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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Unsung Heroes of 2016

On this last day of 2016, it has become abundantly clear that this year was, for too many citizens across the world, a troubling, tumultuous, and turbulent year. Even the mere utterance of the year evokes melancholy, an understandable reaction in light of nightmarish events like the unanticipated election of madman Donald Trump.

The president-elect has devoted much of his fear-mongering campaign to attacking people with identities different than his: blacks, the LGBT community and their allies, low-income Americans, and women, among others. In seemingly small but selfless ways, these individuals prove President-elect Trump's provocations wrong everyday. That was my experience in 2016 thanks to unsung heroes who, in myriad manners, put me at ease in tense, unfortunate moments that ultimately were resolved thanks to these individuals' dedication.

There was the Philly-hailing Greyhound bus driver who went above and beyond the call of duty in retrieving my phone from a vent I had clumsily allowed it to fall into while on the bus. During this bus trip, it, for some time, did not seem possible that my phone was retrievable as it had fallen into a place where bus passengers all failed to retrieve it despite their best efforts. To my amazement, I found out after the bus trip ended that the driver went out of her way to work with manufacturers, folks who make things work behind the scenes, to utilize unique tools to physically pry my phone out of there. I am immensely grateful for her as she had no obligation to assist me in this endeavor but the kindness of her heart was evident.

There was the Orlando area Best Buy GeekSquad employee who, during Thanksgiving week, worked tirelessly to repair my broken laptop. He offered his personal email address so we can check continually on the progress made and he worked to expedite the mission because he knew we would be leaving within days to go back home. Ultimately, he was able to salvage the data on the hard drive of my laptop despite potential hazards with the motherboard of my laptop. He was a lifesaver in the weeks before my final exams as I had crucial notes from my classes on my laptop. He was uncommonly patient and explained complicated matters in easily comprehensible language thus putting my mind at ease.

There was the Wilkes-Barre area Motorworld employee who just today, upon realizing that my car was fraught with potential issues that I did not realize, was able to provide service to my vehicle's troubles so swiftly that it is already ready for pickup. I am leaving shortly for a New Year's Eve celebration in Philadelphia so the time crunch was agonizing but her diligence was much appreciated. She did not have to be so understanding but for her unusually swift assistance, I am extremely thankful.

Beyond these exceptionally altruistic individuals, there are dozens of other stories of unsung heroes in my travels of 2016 -- people of all walks of life, colors, and creeds who revealed their basic decency in ways that Donald Trump will likely never understand. They uncovered their humanity in small acts of kindness that reflect their character. Often, their work goes unnoticed while their identities are attacked as ignoramuses choose to believe that they do not add any meaningful value to this world. Unlike President-elect Trump, these individuals don't seek glory or fame or riches; it is fathomable that that's why he will never fully understand these peoples' toils and triumphs. In unheralded yet individually impactful acts, these individuals' enduring empathy towards others proves Trump wrong everyday. As such, they are unsung heroes of 2016 who made this difficult year calmer and better.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Case for Hillary Clinton

On November 8, American voters should elect Hillary Clinton, a deeply experienced and solidly liberal candidate, as the first woman president. The specter of Donald Trump, a dangerous demagogue and cavalier charlatan, leading our diverse, democratic country on the world stage should be sufficient reason to vote for Clinton. But beyond the frightening prospect of Trump's hand on the nuclear button, a truly devastating scenario that should scare every American, there is an affirmative case for Clinton that has to be made.

She is prepared, knowledgeable, qualified, intelligent, an incredible listener, and a fiercely productive worker; as such, she exhibits virtually all the hallmark qualities of a capable leader. With regards to her policy positions, she has long been a stalwart domestic policy liberal, particularly on issues that are elemental to the progressive movement: health care, child care, taxes, and even criminal justice.

It is a shame that she has to remind media outlets of this experience but it's true, as she said in January on MSNBC's Morning Joe, that she has a track record of fighting "inequality of all kinds." Dating back to her impressive career as a legal aid lawyer, working in the Children's Defense Fund and overseeing strong funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in the Carter administration, she's demonstrated genuine concern for underprivileged people.

Moving forward, she should be expected to uphold President Obama's core policy achievements, consequential laws and executive actions that have improved the lives of millions. Rightly, she's run proudly on Obama's record of progress. More specifically, she is in favor of ideas that are evidence-based, needed for this moment, and rightfully left of center.

Those proposals include Bernie Sanders' push for debt-free college, particularly salient in this time of high debt; experts have noted that such a policy actually fiscally assist the budget given the vast amounts already spent on various aid programs. Students' own fiscal house would also be in order. That way they can prepare more productively, with less hassle, for their futures, an outcome favorable for the broader economy. Importantly too, unlike her opponent (who called climate change "a hoax"), Clinton is ready to tackle climate change, a problem her record and her calls for further regulation of greenhouse gases make clear she takes seriously.

As if these issues were not enough, Clinton has also demonstrated a commanding prowess of health care policy, a realm she is familiar with in intimate detail. Her suggestions in this arena are laudable too. The Affordable Care Act, a major step forward in insurance reform, would be greatly improved with a government-run public option and more generous subsidies. These ideas would make health insurance more affordable for struggling families and they are ones Clinton has embraced. On immigration, she's also shown a willingness to go further than Obama as she's pledged to build on his protections from deportation for millions thus putting families at ease. On criminal justice reform, she's harkened back to her roots, as someone who went undercover to go after discrimination in education rights, to propose a compelling series of proposals (i.e. severely limiting mandatory minimums) to end mass incarceration.

