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How Bernie Sanders Missed His Last, Best Chance to Woo Minority Voters

By proposing robust welfare reforms, Sanders could have hit Hillary Clinton where she is most vulnerable.

Jason Connolly/Getty Images

Ahead of the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Bernie Sanders finally attacked Hillary Clinton’s record on welfare reform. As we have written before, the fact that Sanders had refrained from mentioning welfare seemed like a missed political opportunity at best, and, at worst, a cynical effort to avoid disturbing his support among low-income white voters who may cling to myths of black dependency. As he stated in a press conference last Wednesday, discussing Clinton’s support for her husband’s controversial 1996 welfare reform bill:

What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country. During that period I spoke out against so-called welfare reform, because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform, strongly supported it, and worked hard to round up votes for its passage. ... Since that legislation was signed into law, the number of families living in extreme poverty has more than doubled from 636,000 to 1.6 million. ... The number of children living in extreme poverty has skyrocketed.

It’s all true. But it didn’t seem to do him much good. Clinton took South Carolina 73 percent to Sanders’s 26 percent, winning black voters by an overwhelming margin of 86 percent to 14 percent. If Sanders had intended to make inroads with black voters, who will also have an influential role in a string of states across the South on Super Tuesday, he missed an opportunity to condemn the fraught racial legacy of welfare reform and offer a robust policy solution for the people most injured by the gutting of our welfare system.

Welfare reform, which was vigorously endorsed by Hillary Clinton as recently as 2008, represents, for many progressives, one of the worst judgment calls in her political history. Its passage, on the eve of Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection, left the poorest of the poor—disproportionately minority children and single mothers—considerably worse off.

It is important that Sanders elevate the plight of this group, especially because, as he noted, the needs of the powerless are those most easily ignored. Welfare reform helped make sure this was true. While social spending for low-income families overall has gone up by 74 percent between 1986 and 2007, aid has actually dropped for the poorest families who need it most. Robert A. Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, notes that this is largely due to the trend of moving benefits away from the “undeserving poor”—those who are unemployed, single-parent, and extremely poor—towards what society considers the more “deserving” working poor. These categories, unsurprisingly, tend to map in the public imagination along racial lines. In other words, we’re living with the consequences of Reagan’s “welfare queen” dog-whistle politics, which both Bill and Hillary Clinton perpetuated to justify welfare reform. It’s not just that welfare reform had a racially disparate impact, it’s that welfare reform was enabled by racist politics.

The result is a permanent underclass of extremely poor Americans living on less than $2 per person, per day—a group that, as Sanders pointed out, has only grown since 1996.

Significantly, however, Sanders stopped short of actually pushing for the return of welfare or proposing any type of new plan for cash benefits. Instead, he went through his usual litany of social democratic policies—single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, a robust jobs program—all of which, while helpful and necessary, fit neatly into the neoliberal insistence of reserving benefits for the “deserving” poor.

The Clinton campaign met Sanders’s remark with a mostly predictable response. They noted that black unemployment and child poverty actually fell after welfare reform (many attribute this to the unrelated economic boom) and touted the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the 1990s, which has become one of our country’s biggest anti-poverty programs. Most notably, the campaign admitted to some of welfare reform’s shortcomings, such as its five-year time limit on benefits received, which they pledged to address. However, the EITC is also conditioned on work—to receive the credit, one must have an earned income. And, while removing welfare’s time limit is good, it amounts to minor tinkering with an already inadequate program. All of this does little to help those in extreme poverty.

To be sure, as Demos’s Matt Bruenig notes, a comprehensive welfare state—with affordable childcare, benefits for the unemployed or disabled, and active labor market policy—is the best way to ensure that cash transfers remain a rarely needed last resort. If you devise your social democracy in the right way, people should hardly ever find themselves in extreme poverty. But Sanders’s suite of policies is missing an essential program that would help to ensure that means-tested cash transfers are truly a last-ditch protection—a child allowance.

The child allowance is a core policy, not only in Sanders’s favored Nordic countries, but also in countries around the world with political systems more similar to the U.S.—the U.K., Australia, and Canada. Typically, this policy transfers a sum of cash weekly or monthly to all families for each child in their household. Child allowances acknowledge the financial burden of raising a child and ensure that all children, regardless of their parents’ income, have a basic level of security. Black and Latino children have the most to benefit from this type of policy since the poorest of these groups have, on average, less earned income than their white counterparts and thus are more likely to miss out on our current system of working family tax credits. Sanders should have embraced child allowances and rejected the Clinton-era logic that only some of “the least among us” deserve help.

Sanders is correct in stating that “in the richest country in the history of the world, we do not need to have children living in extreme poverty.” It’s a political choice—and so far, neither Democratic candidate has put forth a policy that gives voters an option.