How Bill Clinton’s Welfare “Reform” Created a System Rife With Racial Biases

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President Clinton shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Vice President Gore shakes hands with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia during their Oval Office meeting Tuesday Dec. 19, 1995 to discuss the federal budget impasse. Budget talks collapsed Wednesday after President Clinton scuttled an Oval office meeting with Republican leaders and accused "the most extreme" House Republicans of reneging on a deal that could have ended the government's partial shutdown. (AP Photo/White House)
President Clinton shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Vice President Gore shakes hands with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Tuesday Dec. 19, 1995. (AP Photo/White House)

It’s become a political cliché that “red” and “blue” states represent two Americas. But consider how states prioritize programs like health care and education — or how they administer their social safety nets — and the differences are very real. Federal policies help smooth out some of those differences — everyone is eligible for the same Medicare and Social Security programs when they get older — but conservatives have long campaigned to broaden the divide by turning over more and more federally administered programs to the states.

We can see how that might play out by looking to the past. In 1996, Congress “reformed” our existing welfare system in much the same way Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to “reform” Medicaid and other anti-poverty programs: they killed off the federal entitlement and turned the money over to the states to implement new models of welfare as they saw fit. It was a central plank in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” 20 years ago and also considered one of Bill Clinton’s signature achievements.

University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss spent a decade studying how those reforms shook out in the real world. With Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram, he co-wrote the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, explaining how race became a determining factor in how states created their own welfare programs — and how that ultimately led to a system that’s rife with racial bias. spoke with Soss last week. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Joshua Holland: Slightly fewer than one in three welfare beneficiaries are African-American. But it seems clear from the rhetoric around welfare that a lot of people think of it as a program for blacks. How did that view play into the welfare reforms of the 1990s?

Joe Soss: In the 1980s and ’90s, a kind of narrative had emerged that I call the story of illegitimate takings. It held that there were white people who played by the rules, and then there were people of color — and particularly black people — who were taking from those people in an illegitimate way.

At the time, there was a lot of talk of the pathologies of the underclass. And many believed that it was really these liberal programs that were to blame for what was seen as a kind of crisis of crime and disorder and sexual irresponsibility and welfare dependence and all of these things.

Bill Clinton ran on this idea that he was going to end welfare as we know it. And he was also going to get tougher on crime. He was attempting to reassure white voters, but once the Republicans took Congress, in 1994, Clinton  found that he had painted himself into a corner, because of course the Republicans were willing to go much farther in this game than he was.

After that, for a public that had already learned to think of welfare as a black program — that had internalized these Republican calls to get tough on the welfare queens and whatnot — welfare now became center stage. The public was aroused, so something had to be done.

We looked at public opinion on welfare and racial attitudes, analyzing not just the overall trends, but studying the views of actual individuals over time. And what we found was fascinating. First, not many other factors predicted who would hold those kinds of views of welfare. It was pretty broad. But the one thing that did predict a negative view of welfare was negative beliefs about African-Americans, particularly a belief in black laziness. And also stereotypes of black women as being sexually irresponsible.

Full Show: Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race
And what we found was that it wasn’t just that the people who had held these negative racial views all along who responded to these kinds of dog whistles but, even more striking, we found that as politicians talked more and more about welfare and what was wrong with the program, they moved people’s racial attitudes. The people who were most likely to start seeing welfare as a big problem were actually those who shifted from not having negative views of African-Americans to steadily responding to this discourse by beginning to see race in a different way and seeing African-Americans in a much worse light.

What’s remarkable about the general association of black people with welfare and handouts in the popular culture — that stereotype — is that it’s almost a perfect inversion of American history. For much of the 20th century, and certainly in the earlier history of this country, we had all sorts of race-specific programs that channeled benefits to whites and excluded everyone else.

So until very recently, in many ways we have this long history of a white-centered welfare state. But after that time, when victories were achieved that actually allowed for some equality of access to those programs, that very equality became the basis for saying, “Oh, this is all about African-Americans and it’s just a handout to this racially targeted group.” It’s a very sad part of American history, very troubling.