Lastly, there is the issue of the Supreme Court. Whoever Clinton appoints will, in all certainty, be more progressive minded than whoever Trump puts on the Court. If voters arm Clinton too with a Democratic Senate majority, they can expect to see a justice who is in the mold of great, liberal jurists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- someone who is dedicated to advancing civil rights and rooting out injustices that have harmed our democracy like the Citizens United ruling and the case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Such a justice would see the Constitution as it should be seen: a living, breathing document that must be interpreted in light of our ever changing society.

On the other hand, Clinton's radical opponent, the uniquely awful Donald Trump, sees the world a different way. Electing Trump would be a regressive shock to the system unlike one we've ever seen. He would gut Obama's accomplishments, as he promised recently here in the electorally all-important Philadelphia suburbs, thus sending into financial misery millions of Americans who are now insured, enjoying stronger wages finally after years of stagnation, and protected by the CFPB from the recklessness of institutions like Wells Fargo.

More importantly, Trump would fundamentally reshape and alter the identity of the country. We would no longer be as welcoming to immigrants, we would cease to have any regard for the enriching diversity of our beautiful country, and his very presence as our president would mean to the world that we accepted his brand of bigotry, misogyny, and recklessness in words and deeds. Ultimately, he is, as Clinton and Obama so often say, "temperamentally unfit" for the office, something he's proven again and again with how easily he is angered and how dangerously he asked three times in a one-hour meeting on security why we cannot use nuclear weapons at will.

In the end, this election, in my humble opinion, is a binary choice. Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. Given the impressiveness of Clinton's strong record and the strength of her policy proposals, and the unusual threat to our institutions and norms represented by Donald Trump, voters should pick Clinton for the sake of our country's survival, frankly, as we know it. It's true that Clinton has blemishes on her record.

She's more hawkish than Obama, as demonstrated in her vote for the Iraq war, and her handling of her email on a private server was inexcusable. But she's also shown a willingness to learn from these errors, calling such moves "mistakes," and, as such, she showed an attentiveness to criticism that her opponent would never consider. That key part of it should speak well about how she'll govern as opposed to her rival. Lest I say more? In the end, it is no contest. Vote. The world is watching.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The new Match Game is a very, very good revival. They finally got it right.

Gene Rayburn and the panel in the 1970s.
 Tonight is the fourth episode of the latest revival of Match Game, otherwise known to my friends as my favorite television program of all time. A reincarnation of the popular 1970s game show that lives on in GSN and BUZZR reruns, the classic show is back in full force on the primetime ABC Sunday and Fun Games lineup with Alec Baldwin as host. The results so far have been great in the sense that critics have provided resoundingly strong reviews and the ratings have been quite solid, beating the offerings on other major networks in the same time slot.

(I was even lucky enough to see a taping in person with my great friend Evan Feurstein in New York City. I should also mention that I am especially grateful to my wonderful girlfriend Erin and her parents who made time to watch the premiere episode with me recently when I visited Erin in Atlanta during her summer internship for The Carter Center).

However, when the revival was announced in April, a lot of Match Game fans, myself included, were excited but apprehensive. The nervousness is attributed to the fact that all previous efforts to revive the show disastrously failed. There was the anemic Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour - which barely survived a single season - that felt incredibly forced: a lame effort to fuse two shows that had little to do with each other.

That effort failed in no small part because the Hollywood Squares portion was hosted by Sha-Na-Na's Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, an individual who was simply not cut out to be a game show host. Then there was the short-lived 1990 revival, a noble ABC effort that had its positives, like bringing back Charles Nelson Reilly on the panel, but was plagued by an unfortunate time slot and dry hosting courtesy Ross Shafer. Towards the end of the 90s, an even worse attempt was made in the form of a syndicated version that also suffered from poor hosting skills, a bizarre panel, a low cash prize, unfunny questions, a lackluster set, and terrible time placements.

Alec Baldwin and the panel on the new Match Game.
To be fair, it is a difficult task to revive Match Game and that's because the 70s version was simply so freakin good. The chemistry between energetic host Gene Rayburn, the fun (drunk) celebrities, and the contestants was what made the show so entertaining. It is hard to replicate that unique interaction. But what's also true is that the show pushed the envelope for its time, featuring risque double-entrende fill-in-the-blanks that could be answered with "boobs," "derriere," and "making love," all permitted terms on CBS daytime. As TV's social standards have relaxed over the years, it's become harder to elicit the same shock value and humor.

But where other revivals miserably failed, this Match Game succeeded -- with flying colors. Of course, it still is no match for (no pun intended) the 70s version but it's at least a solid B+ show. For one, Alec Baldwin is a genuinely good host. He skewers contestants, a la Steve Harvey but also a la Rayburn himself, when their answers are bad, and he has a hilarious rapport with the celebrities that is genuine and whimsical.

Speaking of the celebrities, they are solid picks who viewers recognize and are entertained by, like Titus Burgess and Sherri Shepherd and Sutton Foster AND especially the talented Rosie O'Donnell (occupying the Brett Somers seat but replicating Richard Dawson in mastery of the head-to-head match), and these celebrities clearly are drinking a little between tapings so that makes it more enjoyable.

Further, the questions are topical, with figures like Donald Trump and Justin Bieber implicated, so that gives it a sort of Cards Against Humanity feeling that folks enjoy. The questions can also finally actually be answered with words like "penis" and "vagina," disallowed on previous revivals, and that's liberating in a way because it allows for more freewheeling, laugh-out-loud moments. In that way, this version is envelope-pushing in the same kind of way the 70s program was. Another vital update from those prior revivals is that the dollar amount of the top prize is finally at a higher level: $25,000; the 1998 version unthinkably kept the top amount at $5,000 (the same level of the 70s show).

