How Bidenomics Can Unite America
A quarter-century ago, I and other members of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet urged him to reject the Republican proposal to end welfare. It was too punitive, we said, subjecting poor Americans to deep and abiding poverty. But Clinton’s political advisers warned that unless he went along, he jeopardized his reelection.
That was the end of welfare as we knew it. As Clinton boasted in his State of the Union address to Congress in 1996, “The era of big government is over.”
Until last Thursday, that is, when Joe Biden signed into law the biggest expansion of government assistance since the 1960s — a guaranteed income for most families with children, raising the maximum benefit by up to 80 percent per child.
As Biden put it in his address to the nation, as if answering Clinton: “The government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people.”
As a senator, Biden had supported Clinton’s 1996 welfare restrictions, as did most Americans. What happened between then and now? Three big things.
First, COVID-19. The pandemic has been a national wake-up call on the fragility of middle-class incomes. The deep COVID-19 recession has revealed the harsh consequences of most Americans now living paycheck to paycheck.
For years, Republicans used welfare to drive a wedge between the white working middle class and the poor. Ronald Reagan portrayed black, inner-city mothers as freeloaders and con artists, repeatedly referring to a woman in Chicago as the “welfare queen.”
Starting in the 1970s, women had streamed into paid work in order to prop up family incomes decimated by the decline in male factory jobs. These families were particularly susceptible to the Republican message. Why should “they” get help for not working when “we” get no help, and we work?
By the time Clinton campaigned for president, “ending welfare as we know it” had become a talisman of so-called New Democrats, even though there was little or no evidence that welfare benefits discouraged the unemployed from taking jobs. (In Britain, enlarged child benefits actually increased employment among single mothers.)
Yet when COVID-19 hit, public assistance was no longer necessary just for “them.” It was needed by “us.”