Holland: One of the central provisions of welfare reform was replacing the federal welfare system established during the New Deal with a block grant program which gave the states the ability to design their own programs. You wrote that state officials implemented their policies in ways that “proved remarkably sensitive to racial differences.” Can you explain that finding?

Soss: After welfare reform passed, the federal government said [to the states], “Here are a bunch of goals we want to accomplish. We want, first and foremost, for you to put people to work, and we want to discourage childbirth, and we want to promote marriage… You’re now free to figure out how to do these things.”

What happened was pretty remarkable… What you see in this crucial period of recreating the system is that pretty much the only thing we could find that really drove one policy decision after another was the percentage of minority recipients on the welfare rolls at the time.

In other words, people had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning. They were not necessarily conscious of it; it was race-coded and below the radar for most people. But all of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules. And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African-Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.

So state freedom to make these different choices became the mechanism for recreating a racially biased system across the states, where the toughness of the rules you confronted really depended on your racial characteristics.

Holland: According to your study, just five years after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, 63 percent of families in the least stringent programs were white and 11 percent were black, and in the most restrictive programs — that is, the ones with the toughest penalties and the most stringent requirements for eligibility – 63 percent were black and just 29 percent were white.

Soss: Yes, and the stringency of the rules matter tremendously for outcomes. The tougher the rules — and the more frequently people are punished for breaking them — the worse the outcomes are for people after they finish the program.

In fact, in the toughest programs, people actually end up in worse shape after they get through them than they were before they got the benefits to begin with. And remember, they were in such a bad situation that they had to turn to a welfare program that’s been so stigmatized that pretty much everyone wants to avoid it.

We also found that people who go through the toughest programs learn lessons about government that lead them to retreat from participating in politics. They become less likely to make their voices heard, and less likely to participate in elections and community organizations.

Holland: About 40 percent of the African-American population live in the Deep South, where there are also very conservative state governments. Is it possible to untangle racial animus from ideology when it comes to designing these programs?

Soss: In one sense the question you’re asking is whether this is all just about how the South is different. And the answer is no. But ideology matters.

Here’s an interesting finding: In our study, we found that, not surprisingly, conservative counties and areas tended to sanction welfare clients much more often — they were much tougher on beneficiaries — than the most liberal counties. But what we found was that almost the entire difference was made up by the different treatment of black and Hispanic clients. For white clients, it actually made no difference whether you were in the most liberal or most conservative county. You’d be treated the same regardless. It was only clients of color who received different treatment in conservative and liberal counties.

Holland: One of the experiments you did was at the level of the program administrator. You used imaginary, “blind” cases to test for administrators’ attitudes towards their clients of different ethnicities. 

Soss: We used identical, made-up case files. The only differences between them were that some had what are considered “black names,” and others had “white names.” So one would be like, Emily O’Brien and on another we put Lakisha Williams. We pretested them to show that most people who saw these names, right or wrongly, associated them with white or black people — or Latinos.

And we then presented actual welfare case managers with cases where it wasn’t quite clear whether the person should be sanctioned or not. Again, it was the exact same case, except we varied the name, and therefore, the race they associated with the person.

And then we also varied one other thing, which you can call a discrediting marker. So in one of the experiments, we looked at what happens if you add information that the imaginary beneficiary had been sanctioned before — maybe that would lead the case worker to think they’re a troublemaker. That should have no bearing on the current sanction decision, but it might just change their view. Or we changed the number of children they had — for half of the case managers, the person had one child; for the other half, they had four children and were pregnant.

And we found that, across all of our experiments, for the white client, adding that marker — which invoked a negative image of welfare recipients — had no effect at all. They were still judged the same way on the current matter.

The black client or the Hispanic client, when they did not have this discrediting marker, were also judged neutrally on the borderline problem we gave these managers. So there wasn’t an automatic bias. But when you added that discrediting marker, the likelihood that the person would get sanctioned went through the roof if they were a person of color. In other words, the person might not be discriminated against if there was nothing there that provided a kind of cue, but as soon as you added something that seemed to confirm the negative stereotypes about welfare recipients, it had no effect on the white client, but it made the black client seem like a person who should be sanctioned, and the rates went up.

