After her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, few predicted that Hillary Clinton would leave the world of presidential politics. On the contrary, it was widely believed that she would make another run for the White House.
Anticipating such a run, the renowned political scientist and activist Frances Fox Piven, along with sociologist Fred Block, penned an open letter calling on Clinton, who had just left the State Department, to “step forward” and “launch a national debate about poverty and welfare.”
“Specifically,” Piven and Block wrote, “we are asking for you to open a conversation about the shortcomings of the 1996 welfare legislation that was passed when you and Bill Clinton were in the White House.”
The letter was not unprovoked: In the years immediately following welfare reform’s implementation, Hillary Clinton was an ardent defender of its underlying logic, arguing that it was a “critical first step” in the broader move toward a more effective system.
And Clinton’s defenses of the law didn’t cease even as evidence of its harmful effects became increasingly prominent. Indeed, in 2008, the New York Times reported that, in an interview, “Clinton expressed no misgivings about the 1996 legislation.”
In 2016, circumstances changed. Faced with a primary opponent running far to her left, Clinton shifted: “Now we have to take a hard look at” welfare reform, Clinton said in April, citing the entirely predictable failure of the now almost non-existent safety net to catch those harmed by the financial crisis.
Fast-forward several months, however, and the issue has all but vanished from the scene; no such “hard look” appears to be forthcoming.
Welfare reform’s absence was especially conspicuous in Clinton’s recent Times op-ed, in which she outlined her “plan for helping America’s poor.”
Clinton highlighted her tenure as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she was mentored by Marian Wright Edelman, the organization’s founder. But the issue that prompted a rather bitter split between the two was left unmentioned.
Prior to its passage, welfare reform garnered striking bipartisan support. But dissent was there, and it was forceful. Edelman’s voice was among the most powerful, the most insistent, and, to those reading her words today, the most prescient.
“It would be wrong to leave millions of voteless, voiceless children to the vagaries of 50 state bureaucracies and politics, as both the Senate and House bills will do,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “It would be wrong to strip children of or weaken current ensured help for their daily survival and during economic recessions and natural disasters, as both the Senate and House bills will do. It would be wrong to exacerbate rather than alleviate the current shameful and epidemic child poverty that no decent, rich nation should tolerate for even one child.”
Her pleas fell upon deaf ears; welfare reform passed and was implemented, and its successes in booting millions off of “the dole” and diverting money away from poor families and into the coffers of state governments—which were given tremendous latitude in how they could spend the money — were cheered by Democrats and Republicans alike.
But for the most vulnerable, there was little to celebrate.
Some found work, largely in low-wage jobs; those who didn’t, or couldn’t, slipped into deep poverty. The research of Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, noted the Washington Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund in February, “shows that the number of people living on $2 a day or less in cash has increased more than twofold, to 1.6 million households” since welfare reform’s passage.
The impact on children has been profound. “Under TANF,” a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, “the number of children living in deep poverty—with incomes below half the poverty line, using a comprehensive poverty measure—has risen significantly, placing large numbers of children at risk for long-term negative academic, employment, and health outcomes.”
It is significant that Hillary Clinton has consistently downplayed this reality. In her Times piece, she acknowledges in passing that “extreme poverty has increased,” but she does little to explain how such destitution arose in the world’s wealthiest nation.
And, as Ryan Cooper explains, while many of the proposals Clinton puts forward are welcome and necessary—from her emphasis on affordable housing to her support for paid family and medical leave — her plan taken as a whole is “woefully inadequate.”
“The problem, at root, is the same one Paul Ryan has with his various anti-poverty ideas—a wildly disproportionate focus on work, and a corresponding lack of attention to the welfare policies that could seriously cut poverty,” Cooper argues.
Citing the research of Matt Bruenig, Cooper writes that Clinton’s work-centric approach would do little to alleviate poverty because a “huge majority of poor people are not employable.”
