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Clinton-era welfare rule gets little notice in election

Then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 as he prepared to sign into law legislation that would overhaul America's welfare system. J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press / file

Four dollars a day. That’s about the price of a tall caramel macchiato at Starbucks, or a medium coffee and bagel with cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts.

But $4.40 is also the daily allowance for thousands of Massachusetts’ poorest residents on food stamps — an allowance that was cut off for some 10,000 people in the state earlier this year under a provision of a landmark 1996 welfare law. The provision required recipients to find at least an average of 20 hours of work a week or face a cutoff of benefits.

Twenty years after the welfare law was signed by President Bill Clinton, the food stamp cut-off and other provisions remain controversial with advocates for the poor, even as underlying policies to address the most extreme poverty are getting little attention on the campaign trail.


Bernie Sanders, who has made dismantling economic inequality the cornerstone of his presidential campaign, said in February that the welfare reform law “scapegoated people” and went “after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country.” But he and Hillary Clinton have not presented policies that would directly address some of the law’s negative consequences, and advocates for the poor said the work-for-food requirement was one of the harshest.

Neither the Democrats nor presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump responded to e-mails asking if they had plans to propose changes to the 1996 welfare legislation.

“For this population, they often aren’t eligible for other kinds of public assistance or support, so the loss of [food stamp benefits] can be really devastating,” said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington. “They might not be homeless only because they have SNAP benefits, and they can put the other money toward rent.”

Temera T. Peeples, who lives in Dorchester, has worked 16 hours a week as a grocery store cashier for the last 15 years, earning $181 a week. She was able to get by with the help of family until her mother died and her father retired.


The 42-year-old receives $142 a month in food stamps to help make ends meet.

“That’s it,” she said. “If we have enough meat in our freezer, I try to get canned goods and stuff like that or go up to the food pantry.”

But because she applied in January after the work requirement waiver expired, her 18-year-old daughter, who still lives at home and is unemployed, must volunteer each week at a nonprofit organization in order for Peeples to continue to receive help, Peeples said.

It’s often referred to as the work-for-food requirement. It says 18-to-49-year-old adults without dependents must find a job within three months of receiving food stamps and work an average of 20 hours a week or participate in job training, or perform community service in order to receive food assistance.

Federal law allows states to waive the work-for-food requirement if unemployment rates are too high or if there aren’t enough jobs in the area. And during the recession, Massachusetts — and just about every other state — did just that.

Slowly, unemployment rates began to fall and now most of those states, including Massachusetts, no longer qualify. The state’s unemployment rate is now at about 4.4 percent, so the three-month time limit was reinstated for much of Massachusetts as of Jan. 1.


There are pockets of the state, including Berkshire County, Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton, and New Bedford, where unemployment remains above 10 percent, so the waiver remains in place. But in cities with lower unemployment rates, including Boston and Worcester, the work requirement was reinstated and about 10,000 people lost food assistance that is worth an average of $194 per month, which is the maximum. Many of them are in individual neighborhoods that are especially hard hit by unemployment.

“The unemployment rate in Roxbury is just as high as Lawrence, but because Boston is so low — nothing,” said John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, or ABCD, an antipoverty organization. “It’s so arbitrary. It just drives me crazy.”

Boston has become one of the most expensive places to live in the country, where about 40 percent of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent city report. But many of those jobs remain out of reach. The same report said nearly half of the residents earn less than $35,000, and incomes, when adjusted for inflation, have not risen for such workers for three decades.

What’s more, there is a negative perception attached to food stamps — and welfare more broadly — that makes many politicians steer clear of talking about government programs that help those in extreme poverty unless it’s tough-talk about reforming the system, political analysts say.

“There’s still a stigma attached to the poor going back to welfare reform, to 1996: ‘people are just collecting checks from the state and we want to crack down on them.’ And I think it still exists to some extent,” said Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economics and Policy Research in Washington.


The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, or the welfare reform act, was the most radical overhaul of how the nation helps the poor in decades. It made good on Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

But the legislation was also an acrimonious compromise that prompted three senior Clinton administration officials to resign in protest. Those on the left thought the work requirements were too harsh and those on the right said the work incentives were too generous.

In her 2004 memoir, Hillary Clinton called the bill “far from perfect” but said she supported the bill. Her husband had vetoed two earlier versions.

“I agreed that [Bill Clinton] should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage — though he and the legislation were roundly criticized by some liberals, advocacy groups for immigrants and most people who worked with the welfare system,” Clinton wrote.

After Sanders criticized the welfare law earlier in the campaign, aides to Hillary Clinton pointed out to reporters that poverty actually dropped during Bill Clinton’s presidency. However, some two decades after it became law, liberal policy analysts say that the legislation hurt many of the nation’s poor.


Today, many of the economic policies pitched by Sanders and Clinton — and to a lesser extent, Trump — focus on working people, not those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, analysts say. Trump said he would be “the greatest jobs-producing president that God ever created” who would “grow our economy.”

“These policies ignore the very poor,” said Susan R. Crandall, director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “There is an assumption that people are able to work. But in many cases jobs are out of reach, and they are out of reach for a number of reasons.”

The post-recession labor market looks much different than the one that existed before the 2008 economic crash, when there were more manufacturing jobs and opportunities for people without college or high school diplomas. Many of those jobs did not come back when the economy rebounded, and so a gap exists between available jobs and workers with the skills to fill them, advocates say.

“But there are other gaps as well — transportation gap, not being able to get to the job, being disqualified for a number of reasons. They are ex-offenders. Some sort of immigrant status,” Crandall said.

Still, even those who find jobs are at risk of losing their benefits if their employer won’t give them 20 hours a week. Advocates for the poor say they doubt the 10,000 Massachusetts residents moved off food stamps have been able to find employers who will give them more than 20 hours a week in work.

“This population is becoming slowly invisible,” said Patricia Baker, of Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “It’s such a complicated rule to understand and explain. Did you get three months? Did you run out? Do you know why? And it’s also terribly embarrassing to say ‘I can’t find work. I can’t eat.’ ”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.