After writing about Elaine Kamarck's wrongheaded defense of the conservative 1996 Personal Responsibility Act, I remembered pollster Stan Greenberg's similarly odd claim, made in a widely read New York Times commentary published last July, that "Mr. Clinton's welfare reform in 1996 required efforts to make work pay and expand child care ...."
No. It. Didn't.
Here, however, are some of the things that the 1996 measure signed by President Clinton actually did do: 1) block granted the Social Security Act's Aid to Families with Dependent Children program; 2) froze federal funding for the block grant—as a result, real federal funding today for the program is more than 25 percent below its 1997 level; 3) made many immigrants who are lawfully in the U.S. ineligible for various health and public benefits that citizens are eligible for; and 4) cut Food Stamp eligiblity and benefits for millions of families.
Among the things the 1996 law didn't do: 1) increase funding for any program; 2) require states who receive block grant funding to do anything to "make work pay"; 3) require states to do something as minimal as report on how many families they are helping with the vast majority of their block grant funds.
In short, Bill Clinton really mucked up the Social Security Act when he took Dick Morris' advice and signed the 1996 block grant law. Last time I checked, Bill Clinton isn't up for re-election in 2012. Thus, it makes little sense for Democratic pollsters and pundits to continue to try to justify his decision to sign conservative legislation that was so bad that even Robert Rubin urged him to veto it. The main effect this kind of misguided block grant boosterism has today is to bolster conservative arguments for new and even more fiscally dangerous block grant schemes, like this House Republican proposal, which would block grant Medicaid and cut its funding in real terms in the same way as has happened with the TANF block grant.
Greenberg makes the same error as Kamarck does: making the failed and "truly conservative" (in the words of true conservative Ron Haskins of Brookings) 1996 block grant the central pillar of welfare reform. If Greenberg feels the need to say that Bill Clinton did good things on welfare reform, he should point instead to the 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and make that a central pillar of a "progressive welfare reform" agenda that was undercut when Newt Gingrich and Co. took control of Congress in 1994.
Finally, much of what Greenberg has to say in the rest of the column is good. For example,
Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics.
But it's a fundamental mistake to point to the 1996 block grant law—just as it would be to point to Paul Ryan's Medicaid block grant proposal—as a case where government is operating by the right values or rules in a way that promotes middle-class prosperity. Unlike progressive measures, including paid family leave and the kind of welfare reform initiatives that the 1996 law snuffed out (like the MFIP and New Hope demonstrations), the 1996 law is inconsistent with the basic values of reciprocity and respect that are necessary to expand the middle class.