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.

Screenshot 2016-03-10 22.56.04
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.

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