Beyond that, this revival works too because it retained so much of what works from the 70s show like the catchy theme song and think music, the signature skinny microphone, essentially the same vintage set, silly format, and cool logo, and even the same kind of opening. Previous revivals tried to change these things for more modern or different styles and features that were, frankly, not appealing. Don't fix what's not broken!

In fairness to the previous revivals though, this one has succeeded actually partly because a newer, younger generation, including me, are familiar with the 70s Match Game now thanks to its reruns. That wasn't necessarily the case in 1990 and 1998 when previous revivals tried and failed; consequently, there are millions of new fans who are undoubtedly part of the audience of this revival.

Lastly, it is important that they put the show on in primetime on Sundays in the summer: a time when Americans are watching television and want to see something funny and relaxing before they head to bed for the week ahead. It helps too that it is part of a lineup of game shows that include Celebrity Family Feud and The $100,000 Pyramid as viewers stick around from the previous shows at 8 and 9 pm, respectively. As the celebrities and Baldwin become increasingly relaxed and even more comfortable in their roles, this Match Game will continue to succeed.

For more on Match Game, including an in-depth explanation of why previous revivals failed, check out my website. (Thank you to my great friend Jack Cartwright for giving me this website back in 2004 when he set it up for me).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In Defense of the Conventions

Barack Obama first rose to stardom as the 2004 DNC keynoter.
On Monday, MSNBC's Chris Hayes described the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions as "infomercials" for the parties. To some extent, this characterization is apt, as reflected in the feel-good videos Rachel Maddow highlighted from previous conventions. But the conventions are still important even though they no longer play as pivotal of a role as they once did in our presidential elections. In recent years, the conventions have proven highly effectual, unusually revealing, and surprisingly insightful.

The conventions can sometimes be flawed spectacles that are so highly scripted that they are inauthentic in the presentations of the candidates. However, they are generally a vital element of our presidential election campaigns because of how unique they are.

For one, the conventions are actually politically important in determining the trajectory and ultimate outcome of a presidential race. For that reason alone arguably, they are worth at least paying attention to because they could truly decide the fate of the country. That's because, if done right, conventions are pivotal to uniting party loyalists, including partisans across the country. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented in The Gamble, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely praised by for how well it was orchestrated, was pivotal in rallying Democratic voters around President Obama. 

Indeed, Obama, still the most popular president among Democrats in history, won that year the highest percentage of Democratic votes of any nominee ever. Bill Clinton's famously articulate nominating speech, Elizabeth Warren's debut on the national political stage, and the enormously popular Michelle Obama's moving address all helped make that possible. A similar effect helped Al Gore in 2000 narrow a 15-point gap (from the summer of 1999) that dissipated after the DNC to produce a tight race that led to a narrow popular vote win. George W. Bush benefited tremendously from the 2004 Republican National Convention too thanks to a combination of the patriotic backdrop of New York City in the first presidential race after 9/11 and well-organized critiques of John Kerry

On the other hand, conventions could be disastrous, even if inadvertently so, for a party's chances. Mitt Romney famously forgot to mention Afghanistan, John Kerry's "reporting for duty" line was devastatingly used against him, Ted Kennedy's awkward handshake with Jimmy Carter portended party disunity, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention was genuinely a chaotic mess marred by violence. To varying degrees, these events were pivotal because they actually helped shape the election and, in turn, the fate of the nation -- and, contrary to popular belief, the conventions are (as such) historically more important in determining election outcomes than the debates are. 

More importantly, the conventions are actually one of the most substantive events of the cycle. Actually, they can be more substantive than even the debates because, unlike the debates, conventions actually allow for lengthy, detailed and comprehensive speeches that can dive into deep policy discussion. There is no better recent example of this than Bill Clinton's 2012 speech for Barack Obama; he even explained the GOP proposal to block-grant Medicaid

Obama's own 2008 convention acceptance speech proved to be a vital preview of his actual policies. With tens of millions of Americans watching, these speeches can grab viewers' attention in a way debates disallow; there aren't merely quick snippets and mere soundbites, or policy agendas jammed into fast responses, but instead real agenda-setting speeches.

As such, conventions can be objectively good in holding candidates accountable to the words they utter in those important speeches. For example, it was in the 1988 Republican National Convention that George H.W. Bush memorialized his "read my lips" pledge. When he violated this pledge, the videotape from the RNC was a staple of the 1992 Clinton campaign's advertisements attacking Bush. In his 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech, Jimmy Carter cited the promises from his 1976 DNC nomination acceptance speech to make the case regarding his leadership. 

Such speeches are also vital in framing the agenda of a party for the future and, as such, inspiring activists and party leaders to aspire to the words of those addresses in crafting proposals and actual policy. Conservatives today are still motivated by the words of Ronald Reagan's 1980 RNC acceptance speech and liberals are still moved by Mario Cuomo's 1984 DNC speech. Words matter. 

In that way, conventions are revealing but they are also revealing in another important aspect: introducing us to up and coming political stars like Ronald Reagan in 1976, Barack Obama in 2004, and Julian Castro in 2012. Their premieres on the national political stage in the conventions propelled their careers and, naturally, raised public awareness regarding their backgrounds, views, and agendas. 

Ultimately, all of these positive elements of the conventions prove that they are still useful civic events that are, at times, truly informative or at least politically noteworthy. It is a good bet that this year's conventions will prove to be at least the latter...yes, even, the Trump Show of Cleveland in ways we don't fully know yet. Tune in! 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When Trump insists his statements are just "suggestions," don't trust him. Here's why.

Donald Trump famously led the "birther" movement against President Obama.
When George H.W. Bush famously broke his 1988 signature election pledge to not raise taxes, his promise earned its storied place, in the annals of political history, among the legions of politicians' broken campaign vows. It is a well-worn trope of public discourse that presidential candidates routinely break their promises once they're in office.

