President Ronald Reagan introduced a range of myths about America’s social safety net, led by his images of “welfare queens” and the implication that most recipients of public aid were African American. President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” and over the objections of many progressives, he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996.
Our guests in this WhoWhatWhy podcast were centrally involved in the policy debates and political battles that signaled the end of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and reduced the Democratic Party’s focus on America’s poor. Former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a one-time welfare mother elected to the House in 1992, shares insights and anecdotes, and laments that Clinton’s framing of the issues continues to this day with little change. While she has great affection for President Barack Obama, Woolsey says he never focused much on the poor and the social safety net.
Felicia Kornbluh has studied the issues for decades, and offers informed criticism from a feminist perspective. She reveals the collaboration between Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose “Contract with America” allowed Republicans to take control of the House in 1994. She makes a strong case that Clinton’s vision of the “New Democrats” was driven by a desire to attract wealthy and corporate donors to fund his center/right makeover of the party.
Woolsey, who represented a northern California district for 20 years starting in 1993, speaks candidly about raising three children as a single mom and relying on welfare for several years. Kornbluh is associate professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont — and co-author of the new book Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective. Her co-author is Gwendolyn Mink, who served as an adviser to her mother, Rep. Patsy Mink, who was a forceful opponent of Clinton’s reforms.