And the thing that’s really fascinating is that this was equally true for all case managers, regardless of how they self-identified in terms of race and ethnicity. It was equally true of white case managers and case managers of color.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    You say “For much of the 20th century, and certainly in the earlier history of this country, we had all sorts of race-specific programs that channeled BENEFITS to Whites and excluded everyone else.”
    Does that include “Government quotas on hiring ?” and “Affirmative Action” because although I pay attention to the news I don’t remember ever hearing ” To be able to bid on this Government contract , The bidder MUST have at least 40% white males (or some such) and very similar requirements for collage enrollment, where in a collage must enroll a certain number of Black students even if their grades would normally prohibit their admission ?
    Are these the Beneifits to whites You wrote of ?

  • Anonymous

    According to the GAO, $36 billion out of a total of $537 in federal contracts were allocated to minority-owned businesses in 2011.

  • Anonymous

    And Reagan’s welfare queens continued Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t get it. Haven’t all the indicators improved after the Clinton/Gingrich reforms for the black population?

    Crime/Murder/CrackAdiction – all massively down

    Teenage Pregnancy – substantially down

    Welfare to work transition – huge numbers made it for the first time in generations

    Regardless of implied bias in the program, hasn’t it been positive? As in producing better outcomes than before reform?

    P.S. Is it too much to ask for the article to provide actual numbers. What does “the likelihood that the person would get sanctioned went through the roof ” mean? Went up by 300%, 100%, 50%, what?

  • Anonymous

    workfare costs 5 times as much as welfare did- and it does not produce tax payers homelessness costs nearly a ten times as much in services than housing costs

    conservative fiscal policy is so expensive service wise that no welfare costs government far more than welfare did

    you are paying more for childcare alone so parents can work min wage jobs than they paid out in welfare in total

    no safety net costs more than a super generous one

    you could buy the homeless houses far cheaper than keeping them homeless
    you could give everyone on workfare 30 thousand a year and it would be half the cost we are paying today

    conservatives are fiscally insane

  • Anonymous

    each person on workfare costs 50 thousand plus a year for what a min wage job that pays under 12 k

    i think your math is stupid

  • Anonymous

    social security- has been a transfer from the poor to the white middle-class

    on average minorities and poor people live far shorter lifes-and pay into social security- never to get a penny back

    so you are right

    some peoples welfare is a divine right “White people”

    and others is just theft poor under educated people and other skintones

    you pay and everyone pays for infrastructure for rural white people
    which costs more than all welfare combined-

    But remember if you are white-you get it without a fight
    you if you are brown poor under-educated you don’t get it Ever!

  • Anonymous

    My math is “stupid”?

    Resisting the temptation of calling your capitalization, punctuation and grammar any names, what math of mine are we talking about?

    I didn’t have any math on my post.

    What is the price you put on reduced crack addiction? How about reduced murder rates? How about a son seeing his mother getting dressed and heading to work for the first time in a generation?

    If you are going to criticize my math, lets see the values you assigned to the elements I listed, so we can look at the “correct” figures. I just hope your math skills are better than your writing skills.

  • Anonymous

    absolutely your math is-stupid it costs nearly 60 thousand plus for each workfare job- and it does not even produce a tax payer actually they get even more money back via the earned income credit

    so you are paying 70 thousand plus for each family on workfare when it was no more than 12k- prior in costs for welfare per family

    your math is stupid
    conservative math is just the most expensive way to do things with the worst outcomes because since workfare the poverty rate has doubled

  • moderator

    Shawn and Baron,

    Time to agree to disagree and move along without further comment.

    Sean @ Moyers

  • moderator

    Baron and Shawn

    Time to agree to disagree and move along without further comment.


    Sean @ Moyers

  • Anonymous

    Is this satire? If not, you are clearly representative of what this researcher found.

