The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 80/No. 43      November 14, 2016

(feature article)

Clintons’ ‘workfare reform’: rulers’ biggest blow yet to protections won as by-product of workers’ struggles

From new book by Socialist Workers Party National Secretary Jack Barnes

The excerpt below from The Clintons’ Anti-Working-Class Record: Why Washington Fears Working People is based on a March 2001 talk by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The Clintons are now, finally, out of the White House. From the outset of his 1992 presidential campaign, the Socialist Workers Party insisted that “Bill” Clinton would be a war president, a prison president, a death-penalty president. He would be a president, like those before him, whose course at home and abroad was aimed at serving the class interests of the US ruling families. Above all, we insisted that the Clintons had not been, and would not be, friends of the working class, in city or country.

The same we can say with confidence is true of Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, and of the Congress, then and now.

The landmark of the Clinton administration’s anti-working-class assault, carried out in tandem with the Republican-controlled Congress, was contemptuously named the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. This brutal, anti-working-class legislation eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), put a federally dictated lifetime limit of five years on welfare payments to any family, and allowed state governments to cap the number of years at an even lower level than five. States receiving federal “block grants” under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are not required to spend those funds on cash payments to families — and more and more often they don’t.

The “reform” was an incarnation of Clinton’s reactionary 1992 campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” but it was also more than that. It was the biggest single success of the rulers so far in beginning to erode the federal Social Security system — a concession forced from the employing class in the 1930s as a by-product of massive working-class struggles that built the industrial unions and advanced the integration of Blacks into industrial jobs. Those conquests were widely expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, as the powerful proletarian-based Black rights movement and its broad social extensions wrested further weighty gains from the ruling class: Medicare, Medicaid, “SSI” (Supplemental Security Income) disability benefits, and cost-of-living protections.

Under the Clintons’ “welfare reform,” immigrants without “papers” were explicitly denied not only TANF benefits but also food stamps, Medicaid, and SSI payments. Even immigrants with “legal” residency (that is, a “Green Card”) were barred from food stamps and federal disability protection. TANF and Medicaid “eligibility” was denied them for five years and then left up to state governments.1

Clinton’s welfare legislation — not just its basic provisions, but even its name — was taken over lock, stock, and barrel from a plank in the so-called Contract with America promised by the Newt Gingrich–led Republican majority that swept into Congress in 1994, two years after Clinton was elected.

The most vocal and historically clearest opponent in Congress of the anti-working-class destructiveness of the bipartisan “welfare reform” was Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. The legislation was “an act of unprecedented social vindictiveness,” Moynihan said. Its consequences for children, women, and others might initially be buffered by the paper-fueled “tech-stock” bubble of the late 1990s, he said, but these effects would explode with a vengeance during the next inevitable deep recession — like the one we’re entering right now in 2001.

“In a very little while as the time limits come into effect,” Moynihan warned, “we will say, ‘why are these children sleeping on grates?’”

Moynihan, a Harvard sociology professor for many years, had long been a critic of AFDC. On their own, Moynihan said, cash payments to dependent children, most of them in families headed by women, couldn’t address what he considered the roots of poverty among African Americans: joblessness. Especially among young Black men, it was at “disaster levels.” Without a federal public works program to tackle that crisis — and this was at the heart of what Moynihan recounted — poorer families in Black communities would continue to be torn apart. More and more of them would be headed by single women, with less and less assistance, unable to provide a stable economic and social haven of support for children.

Vivid descriptions of such devastation of families in working-class districts in nineteenth century England abound in Capital by Karl Marx and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Frederick Engels.

But so long as dog-eat-dog capitalist social relations exist, the family is what children, the elderly, the sick, and other working people have to fall back on.

In 1965, when Moynihan was a little-known assistant secretary of labor in the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration, he had written an internal report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. “The Negro American revolution is rightly regarded as the most important domestic event of the postwar period in the United States,” he wrote. “Nothing like it has occurred since the upheavals of the 1930’s which led to the organization of the great industrial unions.” As a result of that struggle, he said, the expectations of Blacks “will go beyond civil rights,” and “they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities will produce roughly equal results.”

Equality isn’t possible, however, so long as “the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us,” Moynihan pointed out. It’s not possible so long as the gap in income and living standards “between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.”

