Part of the goal of the bill was to blunt Republican criticisms that Democrats were soft on crime, so the bill gave permission for Democrats across the country to engage in a sort of criminal justice policy and punishment arms race with Republicans, each group attempting to be more draconian than the other.
Black bodies and Black communities were the casualties of this struggle.
Then there was the welfare reform bill, which Clinton promised would “end welfare as we know it.” One of its central provisions was block-grant assistance to the states.
“Today the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to live up to that promise, to transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence, to give people on welfare a chance to draw a paycheck, not a welfare check.”
On the day Clinton signed the bill, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and Hillary Clinton’s longtime mentor, released a statement that read, “President Clinton’s signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.”
Some thought the bill had early successes. But that wouldn’t last.
As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in 2020, the block grant to states “has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by almost 40 percent due to inflation.”
Furthermore, only a fraction of the money goes to income assistance, and state-set benefit levels are low and “do not enable families to meet their basic needs,” the report outlines. It continues:
“The wide variation in benefit levels across states exacerbates national racial disparities because many of the states with the lowest benefits have larger Black populations. Fifty-five percent of Black children live in states with benefits below 20 percent of the poverty line, compared to 40 percent of white children.”
With the passage of the “American Rescue Plan,” the Democrats, alone, took another major step away from the mistakes of the Clinton legacy by increasing aid to families with children and to workers.