Democrats’ destruction of America’s welfare system is coming back to haunt them

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Lawyer and former member of the Clinton administration, Peter Edelman. Photo by Georgetown University Law.

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 nyon 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.



Joshua Scheer