That discussion is not entirely without merit and there are varying reasons, some more justifiable than others, for that. However, that prevailing public thought obscures the larger picture and that is that presidents - wait for it - typically do, or try to do, what they promised on the campaign trail. This statement might come as a shock to some readers who insist that politicians consistently disappoint them.

But the truth is that the historical evidence suggests that presidents usually seek out to accomplish what they run on, especially their high-profile policy proposals. Last year, Vox published a very compelling read on this exact subject; I was admittedly irked because it echoed what I was trying to say to friends all year but Vox beat me to it. With regards to Bush 41's "read my lips" pledge, Vox rightly noted that that pledge violation was a rarity thus why it's remembered.

The relevance of this pattern for this election cycle is that we, as the American electorate, should take presidential candidates at their word when they say they are going to enact, or attempt to enact, certain policies. Far too often I've heard from Republican voters, who claim they don't support all of Donald Trump's heinous proposals, that Mr. Trump likely won't build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or that he likely won't ban Muslims from entering the U.S. despite his commitment to both of those ideas.

These voters explain their comfort level with their party's presumptive presidential nominee by insisting that the ostensible improbability of the enactment of those policies justifies overlooking them. Trump has fed into this mindset when he reportedly privately told The New York Times editorial board that the wall proposal was merely a starting "negotiating" position and when he more recently said his Muslim ban proposal was "just a suggestion." Not only did he say that the Muslim ban proposal was merely a suggestion but he also insisted that all campaign trail policy proposals, generally, are just that: suggestions and not promises.

Contrary to Trump's latest iterations and contrary to the suggestions of some, more moderate GOP voters, that is a problematic way of looking at the Trump campaign's proposals. Keep in mind that millions of Republican primary voters cast votes for Trump in part because he ran on those ideas; his remarks on Mexicans "bringing crime [and being] rapists" were delivered in his very first speech as a candidate. They define his authoritarianrace-baiting campaign.

A majority of GOP primary voters, in the states where Trump was victorious, support the Muslim ban. These supporters will inevitably hold Trump accountable to these promises if he's elected president. We've seen this pattern before as liberals held President Obama accountable to his signature promises and conservatives held President Reagan accountable to his most significant promises. You can bet that if a President Trump attempts to renege on these campaign ideas, he'll face the wrath of a right-wing base that's eager to see a president stand up for them.

Further, as aforementioned, the historical record suggests a President Trump would follow through on his big-ticket campaign statements because that's what presidents do as they know they'll be judged on whether they abided by their words. That would likely particularly be the case for Trump given that he has famously campaigned against politicians who are "all talk, no action." However, some observers insist that Trump's malleability implies he shouldn't he believed when he says he'll push these policies. But that analysis cuts against the reality that, though Trump is famously flexible, there is at least one component of his persona that's been consistent in his public life: his racism.

To paraphrase The Intercept writer Glenn Greenwald, anyone who's lived in New York City for the last couple decades knows Trump for what he is: an authoritarian. This is a man who engaged in discriminatory housing practices against blacks, took out a full-page newspaper ad for the death penalty against wrongfully convicted black men, wanted to pit blacks vs. whites on The Apprentice, and led the racially tinged birther movement against the first black president -- all before he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. He's not running as a racist only to appease ultra-right voters; he is and always has been a racist. It is fair to say a man with that history, and with other racially coded campaign rhetoric too, would further discriminatory public policy.

Nevertheless, there are those, still, who suggest that there's little cause for concern because a president is limited in power so Trump wouldn't be so dangerous unless he got supposedly unlikely congressional backing. First, if Trump wins, there'll likely be pressure from voters on the GOP congressional leadership to enact his agenda as he's certain to boast of a "mandate."

Second, there is a vast array of executive powers, even in domestic affairs and particularly in immigration (Trump's campaign focus), at hand for Trump to exercise. For precedent, look no further than the fact that Obama has used his executive authority domestically to shield immigrants from deportation, expand overtime pay, and enact sweeping environmental regulations, among other things. Presidents have enormous power and they, naturally, wish to use this power.

In fact, Trump has already pledged to seek the counsel of his friend Rudy Giuliani, no stranger to discriminatory policy, and, together, along with a cadre of other authoritarians, they'll surely use existing presidential power to toughen immigration practices. As such, even if Trump doesn't fully succeed in building a wall or banning Muslims, it's a good bet that he'll, at least, undo the administratively granted deportation relief for DREAMersfurther boost deportation efforts, make it harder to get asylum in the U.S., reverse the progressive executive progress of the Obama Justice Department's civil rights division, and toughen visa acceptances through administrative actions, appointments, and other means. He can do all of that without Congress.

So when Donald Trump says he's merely laying out "suggestions," voters, if they care about preserving our special status as a uniquely welcoming country for immigrants, should be skeptical. If you think America is already great, which it is, and that part of that greatness is our rich history of immigration, you should be skeptical.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Politics, Implementation, and Outcome of Welfare Reform

