“I Agreed That He Should Sign It”

What Hillary Clinton’s contested role in welfare reform tells us about her ideals and her politics.

Hillary Clinton in 1996.

Reuters/Sam Mircovich

This article is part of the series “Welfare Reform: 20 Years Later,” a collaboration between Slate and Marketplace. You can listen to Marketplace’s podcast on welfare, The Uncertain Hourhere.

In the left-wing case against Hillary Clinton for president, a central plank is her support for the 1996 welfare reform bill, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Bill Clinton. “I spoke out against so-called welfare reform,” Bernie Sanders said while campaigning in South Carolina earlier this year, “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.” In her influential essay “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes of how Hillary Clinton “ardently supported” welfare reform. In the new anti-Hillary feminist anthology False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, contributors Frances Fox Piven and Fred Block write that Bill Clinton “took Hillary’s advice” to sign welfare reform, as if he might not have otherwise. 

It’s pretty clear how people got the idea that Hillary Clinton bears substantial responsibility for welfare reform, because Clinton herself boasted of it. “I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage—though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system,” she wrote in her 2003 memoir, Living History. She describes herself as “concerned with the five-year lifetime limit” on cash benefits for welfare recipients stipulated in the law. But she says that, on balance, “this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.”

It seems like an open-and-shut case. Yet as both Clinton’s fiercest critics and rueful supporters should be willing to admit, she is a politician whose words can’t always been taken at face value. Living History was written at a time when conventional wisdom overwhelmingly heralded welfare reform as a success; Clinton had every reason to want to claim part of the credit for it. There’s some evidence, however, that her support for the welfare law was more grudging than depicted in her autobiography and that her role in passing it was virtually nonexistent.

To say this is not to absolve Clinton for supporting the bill, which ended welfare as a federal entitlement, eventually leading to a steep increase in extreme poverty. It’s to shift our understanding of how her cynicism interacted with her idealism in the welfare debate. Clinton has always been torn between her commitment to the welfare of poor women and children—early in her career, she researched the problems faced by migrant workers for then-Sen. Walter Mondale’s Subcommittee on Migrant Labor, then joined Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund—and a belief, born of successive political traumas, that liberalism is an electoral liability. The fight over welfare exemplifies this conflict. It’s a window into the perpetual struggle between Clinton’s ideals and her sense of political expediency—one that we’ll see again should she become president.

Hillary Clinton was deeply involved in governing during her husband’s first term; he famously said that Americans were getting “two for the price of one.” Yet she had very little to do with the details of welfare policymaking. In 2000, R. Kent Weaver, a senior fellow in the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution, wrote a nearly 500-page book titled Ending Welfare as We Know It about the process leading up to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, colloquially known as the welfare reform bill. Hillary Clinton is mentioned in the book all of three times, always as part of the liberal wing of the administration that stood against conservative welfare reform proposals.

That doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton wanted to leave the welfare system—then known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC—the way it was. She was very much a part of the New Democratic movement, which sought to reorient the party away from what the New Democrats saw as an outmoded and electorally damaging form of liberalism. Both Clintons came of age during a time of almost unbroken Republican presidential rule. Both had worked on the George McGovern campaign in 1972 and watched their idealistic, progressive candidate lose every state except Massachusetts to Richard Nixon.

Bill and Hillary Clinton in the early 1970s.

Clinton Presidential Library

“All of Hillary Clinton’s instincts are shaped by that whole arc from the McGovern campaign, which made everybody realize that liberalism can be really politically dangerous,” says Mark Schmitt, director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation. “That whole arc forward into the 2000s was defined by that New Democrat instinct, that you needed to neutralize issues that were really harmful to liberals and Democrats.”

Welfare was high on the list of such issues. It was ferociously unpopular, seen as the work of liberals who coddled freeloaders at the expense of working people. Weaver wrote of one 1995 poll, “By margins of more than seven to one, the public thought that the welfare system caused people to become dependent and stay poor rather than giving them a chance to stand on their own feet.”

With his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” Bill Clinton had hoped to free the Democrats from a political albatross and reform a system that had come to be hated across much of the political spectrum. “Only a few on the ideological fringes of the left retained their unremitting hostility to ‘ending welfare as we know it,’ ” wrote Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles in his 1996 book about welfare reform, Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics.

Melanne Verveer, Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff during the welfare reform debate, remembers Clinton talking about meeting a single mother who worked nights as a waitress and who said she valued the example she was setting for her children, despite her economic struggles. The waitress hadn’t understood why others in her situation didn’t have to hold down jobs. “Certainly the political punching bag was that so many just weren’t willing to work,” says Verveer. 

The Clintons believed that if they could overcome the perception of welfare as a subsidy for the lazy, they could expand other services for the poor. But the reforms Bill Clinton had in mind looked very different from what ultimately passed. His plan bore the heavy influence of Harvard economist David Ellwood, whose 1988 book Poor Support proposed an ambitious suite of programs to help put welfare recipients to work. Ellwood’s version of welfare reform included time limits on cash welfare but also an expanded earned income tax credit, an increased minimum wage, government-provided jobs, universal medical care, and guaranteed child support for single parents. After he was elected, Clinton made Ellwood the co-chair of his Welfare Reform Task Force.

