Back in the mid-1980s, the Clintons and a lot of their friends founded something called the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party back to “the center.” Throughout that decade, Ronald Reagan had led the Republicans in demonizing “welfare queens” allegedly ripping off vast sums from the hard-working taxpayers. The evidence for the claim that a non-trivial amount of money was being lost to welfare benefits being paid out to people who simply didn’t want to work was always pretty thin, but it hardly mattered. The racial subtext was powerful and it was thinly disguised, and Reagan’s skillful use of this rhetoric paid off in a big way for the GOP.
When the Democratic Leadership Council, which still claimed to be “socially progressive,” talked about moving “to the center” on economic issues, this is precisely the center they were talking about capturing. Bill Clinton made it explicit in 1992 with his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Unlike quite a few of his other promises, he kept this one, signing away the end of federal welfare requirements in 1996. The impact of this “reform” on millions of desperate people was predictably grim, even for those who did manage to hold onto some kind of benefits so they could keep the heat on and make rent.
(Google “workfare” to see what this often looked like in practice. One of the options Google helpfully offers you when you type that word into the search engine is workfare is a form of slave labor.) With federal requirements abolished, the paltry funds made available for welfare were sent out as bloc grants to the states, where bloody-minded conservative state legislatures could have their way with the programs. In the years since “welfare reform” was passed, the percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty has greatly increased. As Ryan Cooper puts it, “Even after the worst economic crisis in 80 years, TANF has basically ceased to exist in much of the country. Eligibility requirements have gotten so onerous, and benefit levels so miserly, that many poor people haven’t even heard of the program, or think it was abolished.”
So, where was Hillary Clinton in all this? She was an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s initiative, both in her role as an administration advisor and in her many public statements on the matter, including ones that she made after Bill’s Presidency ended and she was elected to the Senate. She called single mothers on benefits “deadbeats” and talked about them over and over again in the most offensively cliched terms, as people who knew nothing but “dependency” and had no inkling of the value of work. So, for example, using Ronald Reagan’s trademark rhetorical technique of a supposedly representative anecdote that sounds authoritative becomes it comes with a proper name, Clinton talked about a former welfare queen named Rhonda Costa. “Rhonda Costa’s daughter came home from school and announced, ‘Mommy, I’m tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing.’ That’s the day Rhonda decided to get off welfare….”
Because it’s just that easy, right? These people are clearly on welfare because they don’t want to work, and any time they decide that they’d like a job, one will fall in their lap. It’s certainly not as if holes on resumes matter, or workfare requirements often prevent welfare recipients from being able to go to job interviews, or “structural unemployment” is a feature of market economies.
Matt Bruenig sums things up nicely:
For lifelong upper class pundits, these statements may not actually cause much feeling inside of them. But, as someone who actually grew up in and adjacent to the class of people being described here, I can tell you that these are really the height of anti-poor slurs. Under Clinton’s estimation, welfare beneficiaries are dignity-lacking dependent deadbeats who are such losers that even their own kids think they are trash. We don’t talk a lot about classism in the US (and frankly I don’t like the term), but that’s what this is. It is the class equivalent of calling women airhead bimbos.
Nor, of course, are the class and gender dimensions of all this entirely unrelated. Not so coincidentally, the picture of an allegedly typical welfare recipient you get from Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on this—the “Rhonda Costa” of her anecdote—is a single mother.
As Bernie Sanders tried to keep the focus of this year’s Democratic debates on economics and his proposals to expand the welfare state, Hillary Clinton changed the subject as often as possible to guns. This is the one issue where the Secretary thought she had an opening to outflank Bernie Sanders on the “left,” on the grounds that Senator Sanders has sometimes been insufficiently enthusiastic about gun control.
It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, the statistics about gun accidents, never mind gun crimes, are pretty grim. On the other hand, the fact that “stop and frisk” started as a program to go after illegal guns should make leftists who harbor concerns about police power and the carceral state think twice about bold new gun regulations are likely to play out. On a normal day, I’m not entirely sure what to think.
Today, after preparing to write this article by reviewing Secretary Clinton’s disgusting rhetoric about welfare mothers and reviewing the facts about workfare, benefit reductions, and the uptick in extreme poverty, I know exactly what to think. Guns should be confiscated from NRA members and redistributed to single mothers who have been kicked off of benefits. Lacking money from the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to help them keep the lights on and buy groceries for their kids, let’s give them the ability to procure groceries by other means.