Reading Nick Kristof on Welfare

Here comes Nick Kristof, twenty years later, noticing that welfare reform was a disaster. That's good, I guess. But let’s take a closer look at his analysis.

In 1996, Kristof tells us, he was “sympathetic” to Bill Clinton’s goal of ending “welfare as we know it,” despite some of the most respected voices of the day calling it cruel and harmful. Rep. John Lewis asked at the time, “What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?” Marion Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, ended her friendship with the Clintons, saying the bill “makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.” Three senior administration officials, including Peter Edelman, resigned in protest after making sure that Bill Clinton knew exactly how much worse life would be for those in poverty. Peter Edelman called it "the worst thing Bill Clinton has done," writing in 1997 that "it will hurt millions of poor children by the time it is fully implemented."

Now, twenty-five years later, Kristof has discovered that the critics were right: welfare reform has doubled the number of children in extreme poverty, tripling extreme poverty for female-headed households. Kristof notes that “Recent research finds that because of welfare reform, roughly three million American children live in households with incomes of less than $2 per person per day, a global metric of extreme poverty. That’s one American child in 25.”

This is old news but, hey, Kristof is a busy guy, trekking around the world and all. Good on him for finally seeing the truth. Or, well, some of the truth: he claimed the bill “seemed to be working” until the economy stalled and Republican governors took away TANF benefits. But the system worked exactly as Peter Edelman told the president it would: it pulled the floor out from under an entire generation of people in poverty (many of them women) and made it impossible for them to escape it.

But, wait, what is his solution? Interestingly, it's not at all about addressing the injustice in our society. 

Please note that. Noted liberal do-gooder Nick Kristof's solutions have nothing to do with addressing the wealth gap and job losses that are the intentional result of policies the Clintons and their allies in both parties have pursued for 25 years. He has nothing to say about the Clinton-Bush-Obama trade deals that have never created good jobs but have simply given license to American corporations to move to where labor is cheapest. He has nothing to say about corporate welfare. Nor does he have even a single thing to say about the shockingly unpatriotic and unjust parking of assets by the richest Americans and corporations in offshore tax havens.

No. Nick Kristof has nothing to say about our deliberately unjust economy nor those who have rigged it to serve themselves.

Instead, his solution is social engineering: birth control for the poors and more of the "jobs training" pablum that Thomas Frank has shown is the liberal “solution” that covers up each additional act of injustice without in any way mitigating it. 

How galling that this wealthy, older, white man blames the problem of poverty on poor women having babies.

How absurd that he thinks the poor are poor because they don’t have “financial literacy training.”

Naturally, he still supports Hillary, even though she defended the bill at the time and in fact wanted a “formal role” in helping it pass, writing later that “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.” Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich remarked that it was “hard to miss the racism and misogyny that helped motivate welfare reform.” 

Naturally, to ease his conscience, Kristof has found some extremely poor Americans who, in their internalized shame, will agree that “everyone was taking advantage” of the old system (even though they were children at the time). Has Nick Kristof ever prodded a crooked CEO in this way? Has he ever bullied a one-percenter to admit that the tax laws need to be changed because he and his peers lack the moral fiber to resist taking advantage of the system?

But don't worry, America. I'm sure Nick Kristof sleeps soundly at night.

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