Thursday, August 18, 2011

Clinton Applies Federalism

One of the successes, or apparent successes, of the Clinton administration was a welfare reform program, President Bill Clinton, according to Cengage's history book,

used his 1996 State of the Union address, his last before having to stand for reelection, to declare that "the era of big government is over" and began working with congressional Republicans to fulfill his goal of overhauling the social-welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) represented a series of compromises. Clinton voiced concern over cuts in the food stamp program and in benefits for recent immigrants, but he embraced the law's central feature. It replaced the AFDC program, which had long provided funds and services to poor families headed by single unemployed women, with a flexible system of block grants to individual states. The new program, entitled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), allowed the fifty states to design, under general federal guidelines, their own welfare-to-work programs.

This move, as a political compromise, contained both good and bad. Allowing fifty different states to explore program possibilities allowed for expansive experimentation and creativity, much more than a rigidly-dictated program from the central government. There was also an attempt to change the emphasis from supporting families to empowering families to support themselves. Welfare program had previously done great damage, by intimating to men that they need not support their families - a man could father a child and leave, knowing that his family would be paid for by the government when he chose not to support them.

Both Clinton and the congressional Republicans took their cues from the federalist principle: the ability of the individual states to make their own decisions in certain matters. As Temple University's Mark Levin writes,

Whatever kind of experimentation states and local communities may engage in, it is correct to say that they serve as useful examples for adoption, modification, or rejection by other states and localities. In the 1980s, Oregon's welfare reform experiment was so successful that it became a model not only for other states, but also for the federal government. Milwaukee's experiment with school vouchers sparked similar efforts across the country. Experimentation properly understood is a dynamic characteristic of federalism, which exists among, between, and within the various states. That is not to say that all experimentation produces desirable results. When Maryland passed a computer-services tax, its burgeoning technology sector threatened to relocate to neighboring Virginia, which had no such tax. Maryland repealed the tax. But other states learned from Maryland's experience.

Whatever Clinton's motives - he certainly did not believe or agree with his own words about reducing the size of government, given that he endorsed a program of socialized health care - and whether or not the 1996 welfare reform was a success - the data are ambiguous - we can see the principle of federalism at work in this political event.