With welfare reform back in the news, thanks to the Democratic presidential primary, here's a look back at the politics and policy behind the 1996 Clinton-era law. The following is an essay I wrote, on the law, in April 2014 for a GW class on the history of American social welfare:
        When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he passionately pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” In television advertisements and in campaign rallies, Governor Clinton extolled, “welfare must be a second chance, not a way of life.” [1] An astute political observer and learned student of history, Clinton was well aware of the unpopular perceptions of welfare recipients and he devoured wonky, detailed studies of the welfare system. [2]  His appeal for reform was popular enough to aid him in his election victory but he also genuinely believed the welfare system was ineffective, demoralizing, and badly in need of restructuring.
Eventually, after vetoing two versions of welfare reform legislation, President Clinton signed a welfare-to-work law in July 1996 that ended welfare as an entitlement program and created a block-grant program named Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). [3] Nearly two decades later, the outcome of the law is mixed. On the one hand, the law was arguably successful in boosting resources for job training and some assistance for children and, in the short term, reducing welfare rolls while increasing employment. On the other hand, TANF did not provide a sufficient safety net for low-income families in the event of a recession, the law underfunded childcare, and its work requirements, though somewhat flexible, were convoluted for many states.
            President Clinton’s fervent desire to tackle welfare reform arose out of a widespread perception among members of the electorate that welfare encouraged a culture of dependency. It was a concern shared by Clinton, who said at the time of signing the 1996 bill, “a long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency.” [4] A student of public policy and of the history of American domestic social policy, Clinton was well versed in policy proposals such as those offered by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued for an overhaul of the welfare system in the late 1960s because he believed it contributed to the decline of family integration and increased dependency. [5] However, Clinton was also incredibly informed regarding the politics of welfare. It was a lightning rod political issue that aided Ronald Reagan’s ascension to the presidency and the rise of the conservative movement, which capitalized on middle class Americans’ economic insecurity to stoke their fears regarding low-income individuals. Public opinion polling at the time of Reagan’s election in 1980 indicated rising public opposition to liberal government activism. [6] More than a decade later, a month after Republicans regained control of Congress in Clinton’s second year in office, 56 percent of Americans told pollsters “the welfare system does more harm than good because…it discourages work.” [7]
            The political and policy realities heavily weighed on Clinton, a deficit hawk as president who was also concerned about the roughly $14 billion annual cost of AFDC benefits. [8] However, for millions of Americans, welfare as they knew it, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was literally a lifeline. According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis, in 1995, AFDC “lifted 62 percent of children  - 2,210,000 million, in total – out of poverty who otherwise would have been in deep poverty.” [9] Further, a sizable 63 percent of the populace indicated they would only support ending welfare benefits for Americans if they could get “decent jobs” and “job training and education” in the transition. [10] Liberal advocates for the poor, the leaders of the Children’s Defense Fund, and even Senator Moynihan were deeply worried that a Republican Congress was not interested in ensuring that enough children would be protected by the law or that the transition to work – in the form of job training and child care – would have adequate resources. It is partly for these reasons that Clinton vetoed the first two welfare reform bills sent to him by Congress. [11]
Though he favored welfare reform, and deeply disappointed his fellow moderate New Democrats when he did not pursue it in his first two years in office, he desperately wanted to receive a bill he could sign. For some in his administration and even in Clinton’s own thinking, the third bill sent to him was not entirely satisfactory either. [12] That is in large part because it contained a provision banning aid to documented immigrants. Eventually, Clinton though made the judgment that this opportunity was the last, best chance he had to significantly restructure welfare in America – a core priority of his domestic agenda – and his political advisers convincingly persuaded him it would aid his reelection bid. On August 22, 1996, Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), which abolished AFDC and created the new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). [13]
The mission of this new program, as outlined by Clinton, was to transform welfare into “workfare,” a term used by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden in the debate on welfare reform in the Senate floor prior to its passage. [14] Although liberal Democratic members of Congress, such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy, chastised Clinton for ostensibly turning his back on the poor, the president insisted his intentions were pure. [15] From Clinton’s perspective, “welfare is hurting the people it was designed to help.” [16]  Further, according to public policy professor and welfare expert Robert Stoker, there were more specific goals that were part of this change too. “[The idea was to] end dependency on government benefits, encourage self-sufficiency,” Stoker said, “[and to] reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy…[and] encourage the formation of two-parent families,” ideas that arose out of Moynihan’s studies linking welfare to the “disintegration of the family.” [17] Indeed, the law eliminated welfare as an entitlement enforceable in federal court, which is what AFDC was, and transformed it into a more state-based, stricter program. The changes, while significant in that they truly did “end welfare as we know it,” were not radical given that the Reagan administration had set in motion policies that both heightened the work requirement aspect of welfare and led to 42 states, by 1996, establishing waiver programs that weakened the entitlement component of AFDC. [18] Nevertheless, the PROWRA was consequential in that it was a fundamental shift from the assurance of welfare as a federal guarantee to a block-granted, more fiscally conservative program.
At its core, TANF is an assistance and welfare-to-work program that provides block grants (grants that are not terribly restrictive but feature broad aims) to states and in turn, states have wide flexibility to determine the administration of benefits, though their plans must be federally approved. This assistance today is typically on average $400 a month though the amount varies state by state. [19] However, in order to receive such assistance, adult recipients of TANF are required to seek work. Recipients must be engaged in a gainful “work-related activity” within 24 months or less of receiving assistance – or risk losing their benefits – with a lifetime limit of 60 months of benefits being in place. [20] “Under welfare reform,” Molly Ball of The Atlantic explained, “to get their block grants of federal TANF money, states must show that 50 percent of welfare-receiving families – and 90 percent of two-parent families – are involved in work activities.” In this arena, states also were granted significant power as they had the ability to reduce the time limit to below 24 months and could utilize “block grants in any way they wish to accomplish the goals of welfare reform,” as Stoker described it. [21] With regards to the work requirement, though discretion was granted towards states, services like preparations for job interviews, community college classes, and GED programs, in many cases, counted towards this requirement. [22] TANF also incorporated what was deemed the “maintenance of effort requirement.” According to welfare policy expert Mark Greenberg, “[this] requirement [was] that a state must spend at least a specified amount of state funds for benefits and services for members of needy families each year.” The maintenance of effort requirement –financed by what are called “separate state cash assistance programs” – is distinct in that it is separable from TANF funds and thus “not subject to federal work requirements” but integral to the law’s ostensible promise to provide sufficient resources for low-income families. [23]
