Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform was supposed to move needy families off government handouts and onto a path out of poverty. Twenty years later, how has it turned out?
By the mid-1990s, with record numbers of Americans on welfare, public resentment reached a tipping point. Recipients were stigmatized as lazy ne’er-do-wells feeding at the public trough. Politicians railed against “welfare queens”, the unwed mothers they claimed were gaming the system, having more babies to get more taxpayer cash.
Republicans had been pushing to overhaul welfare for decades, with little success. But in 1996, in a move that outraged liberals, a Democratic president signed into law a bill that “ended welfare as we know it.”
The vision of welfare reform was an optimistic one. The poor would be liberated from dependency on government handouts, so they could enjoy the dignity of work and move from poverty to self-sufficiency. What actually happened is a lesson in good intentions gone awry, and raises questions about whether the politics of poverty have changed much in 20 years.