  • Anonymous

    You may pay attention to the news, but do you pay attention to history? Because “the news” isn’t going to school you. Well, let’s review the race-specific programs that benefited whites, shall we? From about 1600 up to 1865, blacks were stolen from their homeland and sold into the institution that produced the total economy for this country. Four million slaves labored at the time of the civil war- cotton being the largest gross domestic product. Hmm? How did that come to be? It wasn’t white labor. The largest enterprise in America was in fact, slavery itself. This country was founded on first stealing the land from Natives and then stealing human capital from their land and forcing them into lifelong, hard labor. How’s that for race-specific programs benefiting whites? Do you honestly think that the meager efforts of government affirmative action are game-changing for the masses of Blacks -who are descendants of chattel slavery that continued even 80 years after the civil war and up until World War II-where blacks were slaves in iron mines, on farms, and laws were written specifically to imprison them (for things like applying to work at another job, for failing to be able to prove employment, or looking at a white woman)? Give me a break. (By the way, college is spelled with an “e” not an “a”.) Affirmative action only makes an attempt to recognize that this society is not made up of solely white males, who, in the lack of restrictions, would only hire other white males, as was the case before affirmative action.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    No. It is a serious question. You really don’t think that welfare was working better in 2007 than in 1987?
    You can’t take a reading now, in the immediate aftermath of a deep recession. But I see lots of positive results compared to the old welfare vicious cycle.
    Don’t you?

  • Anonymous

    No, because I actually worked in this system during the so-called “welfare reform”, in a state with a moderate Republican wanting make a name for himself; so,we were on the cutting edge of the experiment. In theory, it was great. Train people to work and be self-sufficient. In reality, the cost of daycare was too much for parents whose low paying jobs couldn’t support or keep pace with child care costs. It seemed to work in the 4-6 year span of an election cycle, because the rolls were low. However, all we were doing really was moving the line items. The money was still government subsidized. The recidivism was high. People wanted to work and in the sterilized system, this was possible. In the real world, it was very difficult. This research deals with perceptions, myths and stereotypes-and that is one of them. (That people don’t want to work. I’ve found that most do but it’s more affordable not to in many cases. Have you ever seen the movie Claudine? Some parts of that film ring true.) The funny thing is that I lived in a northern state. When I moved south, true to the research in this article, I found that people on “the system”, were treated much worse and that they have much fewer benefits, but also poorer quality educational and training programs and a lot more poverty.

  • Anonymous

    What are those positive results of which you speak?

  • Anonymous

    The Reagan Administration started this ball rolling a decade earlier with 1986 Federal Tax reduction legislation that split the Federal obligation for many social programs and dumped half of it on the states. This made his administration look good with a significant reduction in Federal Debt while increasing the debt burden on the states and relinquishing centralized control to fifty state bureaucracies who were given a golden opportunity to increase their own local bureaucracies. Over the following twenty eight years we’ve seen numerous atrocities committed by various Red State officials to limit access to these programs, programs that the residents of all states now finance through their Federal Income Tax and, after 1986, their State Property Tax to fund their state’s financial obligation to these programs. A tax system that the wealthiest in this country have increasingly avoided over the past forty years with the help of their minions in Congress and the elected members of the various state governments !

  • Anonymous

    Slightly fewer than one in three welfare beneficiaries are African-American. But it seems clear from the rhetoric around welfare that a lot of people think of it as a program for blacks.

    I have no problem with black people getting government assistance, but the above dishonesty drives me nuts. Yes, only 30% of welfare beneficiaries are black, but black people are only 13% of the population!

    In proportion to their numbers, black people are HUGE welfare users, three times more likely to collect welfare than non-black people. How can you say it’s not a program that disproportionally goes to help black people?

  • Anonymous

    Haven’t all the indicators improved after the Clinton/Gingrich reforms for the black population?

    No, poverty is up, way way up, and it’s as a direct consequence of slashing the social safety net.

  • Al Bergstein

    Great analysis. Why not ask Clinton on to rebut the charge that his signature policy achievement worked against what he wanted to achieve? I’d like to hear his explanation, as I’m sure he’ll have one. And was the Black legislative caucus on board with this or not at the time? That should have been mentioned.

  • Anonymous

    that’s only 6% , when non-white population is way more than 6%.