In terms of the eligibility for receiving TANF, much of the criteria – beyond the aspect of a requirement to look for work or work-related activities – is in the power of a welfare caseworker. However, more broadly, being an “able-bodied poor person with children to support” or being a “poor pregnant woman” generally permits one to receive TANF. Numerous categories of individuals are barred from TANF though, including even documented immigrants who are in the United States for less than five years, convicted drug offenders, and, importantly, “people who refuse to cooperate with child support enforcement.” [24] This latter category is crucial to the law given that one of the welfare reform law’s most critical aims was to crack down on so-called “deadbeat dads," as they were  commonly referred to in the contemporary political lexicon, and to more strictly enforce child support. It is for this reason that the law includes requirements that states determine goals for “reducing illegitimacy,” that unmarried teen high school drop-outs be barred from TANF benefits, that states establish robust child support enforcement mechanisms that mandate that a mother provide the name of the biological father of a child getting benefits, and that funding for childcare be boosted at the outset. [25]
With regards to assisting welfare recipients in seeking and gaining work, the PRWORA repealed the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) Training Program, created in the Family Support Act of 1988, and led to the establishment of Welfare-to-Work Grants, initially authorized in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. [26] These grants, initially estimated at $3 billion, are provided by the U.S. Department of Labor to various community organizations and local entities in municipalities across the country to assist welfare recipients in finding and staying in work. “Competitive grants,” per the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “can be awarded to private industry councils, local governments (i.e. cities and counties), or nonprofit organizations.” [27]As the PRWORA outlines, the work-related activities that TANF recipients must partake in can vary greatly, including efforts to obtain a GED or graduate from community college or skills courses. [28] In fact, the Welfare-to-Work Grants can legally finance a variety of forms of assistance for welfare recipients, including, “publicly funded jobs and other wage subsidies, on-the-job training, job readiness or job placement and education and training services, job vouchers, unpaid community service or work experience programs, and job retention and supportive services, including transportation,” according to the Department of Labor. [29] These federal grants though coexist with a certain degree of discretion for states as states, according to the analysis of Professor Stoker, “can establish conditions and requirements for ‘individual responsibility plans’ linked to TANF assistance.” [30] Further, states can even partner with charitable, religious, and other private sector organizations to aid TANF recipients in becoming part of a community workforce. [31]
Many of these specific components of the PROWRA were not explicit recommendations of President Clinton or the Democratic caucus in Congress though Clinton and many Democrats ultimately embraced the law. Indeed, much of the details of the law were established by the then-Speaker of the House, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich from Georgia. Indeed, it was Gingrich who masterminded basing the law’s block grant formula on the welfare caseload levels for AFDC and JOBS at 1994 levels – the year when “state case workloads hit their peak.” [32] Capping the block grant distribution formula at the highest caseload level was no mistake on the part of this rabid conservative GOP leader. “Gingrich understood he would eventually prevail in the battle to reduce welfare as a proportion of our GDP and as a proportion of our government,” Professor Stoker asserted, “[so] the idea [was] to cap expenditures at that level to get the support of governors to implement the law and to let it all be controlled by inflation.” [33] Therefore, as Stoker noted, “nobody has to ever vote in favor of cutting welfare” and states were thus given block grants that were quite high in monetary value for recipients. [34] However, the caseload cap was lowered to 2005 levels, and work requirements were strengthened, in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, signed into law by President George W. Bush. [35] Four years later, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), an economic stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama, neutered much of Bush’s law and instead created a TANF emergency contingency fund that boosted federal support for the poor. [36]
Prior to Bush and Obama revising the law though, it was Bill Clinton who actually set it into motion. Though Clinton campaigned on reforming the welfare system, the decision on whether to sign or veto the PROWRA was actually not an easy one for him. At one point, while questioning advisers on whether he should give the bill his stamp of approval, President Clinton even said, “this is a decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit.” [37] Given that Clinton’s arch political nemesis in the Republican Party, Speaker Gingrich, took the lead on crafting a welfare reform bill, it was obvious Clinton had misgivings. Even when he announced his intention to sign the bill into law, Clinton acknowledged “serious flaws” in the legislation. [38] The disagreements between Clinton and the GOP were vivid. “Clinton believed overhauling the welfare system…required lots of new money at the outset to help recipients with job training and child care,” author John F. Harris noted, “[but] Republicans resisted this…[leading] Clinton to veto [two] bills labeled welfare reform.” [39] Further, Clinton found the eventual law’s effective ban on documented immigrants receiving welfare as being “unconscionable” and believed the GOP’s inclusion of a “provision to eliminate nutrition supplements for low-income working families” to be “ugly.” [40] It was partly because of this latter provision that Clinton was deeply concerned the final bill was not sufficiently supportive of care for children. “He did not want,” wrote Taylor Branch, who extensively interviewed Clinton over the course of his presidency, “any lasting effect of his presidency to hurt children.” [41] Advisers such as Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and several officials in the Health and Human Services Department, including Peter Edelman, the husband of Children’s Defense Fund head Marian Wright Edelman, strongly urged Clinton against signing the final bill because it would be too painful for poor families. [42]
However, Clinton understood that this law was his final, realistic chance at changing the welfare system the way he promised he would and though he insisted privately he would be safe politically either way, there is no doubt presidential election year politics played some role. [43] In fact, Clinton even told his then-political adviser Dick Morris, “I signed the bill because I trusted you,” after Morris showed Clinton that his lead against Republican nominee Bob Dole, the GOP Senate majority leader who advanced the bill in his chamber, would increase if he signed the bill. [44] Nevertheless, Clinton’s experience and his studies of the welfare system informed his final call to sign PROWRA. “The president’s welfare audiences…pulsed with the…yearning for dignified work,” Taylor Branch wrote, “[and he believed] nobody hated welfare more than the people on it.” [45] Clinton also believed he could potentially overturn the worst parts of the law after his reelection but on whole, he genuinely concluded that the law “balanced work requirements with practical measures to foster opportunity from hardship.” [46] Clinton did not want to “leave the poor to their own devices,” as John Harris describes it, but he thought the final bill would not necessarily do that as he thought it included a sizable amount of financing for job training initiatives. [47] Ultimately, the decision, though politically motivated to some extent given the negative stigma associated with welfare, was the result of much consternation, solicitation of advice, and academic study. Clinton’s core belief that the welfare system “had trapped many recipients in cycles of dependency and failure, robbing them of self-esteem and offering no clear path to self-improvement” – a belief rooted in his experience as governor of Arkansas – meant he could not say no, from his perspective, to welfare reform. [48] The final decision to sign the bill, though politically popular nationally, did not sit well with liberals in Congress, including Clinton allies like New York Congressman Charles Rangel. In fact, Clinton's decision even led to the resignations of three progressive undersecretaries at the Health and Human Services Department, including Peter Edelman. [49]
