The Tragic End of the Woman Bill Clinton Exploited As Poster Child for Gutting Welfare

News & Politics

We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act—also called "welfare reform"—which was passed by President Clinton working with the Republican-controlled Congress. This welfare reform law changed the terms of federal aid to the poor. Among other things, the law replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The new TANF program placed a strict time limit on how long the federal government will provide assistance to individual poor families and added various work requirements for recipients. The goal was to “end welfare as we know it,” which Clinton campaigned on in 1992.

The law was bitterly resisted by progressives, who argued it was effectively ending a safety net that had existed for poor families since the New Deal era. Several Clinton appointees actually quit the administration over welfare reform's passage.

But the outrage from the left not only failed to stop the passage of the law, it has proved incapable of changing the political culture enough to have the law reversed. In 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton defended and strongly endorsed her husband's welfare reform while on the campaign trail. “Welfare should have been a temporary waystation for people who needed immediate assistance,” she said. “It should not be considered an anti-poverty program. It simply did not work.”

But for one woman, welfare reforms only made things worse. That woman was standing behind President Clinton when he signed the bill into law.

Lillie Harden

It was a hot August day in Washington when President Clinton signed into law his welfare overhaul. Behind him stood some of the politicians you'd expect, including Vice President Al Gore.


But who was that woman over his right shoulder? She was not a member of Congress or a cabinet secretary. She did not take part in drafting the bill. Her name was Lillie Harden, and she was asked by Clinton and Gore to come to the signing ceremony to say a few words.

Clinton met Harden, a 42-year-old mother from Little Rock, Arkansas, during a panel on welfare reform in that state more than a decade before the signing ceremony. She had spent two years getting AFDC benefits before finally getting work at a supermarket. Clinton reportedly asked her what she liked best about being off welfare. She answered, “When my boy goes to school and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer.”

During her speech at the signing ceremony, Harden talked about how her children pushed her to get back to work and how she did job training in Arkansas to get off welfare and into work. “When I got my job my son was so proud of me, but I made a deal with him, I told him, I'm going to work every day and take my work seriously."

She concluded her remarks by saying that Bill Clinton was “the man who started my success and the beginning of my children's future.” On C-SPAN footage, she was identified with the tag “Former Welfare Recipient," which was, after all, her role in the ceremony, to prove to progressive critics that a former welfare mom could go on to be successful and raise children to be successful if only she got a low-wage job instead. Watch Harden's speech:

"I thank you so much for the power of your example, for your family's. And for all of America, thank you very much,” Clinton told her after taking the stage. It was a spectacle the Democrats continued to use to defend their welfare reform plan. During the 1996 presidential debate with Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), Bill Clinton once again mentioned Harden's story:

I still remember a woman that I met 10 years ago who said she wanted to get off welfare so her kids could tell—give an answer when they say, "What does your mother do for a job?" I met that woman again. She's got four kids. One's got a good job; one's studying to be a doctor; one's in technical school; one's an honor student in high school. I want to make more people like that woman, Lillie Harden. So I've got a plan to do it. And it's just beginning.

But as the 1996 election came and went, and welfare reform became law of the land, the political system lost interest in Harden. She was no longer in headlines, and didn't receive invitations to address the press corps in the White House. In 2005, journalist Jason DeParle wrote a book chronicling the struggles of several poor families. In American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare, DeParle followed up with Harden:

In talking about Lillie Harden, Bill Clinton had stressed how much her move from welfare to work would mean to her kids....Harden did have a straight-A daughter who went to college. But the son that Clinton was celebrating was better known for his rap sheet than his grades. Between the time Governor Clinton first told his story and the time President Clinton revived it, the teenage Carlton Harden had already served two years for shooting some students outside a North Little Rock high school. In the past decade, he has been arrested twenty times, for offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to possession of crack cocaine with intent to deliver; he's gone to drug charges twice.

“Oh boy, it almost killed me,” Lillie Harden told me, speaking of her son's problems. “He got out there and act like he don't have no brain.” Harden had a stroke in 2002 and wanted me to ferry a message back to Clinton, asking if he could help her get on Medicaid. She had received it on welfare, but had been rejected now, and she couldn't afford her $450 monthly bill for prescription drugs. More sad than bitter, she said of her work: “It didn't pay off in the end.”

AlterNet sought to interview Harden to see if her condition had improved, and learned that she died in March of last year, at the age of 59. She was living in North Little Rock, Arkansas at the time, a community where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line.

Eliminating the safety net for Lillie Harden did not transform her family the way Clinton boasted. The pride she had in getting a job gave way to the harsh socioeconomic realities of her life. 

The same was true for many others across the country—the loss of government aid did not instantaneously create living wage jobs with benefits, but rather sunk them further into poverty. This was perhaps most obvious during the Great Recession. One of the changes the welfare reform law made was to transform TANF into a block grant of money given to the states. That means that even as unemployment skyrocketed, “because the block grant has never been increased or adjusted for inflation, states received 32 percent less in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars in 2014 than they did in 1997,” according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It's a stark illustration of how President Bill Clinton presided over one of the harshest systematic cuts to the poor of any president.

The Non-Apology Apology Tour

The story of Lillie Harden is one of countless that can be told about damaging legislation that passed under Democratic President Bill Clinton. These harmful legislative moves are likely to dog his wife Hillary, who has endorsed most of them in the past, on the campaign trail.

Like her support for the war in Iraq, Clinton has sought to rhetorically distance herself from her past and that of her husband, without actually apologizing for her role in these debacles. Hillary first did her speech at Columbia University, where she said we need to “end the era of mass incarceration,” though she did not mention her earlier support for the 1994 crime bill that dramatically boosted prison populations.

In her speech this week on immigration, she advocated for a more lenient path than that of her husband, but did not explicitly apologize for anti-immigrant positions in the past, such as rejecting drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

One item that has not appeared on the non-apology apology tour is welfare reform. It remains to be seen whether the tragic tale of Lillie Harden and others like her who were stripped of what little assistance the government provided will shift Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party, rhetorically or in substance.

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