The “First Black President” and his policies (2nd response)

Jack did point out a few errors in my piece “The “First Black President” and his policies (response to Jack)” but there are a few thorns in the rosy picture he paints of the Clintons. Jack is correct in that there were only 3 executions by the federal government since the crime bill, and that states presided over the executions of black men and women, but that does not address the moral considerations of the position. These same moral considerations in the realm of criminal justice should also be applied to Hillary Clinton, who accepted donations from the private prison industry, up until recently. Bernie Sanders on the other hand, has unabashedly called for the end of private prisons, sponsoring “The Justice is Not for Sale” bill.

To substantiate my TANF claim regarding this:3-13-12tanf-f1.jpg

I would like to highlight that between 1995 and 2010 “…the number of families with children in poverty increased by 17 percent over this period, from 6.2 million to 7.3 million, and the number of poor children climbed by 12 percent, or by 1.7 million children.

While Jack admits that he “…couldn’t easily find a statistic about the proportion of the poor covered by all the U.S Welfare programs, but again, overall welfare spending has increased dramatically.”, he ignores that the author he cites, Moffit, describes what has transpired with welfare spending in the last two decades:

“However, although aggregate spending is higher than ever, there have been redistributions away from non-elderly and nondisabled families to families with older adults and to families with recipients of disability programs; from non-elderly, nondisabled single-parent families to married-parent families; and from the poorest families to those with higher incomes. These redistributions likely reflect long-standing, and perhaps increasing, conceptualizations by U.S. society of which poor are deserving and which are not ”

On Medicaid expansion, it is not necessarily the case that there is an increase in income. It could just mean low income families receive health coverage as opposed to not having it before.


The Clinton Presidency Revisited (A Response to Elijah)

As I work on the second installment of my three part series defending the Clinton administration, I thought I’d first correct a few errors from Elijah’s response to my piece.

First, the death penalty. Elijah rightly notes the disproportionate and discriminatory impact the death penalty has on African Americans. It’s also true that the 1994 Crime Bill created 60 new death penalty offenses. However, he conveniently omits the fact that only three people have been executed by the Federal Government since the Crime Bill passed. The hundreds of black people have been executed by the government is the fault of state government policies, not the Clintons’ crime bill.

I also believe Elijah is also a little misleading about Clinton’s support of the death penalty. From the same debate that Elijah pulls the Sander’s quote, Clinton says, “I do [support the death penalty] for very limited, particularly heinous crimes believe it is an appropriate punishment, but I deeply disagree with the way that too many states are still implementing it.” In fact, Clinton has some personal experience with the unjust implementation of capital punishment. Way back in 1976 as a young lawyer in Arkansas she successfully defended a mentally disabled black man from the death penalty.



Second, some points about Welfare spending. Elijah has some interesting points to make about the distribution of Welfare spending. But when you read the actual article cited instead of the press release, you find a long section called “Caveats and Concerns.”

Here we find that the author omits Medicaid spending from total Welfare spending because it’s difficult to calculate on a per capita basis. This isn’t a minor omission–Medicaid accounts for more than 50% of total U.S welfare spending. More importantly, the inclusion of Medicaid would change the picture Elijah paints since Medicaid has been significantly expanded under the Clinton Administration.

Most of the Medicaid expansion in the 1990s took the form of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, an effort led by no other than Hillary Clinton herself.

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As the above chart from the nonpartisan CBO shows, 10 million more people enrolled in Medicaid during the Clinton administration as spending tripled. Since the CHIP was targeted at the children of poor families, the increased health care benefits would significantly increase the total amount of welfare assistance for single mother families, likely eliminating the supposed reduction Moffit calculates.


Third, Elijah includes this disturbing statistic: “welfare covered 75% of those living in poverty, but 14 years after welfare reform in 2009, during the worst recession since the Great Depression, only 27% of the impoverished were covered.” Welfare spending is meant to assist the poor. It’s alarming to think that Welfare assists less than a third of the American poor. Fortunately, it’s utterly untrue.

The statistic he cites only cover one program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), not all of welfare. TANF is one of the many welfare programs that the U.S that provides government assistance to the poor, and it’s also the only Welfare program that saw a decrease in spending since the 1990s.  I couldn’t easily find a statistic about the proportion of the poor covered by all the U.S Welfare programs, but again, overall welfare spending has increased dramatically. Furthermore, many provisions were increased during the recession:

The federal government expanded many of the major transfer programs significantly during the Great Recession. Benefit levels for the Food Stamp program were raised, and eligibility requirements were relaxed; EITC amounts were increased for large families; additional funds were provided for the TANF program; amounts for the CTC were increased; income and payroll tax rates were temporarily reduced; and one-time extra benefits were given to Social Security retirement and SSI recipients. An additional major legislative change involved the UI program, for which the potential duration of benefits was increased, benefit levels were raised, and states were encouraged to broaden the bases for eligibility.