Bruenig calls this large group “the CEDS bloc“: It consists of children, the elderly, those with disabilities, and students. And, Bruenig notes, “no matter which common poverty measure you use,” 60 to 65 percent of the poor fall in one of these four categories. Add to that the 20 percent represented by “carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment during the year,” and you have a picture of poverty that is entirely different than that painted by the nation’s two major political parties.
“So, all together,” Bruenig concludes, “the CEDS bloc plus carers and those who faced a spell of involuntarily unemployment make up around 80-85% of the poor in any given year.”
Given this context, Clinton’s assertion that “The best way to help families lift themselves out of poverty is to make it easier to find good-paying jobs” is, at best, disconnected, both from the lived experience of impoverished families and from statistical realities. Cooper notes that, of course, “more and better-paying jobs are a great policy objective, but it will have little purchase on the problem of poverty.”
That work is nonetheless at the center of Clinton’s anti-poverty strategy—as opposed to, say, the most effective approach to reducing poverty—is indicative of the ideological limitations not just of Hillary Clinton’s agenda, but of the Democratic Party more broadly. It is not merely, to use Adolph Reed’s phrase, an “atrophy of political imagination” that imposes such strictures; it is also the party’s active commitments, both to its donor base and to dominant economic and political ideas.
Perhaps the most apt description of the party’s ethos comes from former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips, who once remarked that the Democratic Party is “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
“They do not interfere with capitalist momentum,” he added, “but wait for excesses and the inevitable popular reaction.”
Far from defying this tradition—one that consolidated power during the administration of Bill Clinton—Hillary Clinton is advancing it, embracing a political status quo in which big money dominates and celebrating the relationship between America’s dominant institutions and the nation’s economic direction.
“Hillary Clinton is a capitalist,” Emmett Rensin summarizes, “and even within a capitalist party, she is in both perception and in practice unusually comfortable with capitalism’s worst practices.”
Often characterized as clear-headed pragmatism, Clinton’s approach to poverty lays bare the deep conservatism of the party that claims for itself, despite contradictory evidence, the label “progressive.” But such conservatism is not surprising if one considers the significant changes that have taken place within the party over the last several decades.
Thomas Frank has documented the extent to which the Democratic Party has come to consist of professionals and technocrats, and this is reflected in voting patterns: As Lee Drutman has noted, as Democrats have moved rightward, theirs has increasingly become “the preferred party of the very wealthy.”
Hillary Clinton’s embrace of the anti-Trump members of the billionaire class provides only a superficial marker of this shift; the most consequential shifts have taken place just below this surface.
Clinton’s party, Thomas Edsall has observed, is largely made up of an “unruly coalition“: “upscale well-educated whites and, importantly, ethnic and racial minorities, many of them low income.”
If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that the interests of the wealthy almost always win out.
As such, Edsall concludes, “Instead of serving as the political arm of working and middle class voters seeking to move up the ladder, the Democratic Party faces the prospect of becoming the party of the winners, in collaboration with many of those in the top 20 percent who are determined to protect and secure their economic and social status.”
A party committed to securing the privileges of elite sectors of society cannot also push the aggressive (but remarkably simple) measures necessary to eradicate poverty; the party of Goldman Sachs, the party of ultra-rich professionals, and the party of oil lobbyists cannot also be the party of the poor.
In 2009, Peter Edelman—the husband of Marian Wright Edelman—and Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a scathing critique of the new anti-poverty discourse, whose adherents “consider poverty a voluntary condition, one curable with a quick kick in the pants and the opportunity to work for minimum wage.”
This view persists in the present, on both sides of the political aisle; it is, in effect, a way of omitting the systemic causes of destitution, invoking in their place a critique not of capitalism, but of those victimized by it.
If we are to wage a successful war on poverty, we cannot, in the words of Mathew Snow, “accept capital’s terms for addressing its own problems or purported moral imperatives that presuppose them. We can [we must] overturn those terms completely.”