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The Failure of Welfare Reform Is 'Exhibit A' That the Right's Punish-the-Poor Philosophy Doesn't Work

Our welfare reform experiment is little more than a confidence trick in which poor people get shuffled this way and that while their lives remain essentially unchanged.

Fifteen years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton perched at a podium in the White House Rose Garden and signed the bill that would become known as welfare reform. Flanked by three former welfare recipients and looking glazed and smooth as a donut, he swept aside six decades of social welfare policy with a single triangulating stroke of his pen, reversing a course that had been set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. In the process, he handed the law's right-wing backers their first emboldening victory in a far bigger, dirtier, and still raging campaign to unravel the government safety net.

"Today we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton declared, the words "A New Beginning" emblazoned on the podium beneath him in case anyone missed the point. From that moment on, needy families would face a strict five-year lifetime limit for welfare assistance. They would have to comply with stringent work requirements. Handouts would be replaced by a hand up, self-destruction would yield to self-sufficiency, and dependency would give way to the starchy respectability of personal responsibility.

Or, as Clinton promised, "Today we are taking a historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life."

Exactly 15 years later, a handful of welfare recipients gathered in Harlem, just a few blocks from Clinton's post-presidency redoubt, to describe exactly what Bubba's "second chance" has meant for them. They had been brought together by Community Voices Heard, a grassroots group of low-income people forged in the fires of welfare reform, and their stories crisscrossed the spectrum of welfare experiences. They were several women and one man, they were white, black and Latina, they were young and they were older -- and their verdict was as swift and final as a guillotine.

"It's a failure. It's a total failure," said Melissa McClure, a reedy-voiced 50-something with a Louise Brooks bob who successfully managed gift stores before falling on hard times and applying for welfare in early 2007.

"If I had a worst nightmare, this would be it," said Ketny Jean-Francois, a Haitian-born single mother who spent four years in the welfare meat-grinder before managing to land a spot in a nursing program -- against welfare reform rules -- and then a job.

The lone man of the group, Bill, a single 49-year-old with a host of physical and psychological ailments, struggled to find the words before spitting out, "It's definitely not achieving the goals of helping out," he said. "The official line is, 'If you're not working, we want to see you working. If you have children, we want to help you so you [don't] come back.' But if that's really the goal -- no."

Failure. Nightmare. Not achieving its goals. None of these descriptions are part of the official line peddled by welfare reform's sponsors and backers. If you hear anything these days, it's how dramatically welfare caseloads have dropped in the last 15 years -- 57 percent! -- and how salutary it's been for the country. "We renewed the American spirit by emphasizing personal responsibility in place of generational dependency on government," boasted E. Clay Shaw Jr., former Republican congressman and drafter of 1996's welfare reform law, in a recent Politico editorial.

Indeed, far from questioning the law's fundamental merits and efficacy, many Republicans (and a few Democrats) have taken to complaining that the law hasn't gone far enough, that its implementation has been too lax and its lessons not fully adequately exported. "The job is not finished," Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and Ways and Means Committee chairman, said in a statement. "[O]ther programs can and should be reformed to follow suit." And yet, to listen to the people who know welfare reform best, to the "Reformed," the reality of the 1996 law is not only a far cry from the compassionate conservative triumph it's trumpeted to be, it's a crucible for the failures of the stingy, starve-the-beast, punish-the-poor philosophy so in vogue among the Tea Bag brigades.

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