Clinton though was right that the welfare system was imperfect, at best. For one, there were concerns about the toll that AFDC was taking on the national debt. The president devoted himself to deficit reduction in his first year in office and rode the wave of fiscal responsibility towards eventually balancing the federal budget. A 1994 U.S. Census study warned specifically of AFDC’s budgetary effects. “The country’s funding resources,” the study said, “are not unlimited, and there are many demands on them…[as] assistance programs must compete with all other uses of taxpayers’ funds.” [50] Further, the same exact Census publication, published in the same year Republicans retook control of Congress, specifically made the case for increasing work incentives in welfare. Citing extensive evidence, the study asserted, “both economic theory and empirical research indicate that such programs as AFDC adversely affect the work choices of the eligible population.” [51] “Programs [like] AFDC…must contend with the fact,” the authors of the study wrote, “that economic support has negative incentive effects to the extent that recipients are encouraged to rely on the program and not take steps to become self-supporting.” [52] It was examinations like these, rather than the GOP’s decades-long effort to disgracefully chastise “welfare queens” and stigmatize the poor for laziness, that Clinton trusted. It was not that welfare recipients did not prefer work – various studies and Clinton’s own interactions with them made clear they did – but the system, as it was designed, made it both difficult to find work and too easy to become accustomed to the culture of “dependency.”
Therefore, there were some clear benefits to welfare reform – benefits that were evident within the first few years after it was signed into law. On the one hand, though Professor Stoker is largely critical of the law from a liberal perspective, he credits the welfare reform law as “one of three reasons” why welfare rolls declined and employment increased during the late 1990s. [53] In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, at the time of the 10th anniversary of the law, Clinton heralded the successes of the law. “Welfare rolls have dropped substantially, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million [in 2006],” Clinton penned, “[while the] Welfare to Work Partnership, which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, [led to] 20,000 businesses hir[ing] 1.1 million former welfare recipients.” [54] In making the case for the law, Clinton pointed to reductions in child poverty, larger funding for child care in the form of child support enforcement and even Head Start funding, the Access to Jobs Initiative, “which helped communities create innovative transportation services to enable former welfare recipients…to get to their new jobs,” and the “welfare-to-work tax credit, which provided tax incentives to encourage businesses to hire long-term welfare recipients.” [55] Clinton’s words are backed up by evidence. The National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) found that welfare reform was successful in boosting job growth while reducing welfare caseloads. “The reforms,” the NBER found, “were successful in reducing welfare caseloads…[while] employment rates for low-skilled mothers increased.” [56] The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also concluded that “TANF’s early years witnessed unprecedented declines in the number of families receiving cash assistance – and unprecedented increases in the share of single mothers working, especially those with less than a high school education.” [57] This evidence makes clear that there was some good that resulted from welfare reform. The positive effects of the law arose primarily in the first several years of its implementation. PROWRA reduced welfare rolls, increased employment, and promoted a unique array of flexible educational and job training options and initiatives that helped TANF recipients find work, as extensively aforementioned.
Nevertheless, the years that have passed since the Great Recession have clearly exposed those “serious flaws” with the law that Clinton spoke of when he signed it in 1996. When consulting with his advisers whether or not to sign PROWRA, Clinton received some prescient advice with regards to the downsides of the bill. “Economics adviser Laura Tyson,” wrote Taylor Branch, “mounted a sophisticated defense of welfare on Keynesian grounds…conclud[ing]that welfare, more than other entitlement programs, reacted early to signs of general economic stress with finely calibrated payments that stimulated recovery…[and was a] vital tool against recession” in the event of a financial meltdown. [58] Tyson’s fear that block-granting welfare, thus giving much latitude to states in allocating benefits, would weaken financial support for poor families – thus risking greater poverty for them in the event of an economic crash – came to fruition. “The 1990s reforms,” Bryce Covert wrote in Think Progress in February 2014, “have hampered [welfare] from rising to meet Americans’ needs.” [59]
A significant reason for this is the recession, as Covert concluded when he wrote that the law “failed to keep up with the spike in need form the recession,” pointing to the fact that “the number of unemployed people doubled between 2007 and 2009 but TANF’s rolls only rose by 13 percent, and in some states they actually fell.” [60] In a December 2012 analysis of TANF, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) further asserted, “TANF’s response to the recession demonstrated just how weak a safety net it has become.” [61] “Because TANF reaches so many fewer families AFDC did,” the CBPP wrote as it criticized states for providing levels of funding that were insufficient for the poor, “it provides substantially less protection against poverty and deep poverty.” [62] The study pointed to the fact that in 2011, just 27 percent of families in poverty actually received TANF benefits. [63] Ultimately, as Dylan Matthews noted in a Washington Post analysis, the recession combined with states not providing enough funding amid this economic calamity for low-income individuals meant that “welfare reform led to a huge spike in extreme poverty.” [64] TANF expert Liz Schott accurately described the negative effects of TANF when she told The Atlantic in 2012 that “in the late 90s, the economy was strong and many people [left welfare] for work…[but] when the economy turned down, unemployment rose and people lost jobs…[and] when the big recession came, caseloads only rose a little bit.” [65]
It is because of these reasons that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 included various measures to temporarily boost welfare spending. These provisions are partly ideas from President Obama’s most progressive first-term economic adviser, Christina Romer, who insisted they were necessary because the laws on the books were not sufficient to help the poor in the event of a recession. The fact that ARRA needed to include a TANF emergency contingency fund, an increase in SNAP funding, a promise that the federal government “would pay 80 percent of recession-related costs” for TANF, and a guarantee that states with expanding welfare caseloads would not be punished by the federal government all indicate that TANF was insufficient for poor families. [66] Further, the block granting of childcare, when combined with the work requirement for the parents of impoverished children, resulted in significant underfunding of children’s needs, as their parents sought work, in many states. [67] This conundrum was reflected well in liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s controversial 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, which showed how in his home state of Michigan, where the grant for childcare was rather ungenerous, children would be separated from their parents and sometimes not have a safe place to go without adequate education or day care funding in the state. [68] Lastly, the work requirements in welfare, though expansive in terms of the range of activities that were covered, were confusing for states. In her research and reporting, The Atlantic reporter Molly Ball found that “being counted as working is not as simple as checking one of those boxes; it’s a complicated formula that allows some activities only for a certain number of hours per week, or a certain number of weeks per year.” [69] Restrictions like these led to a torrent of Republican and Democratic governors alike writing to the Bush and Obama administrations urging them to make work requirements more flexible. In the summer of 2012, Obama obliged, as the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued guidance to states that clarified that states could receive waivers to the work requirement as long as they demonstrate that the plans they would put in place instead “would increase…the amount of welfare recipients working.” [70] The fact that a bipartisan consensus of governors rallied around this change before it was enacted, ultimately embraced by the Obama administration, indicates that the definitions of work requirements, especially as it relates to time allotted for work, in the welfare reform law were too constricting. (Ironically, one of the GOP governors who signed one of these aforementioned letters was Massachusetts' Mitt Romney, who, in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, went on to dishonestly portray Obama as "gutting" the welfare law's work requirement.) 
When President Clinton signed welfare reform into law, he did so knowing that there would be both upsides and downsides to such a huge change in American domestic social policy. Indeed, the PROWRA had such a split effect, initially being a big boon to welfare recipients and the economy at large but eventually, because of its block-granting mechanism and failure to foresee the financial crisis, being too restrictive in support for the poor.