Those conditions had been magnified by the rapid migration of Blacks from the rural South to segregated ghettos in northern cities that began during World War I. Moynihan himself had lived much of his childhood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an Irish working-class family headed by his mother. Drawing on that experience, he wrote that — like the northward “Great Migration” of Blacks — it had been the abrupt transition from rural Ireland to large cities in the United States “that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Northeast.”

“Eventually, the Irish closed that gap, and Moynihan has no doubt that the Negroes will too,” said Time magazine in a 1967 cover story about him. But that’s where the class limitations of Moynihan’s bourgeois liberal outlook came into play. He didn’t give enough weight to the fact that in addition to many common economic and social conditions bearing down on all working people, workers who are Black confront a unique, concrete historic obstacle to “closing the gap”— systematic discrimination, bigotry, and physical dangers simply due to the color of their skin.

That national oppression is something Irish and other workers who are Caucasian do not confront. Like Italians, Greeks, or many other immigrants, they became “white” over time in the racist US capitalist society (at least enough to “pass” as a national grouping). But descendants of African slaves do not — even those who “act white.” They bear a lasting relic under capitalism of the barbaric slave trade and involuntary servitude. A relic, above all, of the bloody defeat of post–Civil War Radical Reconstruction and decades of legal Jim Crow racist segregation across the US South and de facto discrimination nationwide. It’s a deeply entrenched legacy that only the overturn of the dictatorship of capital and revolutionary conquest of power by the working class can open the road to fighting to end for all time.

Not only did the Johnson administration reject the proposals in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, but when Moynihan’s 1965 report was leaked to the press, he was condemned by many liberals, Black nationalists, and middle class radicals as a racist who “blamed the victim,” especially Black women. It’s clear that most of these “critics” never bothered to read or seriously consider what Moynihan wrote.2

Nor did Moynihan convince Richard Nixon to take action on public works or other proposals when he served as White House urban affairs adviser in 1969, although Moynihan did get Nixon’s ear more often than he had gotten LBJ’s. A Family Assistance Plan proposed by Nixon with Moynihan’s backing — a monthly “guaranteed minimum income” for a family of four, regardless of how many parents were in the home — was defeated by a Senate coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Nixon implemented the “Philadelphia Plan,” for the first time setting affirmative-action targets for hiring Blacks on federally funded construction projects. And he ended the draft.

But the percentage of children living below the government’s own poverty level kept climbing — from 14 percent in 1968 to 23 percent at the opening of the Clinton administration in 1993. So when Clinton publicly cited Moynihan’s 1965 report in order to rationalize his pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” Moynihan had had enough. The senior senator from New York shouted from the rooftops that Clinton’s legislation promoted “cruelty” toward families and perpetuated “social devastation.” That Democratic administration was destined to “go down in history as [one] that abandoned, eagerly abandoned, the national commitment to dependent children.”

Shortly before leaving office in January 2001, Clinton boasted that 8 million people nationwide had been slashed from state welfare rolls — a 60 percent drop in less than half a decade. What the bourgeois supporters of this legislation don’t trumpet so loudly, however, is that the vast majority of these former AFDC recipients, if they’ve been able to find work at all, have been pressed into jobs at minimum wage or below it, with few if any health, pension, or vacation benefits.

And that has been during the high point of the upturn in the capitalist business cycle. As the first targets of the legislation’s five-year limit are cut off permanently from welfare payments in the months ahead, they will find themselves in the midst of mounting layoffs and rising unemployment.

Clinton’s 1996 act was the first time that an entire group of working people — single mothers and their children — has been eliminated from the kind of protections Social Security is supposed to offer to retirees, children, workers injured or thrown out of a job, and others vulnerable to the instabilities and devastations inherent in capitalism, both in good times and bad.

What’s more, this section of the working class is one that’s expanding in the United States. In 1965, when Moynihan wrote The Negro Family, the “crisis” figure he cited for the number of Black children raised in families headed by single women was 25 percent. A half century later, that’s the percentage for all single-parent households headed by women, whatever their skin color. The figure for Blacks has risen to more than 70 percent.

Meanwhile, the poverty, lack of steady employment, and disintegration of families and other social relations — all imposed by the operations of capitalism on millions of working-class men, women, and children — register the inevitable consequences of a social system based on class exploitation and national oppression.

