Bernie is blaming America’s poverty crisis on Hillary—for her husband’s welfare policy

On the attack again.
On the attack again.
Image: Reuters/Brian Synder
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Columbia, South Carolina

In 1996, 1.4 million American children lived in extreme poverty, Bernie Sanders said during a press conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on Wednesday. Now more than 3.5 million do—and those impoverished kids are disproportionately African-American.

The underdog Democratic presidential candidate has a plan to change this. But first, the blame. That, said Sanders, should fall on his competitor, Hillary Clinton, for her support of her husband’s signing of the welfare reform act back in 1996.

“During that period, I spoke out against the so-called ‘welfare reform’ because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless,” said Sanders. “Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform. [She] strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.”

Sanders’ speech also covered his poverty-reduction plans and a recitation of genuinely dire statistics—both of which have long featured prominently in his platform and speeches. Even as Sanders chided the journalists for asking questions that weren’t about poverty, though, he had no new policies to bait their interest. The main reason he wanted reporters’ attention, it seemed, was so they’d write up his new line of attack against Clinton.

Duly noted, Senator. Now, the question: is Sanders’ charge fair? The answer lies within a Russian nesting doll of logic involving the 1996 welfare reform act and Hillary’s support for it.

Trimming America’s social safety net

The legislation Sanders condemned—the catchily-named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—ended welfare programs instituted during the New Deal to help poor families survive. The idea was to encourage poor people to work, cutting off mothers (a.k.a. “welfare queens,” the era’s nasty catchphrase for impoverished single mothers) and other unemployed poor from welfare after five years, while simultaneously shifting them into jobs. The latter was to be achieved through income tax breaks, job training, and for poor families, childcare, so that parents could work while raising children.

Did welfare reform worsen poverty? That depends…

The first doll to crack open is whether poverty actually surged to the degree that Sanders alleged. This one’s tough to answer; what you conclude depends somewhat on the time period you’re looking at.

The sharp rise of children living in extreme poverty that Sanders cited compared 1996 and 2011—a boom year versus a period of recovery from the 2007 housing-financial-crisis double-whammy. That could make the overall trend look worse than it is.

The data presented by Maya Harris, one of Clinton’s senior policy advisers, to challenge that bleak narrative suffers from the inverse problem. During Bill Clinton’s tenure, poverty rates among African-American children fell 25%, while the unemployment rate nearly halved, noted Harris in a statement. The median income of African-American families, she said, rose more than 30% (in 2014 dollars). But Clinton took over when the economy was just inching out of a recession and left the Oval Office after four consecutive years of more than 4% annual growth. So comparing 1992 with 2000 flatters improvements in poverty reduction.

The soundest comparison, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities—a nonpartisan research group sometimes considered left-leaning—comes from looking at poverty rates in 1995, the year before Clinton signed the bill, and those in 2005, the most recent year with comparable economic conditions.

Again, the picture isn’t crisp. By 2005, the safety net had become worse at shielding people from what’s called “deep poverty” (that is, earning an income less than half the federal poverty level), the CBPP found in its recent critique of welfare reform (pdf).

And just as Sanders argued, children were indeed suffering deep poverty at higher rates. The biggest reason, said CBPP, was the loss of cash assistance due to the 1996 reform. Another factor was the new law’s ban on many lawfully resident immigrants receiving public benefits (undocumented workers were already ineligible).

However, while the poorest of the poor struggled even more, the just-plain poor were doing better. Poverty rates among children in working-poor families actually fell in the first decade after welfare reform—from 22.6% in 1995 to 16.7% in 2005.

Blaming Hillary for Bill’s bill

Though maybe not as much as Sanders says, clearly families were hurt. But is it fair to blame Hillary for Bill’s policy? Is it cherry-picking to condemn her for the harm done by a policy that she didn’t exactly pioneer, while dismissing work she actually has led?

The legislation was the third Republican welfare bill to reach Bill Clinton’s desk, and though he had plenty of political capital, vetoing a third such bill risked retaliation. Even then, Hillary didn’t need to endorse it. But she did. (Sanders’ remarks yesterday appear to be drawn almost verbatim from Hillary’s memoir, Living History, in which she says she “worked hard to round up votes” for the bill.)

Sanders declined to mention the other poverty-combating measures Hillary led as First Lady—for instance, spearheading a program providing health care to poor, uninsured children that is still in effect. Plus, said Harris, the welfare reform package included new public benefits—the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, for instance—that are vital to helping support poor families to this day.

“[T]here were shortcomings in the law that Hillary Clinton has long said she would work to address,” she added, “including the five-year lifetime limit [for receiving welfare].”

So did Sanders land a winning blow with his earlier attack? Not really. Maybe a big Hillary takedown wasn’t the goal, though.

Despite Sanders’ unexpected popularity, he’s still a protest candidate—one who’s succeeded wildly, issue after issue, in yanking Clinton further to the left. Each state brings new topics on which to challenge her. South Carolina’s poverty rates are higher than the rest of the nation’s, hurting the African-American community most acutely. (A huge part of the problem is the refusal of the governor, Nikki Haley, to accept federally funded Medicaid, which would provide healthcare to some 340,000 poor South Carolinians—an issue that gets little attention outside of the state.)

And suddenly Quartz and lots of other media are crunching income data and plumbing the annals of welfare history. It’s probably fair to guess that Clinton’s staff, meanwhile, is preparing a counterstrike. That’s a lot more attention being paid to poverty than before Sanders’ speech.