“The Ellwood version of the program had guaranteed jobs, it had a lot of work support, it was very different from the program that Clinton ended up signing into law,” says Kathryn Edin, the Johns Hopkins sociologist and co-author of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. That type of welfare reform, Edin says, “would have avoided most of the pitfalls” of the law that eventually passed.

Welfare reform, however, was not the administration’s first priority. Health care reform was, and Hillary Clinton was in charge of it. In that role, she became the lightning rod for right-wing loathing of her husband’s administration. In their book The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, David Broder and Haynes Johnson describe the fury that greeted the First Lady on a 1994 bus tour to rally support for health care reform. “Hillary Clinton was accustomed to heckling; what she encountered as she spoke at that outdoor rally went far beyond,” they wrote of one Seattle event. Broder and Johnson quote her saying, “I had not seen faces like that since the segregation battles of the ’60s. They had such hatred on their faces.” When she left, the crowd mobbed the car she rode in; she later learned that the Secret Service had confiscated two guns and a knife.

Then–First Lady Hillary Clinton addresses a rally for health care reform in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 16, 1994.


Health care reform would soon go down in flames; Hillary Clinton’s bill never even came up for a vote in Congress. In November 1994, Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, swept both the Senate and, for the first time in 40 years, the House. “Angry White Men: Their votes turn the tide for the GOP,” said a famous USA Today headline. More than anyone else, Democrats blamed Hillary Clinton for the rout. In his biography of Hillary, Carl Bernstein quotes Lawrence O’Donnell, the former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and current MSNBC host: “My view is Hillary Clinton destroyed the Democratic Party.” At a lunch with journalists in 1995, she assumed some of the blame herself: “I regret very much the efforts on healthcare reform were badly misunderstood … and then used politically against the Democrats. So I take responsibility for that and I am very sorry about that.”

The midterms left her personally devastated and politically weakened. Gail Sheehy, another Clinton biographer, quotes Dick Morris, the most mercenary of her advisors, saying that it was the only time he’d seen her “depressed.” “You know, Dick, I’m just so confused, I don’t know what works anymore. I don’t trust my own judgment,” Clinton reportedly said to Morris. “Well, you know you had gone very far left,” he chided her.

After the 1994 midterms, Clinton pulled back from her policymaking role. She stopped attending weekly Wednesday-night White House strategy meetings. In Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. describe a meeting she had with a group of confidants: “She was going to quit the public-policy part of her job, she told them. The co-presidency experience had failed.”

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The momentum on welfare reform shifted to the newly ascendant Gingrich Republicans, who were bandying about a series of punitive ideas for overhauling AFDC. Like Bill Clinton, they supported time limits on cash payments, but without any of the services or job guarantees that Clinton hoped to offer. They also wanted to penalize unmarried childbearing, making welfare unavailable to teen mothers and to mothers who had additional children while receiving assistance. Gingrich promoted the revival of orphanages; indeed, according to Weaver, orphanages briefly dominated the welfare debate, even appearing on the cover of Newsweek. Weaver quotes Hillary Clinton ridiculing the “unbelievable and absurd idea of putting children into orphanages because their mothers couldn’t find jobs.”

Yet in promising to “end welfare as we know it,” Bill Clinton had created a political trap for himself. As Bob Woodward reported, in focus groups, voters told Clinton’s pollsters that ending welfare was the president’s third most important campaign promise, behind only jobs and health care. “Having wholeheartedly condemned the status quo and focused public attention on the behavior of parents rather than the welfare of children, President Clinton would be in the very awkward position of implicitly defending the status quo if he vetoed Republican inspired welfare reform legislation,” Weaver wrote.

Clinton did veto the Republican Congress’ first attempt at welfare reform, part of a reconciliation bill passed in December 1995, due to its cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. He vetoed a second, standalone welfare reform bill, citing its $60 billion in cuts and structural changes to programs including foster care, help for disabled children, legal immigrants, food stamps, and school lunches. Finally, at Bob Dole’s urging, Republicans sent Clinton a bill without Medicaid cuts or other provisions that the Clinton team saw as poison pills. The idea was either to force Clinton to sign it or to make sure that he’d pay a political price in the upcoming election for his veto. He signed it.

“The change in the structure is total,” wrote Peter Edelman, a high-ranking official at the Department of Health and Human Services (and the husband of Hillary Clinton’s mentor, Marian Wright Edelman), who quit the administration in protest. “Previously there was a national definition of eligibility. With some limitations regarding two-parent families, any needy family with children could get help. There were rules about participation in work and training, but anybody who played by the rules could continue to get assistance.” Under the law Clinton signed, a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, replaced AFDC. Whereas welfare had once been a federal entitlement responsive to need, now it was administered as block grants to the states. The total was capped at $16.4 billion and not indexed to inflation. States had enormous latitude in how they spent the money and didn’t have to use it for cash welfare at all. A five-year time limit was put in place, with states free to cut people off much sooner.