In this regard, another well-known article by Moynihan — a 1993 piece entitled, “Defining Deviancy Down” — poses questions that are important for the working-class vanguard. Moynihan wrote the article shortly after the spring 1992 social explosion in Los Angeles in reaction to the acquittal of four cops whose arrest and beating of Rodney King, an African American, had been widely televised.

Among the “deviant” social trends Moynihan focused on were the accelerating breakdown of the family structure, the sharp reduction in real income of poor families receiving AFDC benefits, and the rising violent crime rate (the last of these peaked the following year and has been falling since then). This was not the first time in American history, he said, that such “crime, violence, unrest, [and] lashing out at the whole social structure had been seen,” especially among jobless “young men” from “broken families.” Once again calling on his own working-class family background, Moynihan noted lessons “from the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles.”

The biggest danger, Moynihan said, is yielding to those social layers who “benefit from redefining the problem as essentially normal and doing little to reduce it” — “defining deviancy down,” in his words. (Moynihan was speaking from his own class standpoint, about dangers to the capitalist government, political parties, and social order they represent.)

On the one hand, wrote Moynihan, “This redefining has evoked fierce resistance from defenders of ‘old’ standards, and accounts for much of the present ‘cultural war’ such as proclaimed by many at the 1992 Republican National Convention.” He didn’t elaborate on that reference, but he clearly had in mind the widely publicized convention speech in which Patrick Buchanan recounted (with considerable exaggeration) how US Army and National Guard units — “M-16s at the ready” — had taken back Los Angeles “block by block” that spring. In the same way, Buchanan said, “we must take back our cities and take back our culture and take back our country.” That’s how the “war going on in our country for the soul of America” will be won, Buchanan said. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

On the other hand, Moynihan pointed to “solutions,” also clearly not to his liking, that were gaining ground among more dominant sections of both ruling-class parties, including the recently elected Democratic administration of Bill and Hillary Clinton. “We are building new prisons at a prodigious rate,” Moynihan cautioned at the close of his article. “Similarly, the executioner is back. There is something of a competition in Congress to think up new offenses for which the death penalty seems the only available deterrent.”

That’s why Moynihan, the liberal politician and professor, was opposed to “defining deviancy down.” But for working people — for reasons of our own independent class interests — the stakes are much greater in not “defining down” social attitudes, habits, and conditions that divide our class, or that tear apart our political confidence, disciplined functioning, combativity, and morale.

Preying on fellow workers and farmers; judging each other on the basis of skin color, national origin, religion, or sex, instead of what we do; showing up drunk or stoned to a picket line or defense guard — none of this is “essentially normal” to a working class that is organizing and resisting, a class whose emancipation from exploitation can only be won by our own independent political organization and disciplined action. None exemplifies the norm included by Marx and Engels in the rules they drafted in 1847 for the world’s first communist organization — “a way of life and activity which corresponds” to the political integrity and aims of the class-conscious workers movement.

That’s the challenge that has faced every revolutionary movement of the working class and oppressed — from the mass workers struggles that forged the industrial unions in the United States; to the Black-led mobilizations for civil rights that brought down Jim Crow segregation and opened the road to internationalist working-class leaders such as Malcolm X; to the Rebel Army that led the workers and farmers of Cuba in a triumphant socialist revolution; to the struggle for a proletarian party that will make possible a socialist revolution in the United States.

1. As a result of growing dissatisfaction with these provisions of the “reform,” federal legislation adopted in 2002 made immigrants under eighteen years of age with a Green Card eligible for food stamps, as it did adults who’ve had resident status for at least five years.

2. A half century later, a few liberals and especially nationalist-minded Blacks have acknowledged much of what Moynihan observed and recorded. These include Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the 2015 best-seller Between the World and Me, written in response to the police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and the “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations …common to black people.” In a 2013 Atlantic magazine article titled “Revisiting the Moynihan Report, Cont.,” Coates said it’s “really hard to separate out segregation from employment and family stability. That’s a subject worthy of debate. But Moynihan didn’t get debate. He got condemnation.”
Related articles:
‘Welfare reform’ — its toll on the working class
Welfare for work promise ‘didn’t pay off in end’
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home