It's both strangely fitting and disturbing that there's a Clinton running for president this year. After all, we're 20 years out from Bill Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a.k.a., the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Back then, President Clinton adopted a "third way" style of campaigning in which the Democrats signaled clearly that the correct path between the New Deal Democrats and Big Tent Republicans was to actually swing to the right of the GOP, at least for a while. This approach involved the promise to "end welfare as we know it" and, by golly, the good old boy from Arkansas did exactly that.
Unfortunately, the huge flaw in the Clinton plan was that there wasn't anything in place to replace welfare. Clinton's welfare reform came two years after the passage of NAFTA, and some 15 years after Reagan entered office with a hammer aimed at the heads of trade and industrial unionism in this country. So, while it sounds nice — to some people, anyway — to say that people would move from welfare to work under Clinton's plan, the work they were moving to, at least those getting work, probably wasn't any better than the assistance they'd been getting from the government in the first place.
If you're wondering why all of this matters in the here and now, it's because we are still seeing Clinton's asinine "third way" policies continue to play out today. This past Friday, changes to South Carolina's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) took effect, and those changes will effectively end food benefits to some 60,000 adults in the state. Nationwide, these changes could affect between 500,000 and 1 million people in all.
The rationale for this change is that things are getting better. Unemployment is down, at least according to the somewhat sketchy way the government tracks unemployment. South Carolina, as we all know, is practically booming with jobs these days, including many jobs that had previously left the country over the last 20 or 30 years. If you're happy that those jobs are returning, you should remember that they left the country in the first place because American capitalists decided it was cheaper to ship goods and materials halfway across the world than pay their fellow Americans a living wage.
The fact that these jobs are returning to America isn't a cause for celebration — it should be a wake-up call that wages in this country are now so depressed, and unions so defeated, that it now makes economic sense for the business owners to bring those jobs back here. The return of jobs to America isn't about patriotism; if it was, the jobs would have never left. It's a business decision, pure and simple.
Meanwhile, it's very strange that since things are getting better some people have made the logical jump that it's time to cut benefits for the people for whom things are clearly not getting any better. One might think that if things were really getting better and more people were employed and businesses were making money, that tax revenues could easily continue to assist those at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder. Instead, we keep getting more of the same "the jobs are out there" nonsense that ignores a wide range of issues ranging from systemic problems (it's harder to find a job if you're an older worker or have been out of work for more than a few months) to personal ones (some people, believe it or not, have a wide range of mental, physical, or emotional problems that make it difficult to hold down a job). Moreover, the jobs that are there pay less and require more of the people who have them.
For conservatives and liberals alike, the promise of welfare reform has always been about winning the votes of people who are blissfully unaware of how much support they receive from the government by pinning their problems on people underneath them. It's been a stunningly successful experiment in class war, without a doubt executed by both parties for the last 40 years. Sadly, it is probably going to take more than just one New Deal Democrat running against a solidly right-of-center Democrat who championed her husband's destructive policies 20 years ago and continues to take money and advice from the only people who those policies helped.