While I haven’t considered every negative statistic Elijah highlighted in his post, I think I’ve covered the most heinous and demonstrated them to be greatly exaggerated or plainly untrue.

Now, as I said in my original piece on the Clinton Presidency, “there are many aspects of his presidency that aren’t defensible on the merits.” And no one’s denying that black people can’t, as Elijah says, “critically examine the Clinton Presidency.”

However, any fair-minded critical examination of the Clinton Presidency isn’t going to find it all that horrible. It seems clear that most Americans are voting for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders not because Clinton has “mastered racial pandering” but because it is perfectly reasonable to look back on the Clinton years and find them positive.

When you go out looking for bad things about the Clinton presidency, you’re going to find some. But that’s also true for any President. Overall evaluations need to compare both the positive and negative sides of the ledger. People have a right to come to their own conclusions, but Sanders supporters shouldn’t be surprised that most people look back at the Clinton years foundly.


The “First Black President” and his policies (response to Jack)

My colleague Jack wrote an article attempting to defend Clinton against black assessments that critically analyze his record. The rhetoric that Bill and Hillary employed on the conservative driven policies of the Crime and Welfare Reform bills has raised eyebrows among black intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike. But that will most likely be addressed by me in a separate post where Jack intends to inform us of the political context of the time.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander does do the record on race and crime justice by sketching the history of “law and order” conservatives, whose policies made possible the fastest increase in incarceration in history.(Chapter 2) It is fair to say that it was not Clinton alone who perpetuated mass incarceration, but the pervasive elements of white supremacy as a whole. This however, does not make him immune from critical assessments. The Federal Death Penalty Act, a provision in the 90’s crime bill, created 60 new death penalty offenses. This is particularly disturbing as people of color are 45% of those executed in capital punishment, and 54% of those on death row. Both Bill and Hillary’s position on the death penalty (they support it) can be difficult to fathom for some black intellectuals, and the community at large. Their position on capital punishment stands in sharp contrast to the view of Bernie Sanders and nearly 60% of Black Americans, who both seem to understand the racial dimensions of the policy:

“Number one, too many innocent people, including minorities, African Americans, have been executed when they were not guilty. That’s number one. We have to be very careful about making sure about that.”

According to some, Sanders only understands race as class, but the quote above from a Democratic debate shows a more nuanced view of race, just like his speech against the 90’s crime bill.

There are more painful aspects of Bill Clinton’s record on crime. Eliminating Pell grants and virtually stripping away education for inmates are some of the strongest long term negatives of the bill, especially when considering education’s impact on recidivism. Receiving an education in prison reduces an inmate’s chances of re-incarceration by 29%. And according to the National Institue of Justice “…prison education is far more effective at reducing recidivism than boot camps,shock incarceration…”, but the bill contained provisions for boot camps.

More interestingly, Clinton’s policy of welfare reform has been extremely controversial. Peter Edelman, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, describes the effects of the Welfare Reform Bill on single mothers:

“…a single parent with children and went to a welfare office, anywhere in America, federal law said you had to be afforded cash assistance.” But “…The new law changed that. It turned the structure into a block grant, which means each state gets a certain amount of money, and it can basically do whatever it wants, including not having a program at all”

For the poorest single parent families, 80 percent are headed by single mothers. This 80% demographic receives 35 percent less than they did prior to welfare reform. As Jack notes, social welfare spending increased in the U.S. since welfare reform but economist Robert Moffit reminds us that “…there has been a large increase in total government support to low income families since 1986, but the distribution of that support has dramatically changed”

The work requirements of the Personal Responsbility and Work Act, which the states had more control over after, have had crippling effects on single mothers struggling to get by. A study on low income single women has shown that 100% of women who earned 4 year degrees stop using government assistance, and 81% of women with two year degrees do. After the welfare reform bill, higher education was not considered a job under most states’ work requirements. This resulted in single mothers being deterred from pursuing college degrees, taking up lower wage jobs instead. The welfare reform bill is responsible for at least a 20% reduction in college enrollment for young women, with similar effects on high school education as well.

To add insult to injury, welfare covered 75% of those living in poverty, but 14 years after welfare reform in 2009, during the worst recession since the Great Depression, only 27% of the impoverished were covered.

The potential and observed damages of Bill Clinton’s policies on crime and welfare are heavily substantive, more than enough to grant black people the right to judge Clinton.


Defending the Clinton Administration (A Response to Elijah)

Elijah has an interesting post responding to my explanation that a tradition of pragmatism in black politics explains black support for Hillary Clinton. Instead of making a positive case for Sanders, he makes the case against Hillary.  This is certainly a very legitimate argument; when faced with constrained choices, sometimes you have to make the best of what you’re offered.

