Exactly two decades after the first (I hope) President Clinton signed a massive welfare reform bill that ended an entitlement in place since the New Deal to take care of the poor, poverty is still very much a national deal. The real difference is somewhat equivalent to batters in a baseball game. The 1996 legislation gave states and localities considerable latitude to distribute federal dollars. Some stepped up to the plate and swung homers. Others chose to simply walk.
This two-decade anniversary is getting considerable media attention today, but the focus is on the national picture. The real stories are closer to the bone, and often unsung.
I was surprised last evening to have dinner with two very intelligent New Yorkers who had no idea what former Mayor Mike Bloomberg had done through his flagship agency – the Center for Economic Opportunity, which launched more than 60 initiatives aimed at reducing poverty, some tried-and-true strategies and others bold experiments. You can read more about it: http://washingtonmonthly.com/2016/06/29/how-to-lead-a-new-national-war-on-poverty/.
Ten years later, the results of the Center for Economic Opportunity is a poverty rate in NYC that is the lowest among the biggest cities in America and could yield a vast number of useful lessons for a new national war on poverty. So I explained last night to my friends.
Much has happened over the long tenure of the ’96 welfare reform. At its signing, I was VP for Communications for the American Public Welfare Association (APWA), and living in Washington. Kevin Concannon was Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner and president of the APWA. I recall his turning to me after listening to the welfare director from Georgia discussing how punitive the state would be once they had control over the federal funds. “Be happy,” he said, “that we don’t live in Georgia.”
Kevin might say that now about Maine. Currently under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kevin is often critical of his home state. Governor Paul LePage is exactly the kind of state leader that we all feared back in ’96. He has used everything in his control to not take advantage of expanded Medicaid dollars, curtail food stamps, and generally expect people to pull themselves up by their own boot straps.
Welfare reform gave Mike Bloomberg, and others, the impetus to be innovative and launch programs that are already being replicated on a national scale. Yet it also put the bat in the hands of many like LePage, who simply bunted, walked, or turned around and pounded the heads of those in need.