World and Nation

Clinton’s Poverty Policy Brings Back Memories of Rift in 1996 Campaign

In the summer of 1996, President Bill Clinton delivered on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Despite howls of protest from some liberals, he signed into law a bill forcing recipients to work and imposing a five-year limit on cash assistance.

As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton supported her husband’s decision, drawing the wrath of old friends from her days as an advocate for poor children. Some accused the Clintons of throwing vulnerable families to the winds in pursuit of centrist votes as Bill Clinton headed into the final stages of his re-election campaign.

Despite the criticism and anxiety from the left, the legislation came to be viewed as one of Bill Clinton’s signature achievements. It won broad bipartisan praise, with some Democrats relieved that it took a politically difficult issue off the table for them, and many liberals came to accept if not embrace it.

Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in an interview that the welfare overhaul had been greatly beneficial in eliminating a divisive force in American politics.

Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., rarely mentions the issue as she battles for the nomination, despite the emphasis she has placed on her experience in her husband’s White House.

But now the issue is back, pulled to the fore by an economy turning down more sharply than at any other time since the welfare changes were imposed. With low-income people especially threatened by a weakening labor market, some advocates for poor families are raising concerns about the adequacy of the remaining social safety net. Clinton is now calling for the establishment of a Cabinet-level position to fight poverty.

As social welfare policy returns to the political debate, it is providing a window into the ways in which Clinton has navigated the legacy of her husband’s administration and the ideological crosscurrents of her party.

In an interview, Clinton acknowledged that “people who are more vulnerable” were going to suffer more than others as the economy turned down. But she put the blame squarely on the Bush administration and the Republicans who controlled Congress until last year. Clinton said they blocked her efforts, and those of other Democrats, to buttress the safety net with increased financing for health insurance for impoverished children, child care for poor working mothers, and food stamps.

Clinton expressed no misgivings about the 1996 legislation, saying that it was a needed — and enormously successful — first step toward making poor families self-sufficient.

“Welfare should have been a temporary way station for people who needed immediate assistance,” she said. “It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work.”

During the presidential campaign, she has faced little challenge on the issue, in large part because Obama has supported the 1996 law.