Monday, September 23, 2013

The End of "End Welfare as We Know It"

Via Kevin Drum, Rich Lowry printed this golden nugget from a House GOP aide on the House's attempt to decimate the Food Stamp program [emphasis mine]:
... Yesterday the House passed a major reform to our food stamp program that reinstates the workfare programs that we know are good policy, get people off the welfare rolls and would reduce discretionary spending. ...
Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton years will be surprised at this quote, since one of Bill Clinton's signature campaign issues and legislative achievements was to "end welfare as we know it". But when Clinton said "welfare", he was speaking narrowly of modifications to Aid for Families with Dependent Children, an open-ended transfer to poor single mothers so that they could afford to feed and raise their children. In 1996 Clinton signed a bill replacing AFDC with TANF, a program that limits benefits to five years, encourages welfare recipients to search for work, and provides support to poor families via increased social spending on education, transportation, and child care. Using this definition of welfare, "welfare rolls" have continued to declined. No one has attempted to revive AFDC

So what gives? Why is this random house GOP aide going off about reinstating workfare requirements that were never attached to Food Stamps in the first place? Because modern day conservatives, however, have come to consider "welfare" to mean "any transfer of resources to the poor". During the 2009 stimulus debate, conservatives derided the expansion of low-income tax credits as welfare. Today, food stamps fall into the welfare bucket. Who knows what will be rebranded as welfare next week.

In the short run, there were some real tactical benefits to Clinton's approach. Ending AFDC allowed Democrats to refocus the economic justice debate on a broader set of issues affecting the impoverished, working poor, and working class alike. But in the long run Atrios is right. There is no permanent grand bargain. Someone in power has to be willing to persistently advocate for transfers to the poor, or structure programs so that they attract enough middle-class support that they remain sticky.
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