Accounts differ on where Hillary Clinton really stood in the debate over the bill. She seems not to have fought it, but nor did she advocate for it. “Later, many commentators speculated (and some reported as fact) that she had urged Bill not to sign the legislation and was angered when he did,” Bernstein writes. “In fact, she accepted the decision as inevitable.” There is no contemporaneous record of her trying to round up votes for its passage, as she claims in Living History. Verveer says that Clinton wasn’t in town for the final meeting at which her husband made his decision to sign the bill.

Schmitt, who was then policy director for Sen. Bill Bradley, a major opponent of the bill, said he was “astonished” when he read Clinton’s claim about whipping votes for welfare reform. “I find that bizarre,” he tells me. After the final welfare bill passed Congress, Schmitt says, Bradley repeatedly asked him if he knew whether Bill Clinton would sign it; had his wife been advocating for it with lawmakers, there would have been no such ambiguity. “There was definitely no indication that there was a certainty one way or the other,” he says. “And certainly, if Clinton had been calling senators, she certainly didn’t call my boss. It’s just a really surprising thing to me.”

It’s certainly possible that Clinton made calls Schmitt didn’t know about, and she may have worked on the bill’s behalf in other ways. But there are reasons she might have overstated her support for welfare reform in Living History. When that book was published, a there was a mainstream consensus that welfare reform had worked. By 1999, child poverty had reached its lowest level in two decades, and black child poverty had reached its lowest level ever. “Welfare reform has been an obvious success, despite some glaring inadequacies in the way the program was put together,” began a 2002 New York Times editorial. That year, according to a Harvard magazine article by Scott Winship and Christopher Jencks, welfare rolls were less than half the size they’d been in 1996, but the poverty rate among female-headed families with children had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent, a historic low. “Welfare reform is now widely viewed as one of the greatest successes of contemporary social policy,” the authors wrote.

It is not viewed that way anymore. “I was wrong,” Jencks told the Washington Post in February. It took time for the full extent of the law’s depredations to become evident. The initial declines in child poverty were made possible by a booming labor market that now seems gone for good. Since then, we’ve seen an economic collapse followed by an anemic recovery. The federal appropriation for welfare has remained unchanged at $16.4 billion, its real value eroded by 20 years of inflation. Worse, much of that money doesn’t actually go to welfare at all. Some states spend their block grants on scholarships, pre-K, or child protective services, among other things.

“A lot of the reason welfare reform went wrong was that it didn’t end up becoming the program it was supposed to become,” Edin says. “It was supposed to do two things. It was supposed to continue to provide a safety net, albeit a temporary one, when families were really in need, and No. 2, the intent was to really provide a springboard to work. Neither of these things happened. It fell apart as a safety net. It’s a disaster.”

Clinton’s policies ended up creating, among the poor, a miniature version of the economic divide in society at large. The working poor, like the waitress mother Verveer mentioned, were generally better off in the wake of Clinton’s administration, thanks to his dramatic 1993 expansion of the earned income tax credit, which in effect provides a subsidy to low-wage, full-time workers. “Bill Clinton can rightly claim the EITC, which is probably the single most important anti-poverty policy of our time,” Edin says. “It really helped the full-time, full-year working poor.”

But in recent years, it’s become clear that those without steady work have suffered tremendously because of welfare reform. Edin, an ethnographer, says that in 2010 she began encountering more and more people with no cash income at all. In 2011, she and her co-author Luke Shaefer published their initial findings about a sharp rise in extreme poverty, which they defined as people living on $2 a day or less, approximately the measure the World Bank uses for poverty in developing countries. “At first, nobody believed us,” she says. The Census Bureau even decided to conduct its own analysis of a data set that Edin and Shaefer used; it got identical results. Among households with children, the prevalence of extreme poverty more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 1.7 percent to 4.3 percent.

* * *

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s role in destroying the safety net that once caught the poorest of the poor, the more urgent question is what she might do to fix it. So far, Edin hasn’t seen much. Clinton has proposed policies that will help many who are struggling, particularly her plan to ensure that families don’t have to spend more than 10 percent of their income on child care. This only helps those who actually have an income, however, or at least the prospect of one.

“I would say the call to action still needs to happen,” Edin says. “We’re just now beginning to recognize that welfare reform really disadvantaged those people at the very bottom, in ways that could be very costly intergenerationally. The conversation is changing but it hasn’t yet changed.”

Hillary Clinton’s history suggests that changing that conversation could lead to a change in policy. She is, for better or worse, extremely responsive to public opinion. When welfare reform passed, there was remarkably little countervailing pressure. In September 1995, Sen. Moynihan, a fierce critic of both the previous welfare system and of the reform that destroyed it, gave a searing speech on the Senate floor about Republican welfare legislation. “Why do we not see the endless parade of petitioners as when health care reform was before us in the last Congress, the lobbyists, the pretend citizen groups, the real citizen groups? None are here,” he said. Then he asked, “Are they are silent because the White House is silent? They should be ashamed. History will shame them.”

History has certainly shamed the Clinton administration. But 20 years later, if advocates for the poor start making noise, it will be hard for Hillary Clinton, running as a champion of women and children, to ignore them.