Instead of attributing Clinton’s support to black pragmatism, Elijah attributes it to the Clinton’s mastery of “racial pandering.” Michelle Alexander, who Elijah cites, attributes black support for Clinton to how the “mainstream media fails to tell the truth about our political system (and its true winners and losers).”

While these are plausible reasons, I think the simpler explanation is that black voters have come to support Clinton based on facts and reality, not a lying mainstream media or racial pandering. Before mixing metaphors about my insufficient understanding of blackness’ “powerful memory and heightened sensitivity,” maybe we should take a closer examination of the facts.

Probably the strongest attack on the Clinton years comes from Michelle Alexander’s article, (that Elijah cites) “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”  Alexander takes down the promise of Hillary’s presidency by attacking Bill Clinton’s presidency and its terrible impact on black people. It hits two major bills signed by President Clinton in particular, Welfare Reform and the Crime bill.

Very few Democrats would seek to pass bills like these today, and rightly so. But that does mean that the impact of either was horribly destructive, a position that aggressively Alexander argues.

First, let’s consider the impact of Clinton’s record on crime. Alexander says that “ Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history” While this is technically true, it omits the fact that the state governments and policies are responsible for the vast majority of incarceration. The Federal system is only responsible for 13% of overall incarceration, and there was no overall increase in the rate of incarceration during Clinton’s presidency in either the state or federal system.

Alexander also accuses Clinton of escalating the war on drugs, “beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible.” This is simply not backed up by the numbers. In fact, the proportion of people in prison on drug charges peaked in 1991, declining throughout the Clinton years. While criminal justice policies were not good during the Clinton administration, these were both inherited or were under control of the states. The case that Clinton created or escalated mass incarceration or the war on drugs is not based in fact.

The second major point Alexander makes against President Clinton’s Welfare reform. Here Alexander claims that Welfare reform “slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).” Now, it’s unclear where Alexander gets evidence for any of her claims as there are no links in her piece, but this seems like another statistic that is simply inaccurate. Public Welfare spending on those under 150% of the federal poverty level went up 50% during the Clinton administration. Welfare spending has been going up dramatically over the past 30 years, and that trend did not stop with Clinton’s welfare reform.

Screenshot 2016-03-10 22.55.22

Alexander admits that at the very least the effects of welfare reform on overall poverty are mixed, but claims that, “Extreme poverty doubled to 1.5 million in the decade and a half after the law was passed.” Here, she seems to draw on the well publicized work of Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, authors of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

First of all, their data show that extreme poverty increased 50%, not “doubling.” However, that point is not a “clear” as Alexander makes it out to be. First of all, it’s important to note that $2 is not all these families get from the government, it includes only cash. Items like housing and food stamps are not included. Secondly, it’s unclear that deep poverty really increased. Collecting accurate data on the poorest Americans is very difficult. Other measures of deep poverty, including the one endorsed by the Census Bureau as the most accurate, find it unchanged since welfare reform. Finally, it’s important to remember that the overall impact on the poverty rate from welfare reform was likely positive. Even Matt Bruning, one of most liberal experts on poverty and a strong Sanders supporter, admits that there isn’t evidence that the overall effect of Welfare reform shows it did more harm than good.

Finally, Alexander combines her arguments about incarceration and welfare to argue that the Clinton administration was economically devastating for Black Americans. While we now know that Clinton was not responsible for an increase in incarceration and welfare reform wasn’t so bad, it’s still a valid argument to make. The economy under Clinton prospered, but if that prosperity was not shared by black Americans his record is certainly weakened.

Alexander rightfully argues that measures of the black unemployment rate don’t give a fully accurate picture of Black America picture because they don’t include the incarcerated. The best statistic for measuring all African Americans is the employment to population ratio that includes the incarcerated. Here, it’s clear that Black employment grew considerably during the Clinton administration, despite a high incarceration rate.

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The employment-population ratio isn’t the only statistic that has seen tremendous growth under the Clinton administration. The black white wealth gap, narrowed 25% under the Clinton administration, the only significant narrowing of the gap since the end of legal segregation. The racial wealth perhaps the best measure of how the legacy of racism hold black Americans back, and its narrowing shows that the Clinton administration, while prosperous for all Americans, also seriously reduced racial discrepancies.

Now, while I’ve vigorously defended the Clinton administration’s record, there are many aspects of his presidency that aren’t defensible on the merits. However, it’s important to consider the political context of the time. That will be the topic of my next post.

Lead In America

This month’s issue of the Jackass is up. I have an article about Flint, and lead more generally. It does a lot of myth busting about the Democratic narrative around Flint, but still comes with a good dose of Republican (In this case, Chris Christie) hate. Read it here.