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.