Sunday, February 15, 2009
1) A Times of London story highlights worries about the Thermidorian welfare reform backsliding in the stimulus bill. Sample:
Douglas Besharov, author of a big study on welfare reform, said the stimulus bill passed by Congress and the Senate in separate votes on Friday would "unravel" most of the 1996 reforms that led to a 65% reduction in welfare caseloads and prompted the British and several other governments to consider similar measures.
2) I get an "Even ... liberal blogger" cite. Hahaha. Take that, Even the Liberal New Republic .
3 ) But the reference to liberalism isn't irrelevant, because the now-undermined welfare reform was the key to rebuilding confidence in (liberal) affirmative government . As Bill Clinton recognized, voters may well have been willing to let government spend, but they didn't trust old style liberals not to spend in actively destructive ways, like subsidizing an isolated underclass of non-working single mothers with a no-strings cash dole. It's a 75-25 values issue. Work yes. Welfare no. Even if welfare spending was only a tiny portion of the liberals' spending agenda, it poisoned the rest of it . Only when Clinton's New Democrats put an ostentatious "time limit" on welfare and required work did they regain the public confidence necessary to increase other kinds of spending (on work-related poverty-fighting benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, day care and Social Security, for example.)
A reemerging "welfare" issue is a potential killer, in other words, for Obama's big remaining plans , especially health care. If Dems seem determined to reinstate dependency--or at the least blind to the dangers of dependency--voters aren't going to trust them to spend trillions on universal health insurance and fortified pensions. It's hard to believe Obama doesn't realize this.
4) If not, he may soon. I don't think the debate about welfare has been settled by the stimulus' bill's passage. I think it has just begun. I'm not saying this in a morale-maintaining way--"this fight is not over," "Where do we go from here," etc." I mean that, in fact, there has so far been no debate about welfare the way there has been a debate about pork and Keynesian spending . Before the stimulus bill passed, its welfare provisions were hardly mentioned in the NYT and WaPo. They were just bubbling up from The Atlantic's 's website to a Newsday blog last Friday, as Congress was voting.
Now that the bill has safely passed, even the liberal MSM may feel the obligation to mention them in public. Maybe even in actual print. Reporters have to cover something . More on pork? Welfare seems fresher.
5) In any case, the rump Congressional GOP and talk radio conservatives can force their hand. Why should opponents of the welfare-expanding provisions stop harping on them? Has Obama been asked about his welfare un-reform at a press conference yet? I don't think so. He will have more press conferences. It won't be an easy question to answer. (Reporters could also ask his HHS secretary ... Oh wait. Never mind.)
Welfare is a liberal sore spot that, if Republicans play it right, could become a bleeding open wound for the administration . Voters probably thought they'd settled the dole-vs.-work issue back in 1996. Obama will be fulfilling the crude GOP stereotype of his party if he even waffles on reopening it.
Remember that Newt Gingirch rode the welfare issue to power after haranguing about "the liberal welfare state" for a few election cycles. The new welfare debate, if it happens, won't necessarily be that prolonged. The main question is whether the Administration can effectively paper over the meaning of what's in the stimulus . If not, Congress is still in session. It seems to me there is a real chance for Republicans to get it to "revisit" that part of the bill, as they say in Washington. Obama may decide he needs to excise the most poisonous part of the stimulus to save the rest of his New New Deal.
P.S.: No, the stimulus bill doesn't fully unravel welfare reform--after 1996, welfare is no longer an individual "entitlement," for one thing (a term of art that triggered a whole slew of court-enforced rights). The time limits and work requirements are still at least formally in place. States can still do what they want, in theory, within much broader limits than under the old AFDC program. Many states, with little money to spare, may still refuse to try to expand their caseloads (even if they now have an 80% federal subsidy to do it). A debate on the issue might, in fact, help ensure that states don't go crazy and recreate the bloated and socially disastrous welfare caseloads of the three decades before 1996.
More important, the debate would stop the Money Liberals in the Washington "antipoverty community"--e.g., Peter Edelman and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities crowd-- before they can complete the rest of their agenda, which does involve unraveling welfare reform (eliminating work requirements, for example). Preserving Clinton's biggest domestic achievement isn't something you should want "even" if you're a liberal who believes in affirmative government. It's something you should want especially if you're a liberal who believes in affirmative government. 3:20 A.M.