Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Peter Edelman: What Democrats Did to Welfare Is Coming Back to Haunt Them

On this week's "Scheer Intelligence," the former Clinton administration official examines how Americans are still tormented by the specter of President Bill Clinton’s worst domestic policy failure.
Lawyer and former member of the Clinton administration, Peter Edelman.
Lawyer and former member of the Clinton administration, Peter Edelman. [Georgetown University Law]

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A recent piece in the Washington Post titled “Welfare rolls decline during the pandemic despite economic upheaval” delves into one of the biggest domestic policy failures of Bill Clinton’s presidency: the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides financial assistance for the country’s poor. TANF, explains reporter Amy Goldstein, is the reason why when the coronavirus spread and shelter-in-place mandates were issued, causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs at rates comparable to the Great Depression, even less people were able to receive needs-based cash assistance than prior to the pandemic. 

Peter Edelman, a lawyer and former member of the Clinton administration, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss the roots of this issue. The author of several books, including most recently “Not a Crime to Be Poor” and “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America,” famously resigned from the Clinton administration, where he served at the Department of Health and Human Services, precisely because he disagreed with 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA). 

“I wouldn’t have gone to work for [Clinton] in 1993 if I had known that in his second term, he would decide that we needed to end welfare as we know it in a very serious and radical way,” says the Georgetown University law professor. 

PRWORA, Edelman explains, replaced an imperfect welfare system with TANF, a program that eliminated federal oversight of welfare, effectively handing all the power over cash assistance for the poor to individual states. This in turn created a situation in which, as Goldstein reports, in 2020 13 states denied people assistance if they did not search for work–despite the fact it was nigh-on impossible during the pandemic to do so. 

“When Clinton came into the presidency, there were 14 million people who were getting cash assistance,” says Edelman. “Now, after 25 years [of TANF], there are fewer than 2 million people who are getting cash assistance.” 

Edelman, who also worked as an aide to Bobby Kennedy as he was working to address poverty, adds that this huge decline in numbers has nothing to do with need falling, but rather with people in need being unable to access assistance. Since Edelman’s resignation inequality has only skyrocketed to levels neither of the two long standing public intellectuals say they imagined possible. The “Scheer Intelligence” host tells Edelman how his own family depended on the welfare system replaced by TANF when his father lost his job during the Great Depression on the day Scheer was born, and how unjust it is that families today can’t depend on the same. While Edelman points to recent The American Rescue Plan, which expanded the Child Tax Credit for a year, as evidence of progress, both Edelman and Scheer argue that Democrats will need to pass much more drastic, long term reforms–including to the health care system–to begin to undo the damage done since both the Reagan and Clinton eras. Listen to the full discussion as Edelman and Scheer debate what both elected representatives and everyday Americans must do in order to change the broken systems in place.

“When Clinton came into the presidency, there were 14 million people who were getting cash assistance,” says Edelman. “Now, after 25 years [of TANF], there are fewer than 2 million people who are getting cash assistance.”

Edelman, who also worked as an aide to Bobby Kennedy as he was working to address poverty, adds that this huge decline in numbers has nothing to do with need falling, but rather with people in need being unable to access assistance. Since Edelman’s resignation inequality has only skyrocketed to levels neither of the two long standing public intellectuals say they imagined possible. The “Scheer Intelligence” host tells Edelman how his own family depended on the welfare system replaced by TANF when his father lost his job during the Great Depression on the day Scheer was born, and how unjust it is that families today can’t depend on the same. While Edelman points to recent The American Rescue Plan, which expanded the Child Tax Credit for a year, as evidence of progress, both Edelman and Scheer argue that Democrats will need to pass much more drastic, long term reforms–including to the health care system–to begin to undo the damage done since both the Reagan and Clinton eras. Listen to the full discussion as Edelman and Scheer debate what both elected representatives and everyday Americans must do in order to change the broken systems in place.

Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

13 comments

  1. PRWORA – it’s the PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY and WORK OPPORTUNITY Reconciliation Act – this horrible Act, in its offensive title alone, implies the poor are not taking responsibility, further humiliating those in need of cash assistance. The “work opportunity “ was never addressed, except by imposing time limits on cash assistance receipt. After their time limit is reached, they’re out on the street without any jobs that pay a living wage.

  2. The Democratic Party serves two purposes and two purposes only….to follow the dictates of those who rule and to crush anything resembling actual resistance on the left. It appears although they are bumbling living clown caricatures of themselves, they do it quite well.

    What’s that say about the state of the left in America??? Perhaps it’s because there really isn’t any. Just feel good make believe.

  3. Responding to the title of this piece, I offer : “Everything the Democrats did and continue to do to the citizens of this country, have done to subject countries, and certainly, enemy countries (take your pick from the growing list of victim countries over the past ____ years – haunts all of us and all of them, all the time.” I recall Chris Hedges in one of his books calling out this possibility, clearly stating that — if the Dems continued to not be who they claim to be – the People’s Party – that we’d witness daze like these when the likes of La Grande Orange would rise to the top to save the day by his account and Fix Everything – no one but he could do it. Well, it’s not that difficult to see that no clown from either party is coming to our rescue today, tomorrow or ever. Sinkin’ fast. Myths still intact . . . barely.

  4. The “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” was a Republican bill (introduced by John Kasich) that passed by Republican congress (256-170 in the House; 74-24 in the Senate).

    The idea that it was of Democrat doing simply because Clinton chose not to veto it is pure revisionist demagogic nonsense.

  5. “the amerikan liberal wants to preserve the essence of the past while the conservative wants more progress; the European radical wants to hasten the transformation of the future while the European conservative wants to preserve the essence of the past”. Geoffrey Gorer

  6. I strongly favor the welfare state. However, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to provide incentives for people to have children. On the contrary on this overpopulated globe. I get that you can’t revisit the past in which whatever child it is we’re talking about didn’t exist. Needless to say all children need and deserve support. But the newly created grants for children Edelman is talking about should come with at least a verbal qualification of this fact.

  7. Thank you Robert Scheer for your piercing questions here. And I appreciate Edelman’s frankness, too. But I had a very similar internet interchange–the lowest possible interchange with a KS Democratic official–where I kind of pointed out that mere _budgeting_ speeches to people who live in intractable poverty is really mostly insulting and ignores their desperate circumstances. And I got chided for that by someone I actually respect. Ultimately, this goes back to something you touched on early in the interview. We make it so that we scarcely see the people living in poverty among us.

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