January 26, 2016

Recovered history: The real Clinton past on class and ethnicity

Paul Heideman, Socialist Worker - After Bill lost the Arkansas governor's race in 1980, he vowed to become a "New Democrat"--tough on crime and less devoted to "special interest groups" like workers, women, people of color, etc. He began tacking to the right--more and more so as his successful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 came into sight. That shift culminated with his despicable decision to leave the presidential campaign trail and return to Arkansas to approve the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man with intellectual disabilities--all to prove just how tough on crime he could be.

During the years before 1992, Hillary Clinton went along with her husband, reconciling herself to the death penalty, which she had previously opposed, and becoming a corporate lawyer.

By the time of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, she had transformed herself from a left-leaning Wesleyan graduate who had written a thesis on Saul Alinksy into an avatar of the Democratic Party's shift to the right.

Bill Clinton came to the White House after 12 years of Republican occupants convinced that the Democrats' decline had been due to the party being too far to the left. As president, he intended to finish the reorientation he had pushed for as governor of Arkansas.

Clinton's push to the right bore fruit in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This bill, authored by Joe Biden at the behest of the White House, established draconian three-strikes laws that sent people away to prison for decades for trivial crimes. It also included "truth in sentencing" provisions that eliminated early parole for huge numbers of prisoners.

As the crime bill was being debated in Congress, Hillary Clinton was a vocal advocate for it, repeating the kinds of racist talking points used to support the "war on crime." At a time when the U.S. prison population was skyrocketing, she declared... "We need more police. We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets."

Bernie Sanders, it should be noted, voted for this bill while serving in the House.

In 1996, the Clintons went further when Bill signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law. This legislation ended the federal welfare system that had existed since the Great Depression, replacing it with a program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families, which was administered through the states....

Former drug czar William Bennett testified in 1995 that "any police sergeant in the country will tell you that the day welfare checks go out is a big day for drug buys." Democrats, however, were no less awful, with one governor boasting that welfare reform would "turn off the spigot" of teen pregnancy.

Hillary herself got in on the scapegoating after the fact, defending her husband's law with the same kind of rhetoric used to pass it. In 1999, she claimed that, before welfare reform, "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"--as if people on welfare were simply incapable of finding jobs.

Around the same time, she justified welfare reform with an anecdote from a woman whose daughter supposedly told her, "Mommy, I'm tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing." To make sure no one was missing the message, she later said that because of welfare reform, "these people are no longer deadbeats."

As political scientist Martin Gilens has shown, this racialization of the welfare debate had profound effects on the politics of reform. Even though a majority of recipients were white, a majority of the images shown in the media of welfare recipients were black. The drive to dismantle welfare was powered by portraying black Americans as deadbeats living off the tax dollars of white Americans.

When the law decentralized control over welfare funding levels to the states, it helped ensure that, in addition to universal federal restrictions like work requirements and an inadequate 60-month lifetime limit, individual governors could cut benefits to the bone.

This is, indeed, what happened. In 16 states, TANF benefits have simply never been adjusted, and remain at the same level they were at nearly 20 years ago, despite two decades of inflation. Even in states that did adjust for inflation, benefits didn't keep up. As result, once inflation is taken into account, benefits are lower than they were in 1996 in 48 states.

Partially as a result of this stinginess, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty--less than $2 a day per person--has doubled since 1996.

The consequences of this planned immiseration have fallen hardest, as always, on African Americans. ...The doubling of extreme poverty has also hit African Americans harder--the number of black households with children in extreme poverty grew by an astounding 182 percent.

This is the system that Hillary Clinton continues to defend in her effort to brand herself a pragmatic, get-things-done politician.

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