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Bankole: Clinton owes explanation on welfare reform

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Hillary Clinton has not rolled out an anti-poverty agenda despite speaking before the nation’s traditional civil rights groups.

She needs to use the 20-year anniversary of welfare reform — which was billed as a means to help rescue people from the clutches of poverty — to talk about what she will do to reduce poverty in 2016.

In 1996, when former President Bill Clinton signed into law reforms vowing to “end welfare as we know it,” and championed by the then-first lady, it was supposed to move poor, single mothers and children from a federal safety net to a state-run Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage,” Clinton said later in a memoir.

Welfare reform did little to alleviate economic hardship in the black community.

At the heart of the reform was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which detailed requirements about who would receive benefits including a five-year limitation on recipients.

Even then, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute published a study warning that the reform package would increase number of people in poverty by 2.6 million.

Another Washington think-tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, revealed children suffered the most during the decade after the reforms were enacted. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of children in deep poverty grew from 1.5 million to 2.2 million.

Several studies show that since the passage of the reforms, extreme poverty has increased 183 percent for blacks compared to 132 percent for Hispanics and 110 percent for whites.

Welfare reform took a devastating toll on poor blacks, women and children because states were allowed to apply all sorts of restrictive policies on recipients.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been conspicuously silent on this issue yet she wants the support of black America where women are majority voters.

Her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton in 1995 to veto the bills in an open letter in the Washington Post.

“I am calling for your unwavering moral leadership for children and opposition to Senate and House welfare and Medicaid block grants, which will make more children poor and sick. As president, you have the opportunity and personal responsibility to protect children from unjust policies,” Edelman wrote. “It would be wrong to exacerbate rather than alleviate the current and shameful epidemic child poverty that no decent, rich nation should tolerate for even one child.”

Bill Clinton chose politics over his veto pen to save poor black kids from the ravages of poverty.

When journalist Amy Goodman in a 2007 interview asked Edelman to reflect on the welfare reform fights, she said: “Hillary Clinton is an old friend, but they are not friends in politics.”

She added, “We profoundly disagreed with the forms of the welfare reform bill, and we said so. I am for welfare reform, but we need good jobs, we need adequate work incentives, we need minimum wage to be decent wage and livable wage, we need healthcare, we need transportation, we need to invest preventively in all of our children to prevent them ever having to be on welfare.”

The ironic twist to the Clintons’ welfare reform is that Lillie Harden, a 42-year-old mother from Little Rock, Arkansas, who in 1996 stood next to Bill Clinton during the White House signing ceremony of the legislation died at age 59 in 2014 after a stroke. She could not qualify for Medicaid and was unable to afford her $450 monthly medications.

Harden was the face of the Clinton White welfare reform. Because she was on welfare for two years in Arkansas before enrolling in the Family Support Act program passed in 1988 when Clinton was governor of the state. She landed a supermarket job after completing the program.

That did not lift her out of poverty.

There are many Lillie Hardens in the black community. In her honor, Hillary Clinton should go on a listening tour to hear similar stories and offer a different path out of poverty.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.