dirty magazines in an '80s movie about sleep-away camp. SNAP increases when poverty increases, and if conservatives want to shrink the program their best course of action would be to improve the economy, or to improve the way the economy benefits Americans without large investment portfolios.

This happened because "people on food stamps" are not a particularly influential special interest in American politics. For the most part, congressional Republicans represent people who are whiter, older and richer than most Americans, and our creaky old political system gives those Americans disproportionate influence over public policy. But this vote can't even be explained by simple realpolitik, because giving poor people money for food does not actually cause any harm to come to rich people. It is a vote motivated purely by cruelty. In some cases it was cruelty aimed directly at lawmakers' own constituents: 29 percent of households in the district of Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who voted for the cuts, rely on food stamps. People of Kentucky's 5th Congressional District: Hal Rogers hates you and wants you to go hungry.

GOP class warriors argue that this cruelty is a simple continuation of bipartisan thinking on anti-poverty spending:

Indeed, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor describes the new House food stamp bill as an extension of welfare reform.

"This legislation restores the intent of the bipartisan welfare reforms adopted in 1996 to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," Cantor has said. "It also refocuses the program on those who need it most."

This is a stupid comparison that is also brilliant. The reasons it is stupid are obvious: Welfare reform happened in a rapidly growing economy with nearly full employment -- the abundance of (often crappy and low-paying) jobs made it seem totally painless to restrict access to benefits received by the poor and force them into taking whatever work was available. This "reform" is happening in the midst of a prolonged period of mass unemployment, following decades of stagnating wages. People with jobs rely on food stamps to feed themselves.

Here's why it's brilliant, though: Cantor is exactly right to draw a direct line from Bill Clinton's 1990s welfare reform and the modern Republican war on anti-poverty spending. He's highlighting exactly why welfare reform was, from a liberal perspective, totally misguided and doomed to fail from the start. SNAP is massive now in part because Clinton ended welfare as we knew it. If we still provided straight cash transfers, there would be fewer people relying now on money that is only supposed to be used for food (and not rent, healthcare or anything resembling the sort of leisure activities middle-class and rich Americans take for granted). But the point wasn't strictly to wean poor people off the government: Clinton and his Democratic allies made welfare less generous in the hopes that doing so would make Republicans stop fighting to make welfare less generous. How has that worked out?

The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a report in 2006 on the failure of welfare reform as politics, and not as policy. (As policy it was a huge success if you consider the goal to be "getting people off welfare" and a mixed bag if your aim is "provide adequate levels of support for needy people.") These were the Clinton administration arguments for supporting a very conservative reformation of welfare:

Influenced by the arguments David Ellwood advanced in Poor Support, Clinton and his aides originally hoped to bargain for stronger social supports as a condition of imposing stronger work requirements and time limits on welfare receipt. After the Republicans captured Congress (and the reform agenda) in 1994, however, a more sequential political strategy emerged: restrictive behavioral rules passed now would make it easier to gain public support for social benefit expansions in the future. Dick Morris, Bruce Reed, and other centrist Clinton advisors argued that “the welfare restrictions -- time limits and work requirements -- would do more than revamp one discredited program. [They] would help create a political climate more favorable to the needy. Once taxpayers started viewing the poor as workers, not welfare cheats, a more generous era would ensue. Harmful stereotypes would fade. New benefits would flow. Members of minorities, being disproportionately poor, would disproportionately benefit. President Clinton signed welfare reform into federal law in August 1996.

The paper seeks to answer two questions: Whether welfare reform improved public perception of, and support for, government assistance to the poor (it didn't); and whether embracing reform led more people to support Democrats. ("We find no evidence that the Democratic Party benefited from welfare reform," the authors say.) Nothing Morris and Reed predicted came to pass. Democrats gave conservatives a public policy victory and in return they won nothing besides perhaps a short-lived "truce" on the use of explicitly racial "welfare" attacks against Democrats in national campaigns. That truce lasted approximately as long as it took for Democrats to regain the White House. And now Republicans can point to this reform -- a bipartisan reform pushed by a Democratic president! -- as precedence for their proposal to slash spending on poor people even more.

If you want to know why left-leaning Democrats oppose "modest" "reforms" to Social Security and Medicare, look at food stamps and welfare. If you want to know why even a change as "progressive" sounding as "means testing" -- lowering benefits only for richer retirees -- is opposed by liberals, look at food stamps and welfare. Co-opting the conservative line on anti-poverty programs did nothing to halt conservative attacks on anti-poverty programs. Programs aimed strictly at the poorest Americans are always and forever under assault from a Republican Party that still has not dared to cut spending on programs -- like Medicare and crop insurance -- that also benefit the rich. The "Grand Bargain" is always going to accelerate the destruction of the safety net.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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Bill Clinton Food Stamps Poverty Republican Party Snap Welfare Welfare Reform