I’d like to look at some issues related to one of Mitt Romney’s recent campaign ads in three parts.i First is the narrative and background in which this type of political discourse takes place. It is not new and has it’s roots in Reagan’s so-called “War on Drugs” and “colorblind” rhetoric used during his presidential campaigns. Second, I want to look at possible reasons why one would be opposed to Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform act regardless of Obama’s particular reasons for his opposition. Lastly, I will look at exactly what aspect of the welfare reform act Obama amended.
To discover the roots of this type of political discourse we need to look back to the presidential campaign of Reagan. According to Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow”, during his run for president Reagan “built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit references to race. Condemning ‘welfare queens’ and criminal ‘predators’, he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites – poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights agenda.”ii The genius of this strategy was its plausible deniability. Due to the use of “colorblind” language there were no explicit references to race but the message was there. If not understood consciously by the voting public it worked on prejudices; unconscious or otherwise. Republicans were not the only ones guilty of this. In addition to “getting tough on crime”, Clinton also attacked welfare which, according to Alexander, became part of his “grand strategy articulated by the ‘new Democrats’ to appeal to the elusive white swing voters.”iii There were claims that welfare reform was fueled by “the desire to end big government and slash budget deficits”iv but in reality there was no reduction in government money being spent on the urban poor; just a restructuring of where it went. Loïc Wacquant, in the article “Class, Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” says in truth
“the upsizing of the carceral function of government has been rigorously proportional to the downsizing of its welfare role. In 1980, the country spent three times as much on its two main assistance programs ($11 billion for Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] and $10 billion for food stamps) than on corrections ($7 billion). By 1996, when ‘welfare reform’ replaced the right to public assistance by the obligation to accept insecure employment as a condition of support, the carceral budget came to double the sums allocated to either AFDC or food stamps ($54 billion compared to $20 billion and $27 billion, respectively). Similarly, during the 1990s alone, Washington cut funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the poor. ”v
Getting tough on crime and getting rid of lazy welfare recipients who only want to live off the hard work of others were themes not invented by Reagan or the ‘new Democrats’. After slavery there was Jim Crow followed by today’s penal system. As Wacquant puts it: “The single greatest political transformation of the post-civil rights era in America is the joint rolling back of the stingy social state and rolling out of the gargantuan penal state that have remade the country’s stratification, cities, and civic culture, and are recasting the very character of ‘blackness’ itself. ”vi These not-so-subtle attacks on state welfare programs are not new. They are part of a conscious program to appeal to working-class and poor whites in order to gain their vote and this is what’s behind Romney’s ad; consciously or not.
Clinton’s 1996 “historic welfare reform” act was entitled “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and replaced “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” with “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).” TANF imposed a 5-year limit on welfare assistance and, as Alexander reports, a “lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense – including simple possession of marijuana.”vii This additional condition excluding people with felony convictions condemns those under the control of our criminal justice system to a life a poverty and legalized discrimination. Not only are they ineligible for welfare benefits but many states carry a “felony conviction” check box on employment applications. Potential employers are legally allowed to disregard an employment application merely based on a prior felony conviction. Given the racist nature of Reagan’s “war on drugs”, and the disproportionate number of black males either incarcerated or under the control of the criminal justice system due to drug related crimes,viii acts such as TANF serve to legalize discrimination of a vulnerable segment of America’s new underclass; in affect they become part of the new Jim Crow.
Often people released from jail carry a large debt due to costs associated with their incarceration. If they are legally discriminated from employment and denied welfare assistance how are they supposed to get back on their feet? Who will be surprised when they return to jail? It seems this system is set up to make those who have served their sentence fail.
Romney’s ad attacks Obama for the comment he was “not a huge supporter of the federal plan that was signed in 1996.” Yet if we look at this so-called “welfare reform” maybe there are good reasons to be opposed to it? Yes, getting people to work and off government subsidies is important and this message should be echoed the loudest across Wall Street. But the trivialization and oversimplification of a complex social issue down to “a bill that requires people on welfare to work, instead of just collecting a check” should not go unchecked in a society as open as our.
On July 12th the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Family Assistance issued a memorandum stating “the Department of Health and Human Services will use its statutory authority to consider waiver requests that strengthen the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.” The purpose of this was to provide TANF participants with the “flexibility to innovate in the TANF program with the goal of helping more families find jobs and move toward self-sufficiency.” After meeting with TANF recipients the Administration for Children and Families “heard concerns that some TANF rules stifle innovation and focus attention on paperwork rather than helping parents find jobs.” The crucial language here is “waver requests” which is quite different from what the language of Romney’s ad is meant to imply; that lazy people are living off your hard earned money. The memorandum goes on to say “states that apply for a waiver must identify interim performance targets that will be used to hold states accountable for improving outcomes for families” and Department of Health and Human Services are “only interested in approving waivers if the state can explain in a compelling fashion why the proposed approach may be a more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits.”ix
Rules and laws are passed with the provision they may be amended for a reason. Karl Poppers’ distinction between “utopian social engineering” and “piecemeal social engineering”x are helpful for those seeking means of social and political progress. We should look at social reform as a scientist looks at the progress in their field. The is no utopian plan or master blueprint of how to proceed in science and a good deal of progress occurs through trial and error. In the same way when laws are passed the consequences can not be completely foretold; there must be room for future amendment and changes. The Obama administration’s decision, as stated in the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Family Assistance’s memorandum, to direct federal agencies “to work closely with state, local, and tribal governments to identify administrative, regulatory, and legislative barriers in Federally funded programs that currently prevent states, localities, and tribes, from efficiently using tax dollars to achieve the best results for their constituents”xi sounds a lot different than Romney’s characterization. The irony is Romney would support Obama’s efforts to spend federal money more effectively; that is, if we can take the moral authority’s statements about fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget seriously.xii
This trivialization of complexity in our culture is not limited to politics. It can be seen in science, philosophy, religion, etc. But it is particularly shameless when used as a tool to manipulate people with legitimate concerns and worries into blaming their problems on a less privileged group. Simply saying “a bill that requires people on welfare to work, instead of just collecting a check” is such a gross fabrication that Romney’s only hope must be people won’t really look into the issue. Here he is right; most people do not have time to research these things. Perhaps in a country with a functioning media though these issues would be exposed. If not the media whose job is it to investigate the claims made by our elected officials; especially ones that perpetuate the suffering of others?
i. Romney For President, “The Rise and Fall of Welfare Reform,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf_TjkvcWZY
ii. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press), 48
iii. Ibid., 56
iv. Ibid., 57
v. Loïc Wacquant, “Class, Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” Daedalus, Summer 2010, 76
vi. Ibid., 74.
vii. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press), 57
viii. Department of Health and Human Services, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Information Memorandum,”
ix. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume One: The Spell of Plato (London and New York: Routledge Classics), 166-167
x. Department of Health and Human Services, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Information Memorandum”
xi. Romney for President, “Fiscal Responsibility,” http://www.mittromney.com/issues/fiscal-responsibility