[1] The Living Room Candidate – Commercials: Second Chance (Clinton, 1992).
[2] The Survivor, John F. Harris. 2005. Page 233.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Harris, 234.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Age of Reagan – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,
[7] National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. December 30, 1994.
[8] Kids Would Be Victims of AFDC Cut, The Chicago Tribune. Rose, Henry. September 1, 1995.
[9] TANF Weakening as a Safety Net for Poor Families, Danilio Trisi and LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 13, 2012.
[10] Kaiser Family Foundation,
[11] Harris, 233.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] C-SPAN Archives, Senate Floor Debate on Welfare Reform Bill, August 1996. Remarks by Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Delaware.
[15] Ibid.
[16] President Clinton’s Remarks Announcing Intention to Sign the Welfare Reform Bill,
[17] PROWRA: Federal welfare reform. Stoker, Robert P. Spring 2013.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] What Obama Really Did to Welfare Reform, The Atlantic. Ball, Molly. August 2012.; Stoker.
[22] Stoker.
[23] The TANF Maintenance of Effort Requirement, Mark Greenberg. 2002.
[24] Stoker.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Federal Welfare-to-Work Grants: New Opportunities to Create Jobs and Assist Non-Custodial Parents. June 9, 1998.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Stoker.
[29] Department of Labor,
[30] Stoker.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Harris,  238-239.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Harris, 233-34.
[40] The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Branch, Taylor. 2009. Pages 368-70.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.; Harris, 234-249.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Harris, 239.
[45] Branch, 371.
[46] Branch, 368-69.
[47] Harris, 234-36.
[48] Harris, 233-34.
[49] Branch, 371.
[50] The Poverty Measure and AFDC, U.S. Census, 1994.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Stoker.
[54] How We Ended Welfare, Together, The New York Times. Clinton, Bill. August 22, 2006.
[55] Ibid.
[56] The National Bureau of Economic Research: Welfare Reform Has Led to More Work but Less Education.
[57] Policy Basics: An Introduction to TANF – Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Schott, Liz. December 4, 2012.
[58] Branch, 368.
[59] The Failure of Welfare Reform Hits New Records, Think Progress. Covert, Bryce. February 21, 2014.
[60] Ibid.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Ibid.
[64] Fact-checking Bill Clinton on the economy, The Washington Post. Matthews, Dylan. September 6, 2012.
[66] Stoker.
[67] Ibid.
[68] Bowling for Columbine, Moore, Michael. 2002.
[70] Strengthening Welfare Reform, July 2012.