SOCIAL PROGRAMS : Clinton’s Welfare Reforms Shaped by Predecessors’ Frustrated Efforts : The President’s plan shares similarities with other attempts. But it differs in ways that reflect changing attitudes.

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Richard Nixon promised “total welfare reform--the transformation of a system frozen in failure.” Jimmy Carter asked Congress “to abolish our existing welfare system.” Ronald Reagan called for “real and lasting emancipation” from welfare.

Now comes Bill Clinton, who will release a reform plan in Kansas City today that is intended to redeem his promise “to end welfare as we know it.”

Like his predecessors’, Clinton’s plan begins with the assumption that the welfare system has failed both the taxpaying public and those it is intended to help. But, in both its ambitions and its modesty, Clinton’s plan has been shaped by the frustrations that these earlier reform efforts left behind.


The most ambitious aspects of Clinton’s plan attempt to distill into social policy a widening public consensus around both the importance of work and the urgency of reversing the growing trend toward out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families. In the plan, Clinton will require even the mothers of very young children to accept work after two years on the rolls, and launch several controversial initiatives to discourage illegitimacy--ideas almost entirely absent in the earlier reform efforts.

“The times have changed and today’s debate reflects the changed times,” says Richard P. Nathan, who directed Nixon’s welfare reform effort. “The centrist Democrats today are further to the right than Nixon and the centrist Republicans were in the 1970s.”

And yet, Clinton’s plan envisions much more incremental change in the welfare system than the sweeping reforms Nixon and Carter offered. Constrained by the budget deficit and faced with public skepticism over the government’s ability to manage large-scale public works programs, Clinton will cautiously phase-in his two-year time limit by imposing it only on recipients born after 1971. That will keep down the plan’s cost to $9.3 billion over five years--but will mean that only half the caseload will face the work requirement by then, a prospect that has led critics to call the plan “marginal tinkering.”

What Clinton’s plan shares most prominently with its predecessors is uncertain prospects in a Congress polarized over how to reform a system that has proved remarkably resistant to meaningful change. “What’s the same is that this city has the ability to take the best reform ideas, wherever they are coming from, and ultimately turn them into mush,” says Gary Bauer, Reagan’s domestic policy adviser.

Both Nixon’s “Family Assistance Plan” and Carter’s “Program for Better Jobs and Income” fell into a valley of disdain between liberals and conservatives and failed to clear Congress--although each offered more generous aid packages than anything under consideration today. The Nixon plan offered a guaranteed minimum income to all families with children, conditioned in most cases on accepting work; Carter’s would have created a vast public employment plan for welfare recipients and the jobless, broadening eligibility to include childless couples and single adults.

Under Reagan, Congress in 1988 finally approved a major reform: the Family Support Act. But inadequate funding and delays in implementation have diluted its impact.


Clinton’s call for requiring work after two years echoes the goals of these plans. In the first decades after Congress federalized the welfare program in 1935, women generally were expected to stay at home to rear their children, observes University of Wisconsin historian Linda Gordon in her forthcoming book “Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare.”

But as the percentage of women with children working outside the home increased, so did demands that welfare recipients work. In response to those shifting attitudes, the plans developed under Nixon, Carter and Reagan each sought the same balance: increasing the availability of child care and job training for welfare recipients, and then requiring more of them to work. Clinton’s plan shares that approach, but differs in ways that illuminate changing attitudes toward the family and government alike.

* Under Nixon’s plan, mothers with children 6 years old and younger were exempt from work requirements; Carter’s plan exempted women with children up to age 7. Even the Family Support Act in 1988 exempted women with children under age 3. Clinton’s plan will exempt from work only women with children 1 year old or younger--and provide subsequent exemptions of only 12 weeks for children conceived while their mothers were on welfare, officials say.

* Clinton’s plan also reflects the eroding confidence in government’s capacity to design and administer massive new programs--as well as the increasing strain on its purse. The Carter plan would have created as many as 1.4 million public sector jobs. Clinton’s calls for government to fund about 400,000 jobs for welfare recipients five years after implementation--and even many of those would be subsidized private-sector work, rather than public employment.

The increased emphasis on values--particularly deterring out-of-wedlock births--constitutes an even sharper break between Clinton’s effort and its recent predecessors.


In some ways, this renewed focus on personal behavior echoes the welfare system’s priorities in the first half of the century, when case workers aggressively policed the behavior of welfare recipients.


That intrusive moral inspection faded after World War II, and appeared in complete retreat even after the illegitimate birth rate started rising after 1960. The defining moment came in 1965 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, wrote a paper warning that the black community was imperiled by a growing rate of out-of-wedlock births--then almost 1 in 4 of all births to African Americans.

Moynihan was roundly and ferociously denounced. In a typical response, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin said: “What may seem to be a disease to the white middle class may be a healthy adaptation to the Negro lower class.”

Such arguments are still part of the political dialogue, but they have been largely marginalized at a time when 30% of all births, and two-thirds of black births, occur outside of marriage. With the public, there is now “a consensus that you ought to discourage out-of-wedlock births,” says political pollster Geoff Garin, who has extensively examined public attitudes toward welfare.

That consensus rests on a different foundation than the fears of “immorality” that dominated welfare policy in the first half of this century. Today, what’s primarily driving the anxiety over births outside marriage are practical fears that family disintegration is contributing to crime, urban disorder and a cycle of dependency.

Yet the question of how to reverse the trend remains enormously controversial, with most Americans hesitant about any programs that “punish innocent children,” as Garin says.


In his plan, Clinton will propose a nationwide campaign to discourage teen-age pregnancy--including efforts to encourage abstinence, requirements that teen-agers receiving welfare live at home or with other responsible adults and, most controversially, giving blanket approval for states to deny recipients additional benefits for children conceived while they are already on welfare.


Liberals denounce that “family cap” as punitive and ineffective and are mobilizing against it. But with illegitimacy fused in the public mind to the issue of crime, Clinton’s biggest problem may be preventing the debate from careening further to the right.

Already ideas to deter illegitimacy are proliferating that are far tougher than his. Conservative social policy theorist Charles Murray has found a wide Republican audience for his proposal to cut off all welfare for women who bear children out of wedlock; a handful of other policy analysts, led by criminologists James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio Jr., are attracting increasing notice with calls for encouraging (or requiring) more unmarried mothers to place their children in orphanages and foster homes.

If some worry that unhappiness with the present system will produce change that is too radical, the most common fear is the opposite: that Congress will be unable to reach enough consensus to launch a significant departure. The same sort of left-right cross-fire that sank Nixon’s and Carter’s efforts is already pounding at Clinton’s plan.

It will take all of Clinton’s political skills to avoid his predecessors’ frustration. “It is,” says Nathan, “a very delicate balancing act to try to get a coalition to reform welfare.”

More Families on Welfare

The President’s proposal focuses on Aid to Families With Dependent Children. The number of families receiving such assistance more than doubled from 1970 to 1990, a period when the U.S. population rose by 22%.


* 2-YEAR LIMIT: A 24-month lifetime limit on cash benefits for anyone over the age of 18.

* PUBLIC-SECTOR JOBS: Subsidized private-sector jobs or community service, at minimum wage, for those who exhaust two-year cash benefits and have not found a job of their own.


* CHILD SUPPORT: New penalties for those who refuse to pay, and a national child support clearinghouse to track payments and catch parents who flee across state lines to avoid paying.

Families receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children, in millions: 1970: 1.90 1975: 3.34 1980: 3.64 1985: 3.69 1990: 3.97

Sources: Congressional “Green Book,” the White House