In the 1990s and early 2000s, Hillary Clinton touted the success of Bill Clinton’s 1996 overhaul of the country’s welfare system, framed as the transition from “dependency to dignity” — a subject she hasn’t spoken much about this year during her campaign.
Bill Clinton’s overhaul of the welfare system, which was passed in conjunction with a Republican-controlled Congress, replaced a major federal welfare program with block grants to states, required adults to find a job within two years of receiving aid, placed a five-year limit on aid, blocked future legal immigrants from welfare assistance, and cut $24 billion in food stamps. It was denounced by many Democrats, including Peter Edelman, who resigned from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that the law would do “serious injury to American children.”
Writing about the law in a 1999 column, then-First Lady Clinton said “too many” welfare recipients “had known nothing but dependency all their lives.”
“It’s important to recognize, though, that simply passing a law requiring welfare recipients to find work would have failed to fulfill the President’s promise. Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.”
Clinton began a column in June 1998 with an anecdote about a mother on welfare whose daughter once came home and said, “Mommy, I’m tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing.”
“One day, Rhonda Costa’s daughter came home from school and announced, ‘Mommy, I’m tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing.’ That’s the day Rhonda decided to get off welfare. Today, Rhonda is an administrative assistant at Salomon Smith Barney, a New York financial services firm. After a year and a half on the job, she earns $29,000 a year with full benefits and stock options.”
In another column, this time in March 2000, Clinton described the transition from welfare to work a “transition from dependency to dignity.”
“Since we first asked mothers to move from welfare to work, millions of families have made the transition from dependency to dignity. While many single mothers are doing a tremendous job of working and raising their children, they should not have to do it alone. It is up to Congress to pass these proposals, so that more fathers can share the responsibility of supporting their families, and so that every child has a chance to find the love and support of two parents.”
In an April 2002 interview with the Gettysburg Times, then-Senator Clinton reiterated the impetus behind her husband’s effort to “substitute dignity for dependence.” At the time, Congress was considering the reauthorization the 1996 law.
“There were people in the White House who said, ‘just sign anything,’ you know,’ the New York senator said in an interview. ‘And I thought that was wrong. We wanted to do it in a way that kept faith with our goals: End welfare as we know it, substitute dignity for dependence, but make work pay.’”
In that same interview, Clinton also said that people who had moved from welfare to work were “no longer deadbeats.”
“Now that we’ve said these people are no longer deadbeats—they’re actually out there being productive—how do we keep them there?”
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