Elizabeth Bruenig in TNR:
The economic boom of the late '90s masked the disasterwelfare reform would eventually reveal itself to be for a time, and perhaps this is why Bill Clinton enjoys a reputation as a fantastic president with an almost lovable scoundrel side. But since the collapse of the dot-com bubble, his reckless gutting of welfare has plunged millions of families into deep poverty.
The point of welfare reform was, in Hillary’s words, to “transition from dependency to dignity”—that is, to transition desperately poor families from welfare to work within a definite period of time. Although Clinton has refused to comment on whether or not she still considers welfare reform a success, she has since stuck to the theme of keeping benefits means-tested, with the goal of limiting benefits to the most destitute. Thus her interest, one presumes, in preventing Donald Trump’s kids from attending college without paying tuition, as Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise didn’t when she attended one of Norway’s many state colleges. Quelle horreur.
Clinton’s approach is one way to think about benefits: as tightly limited programs of last resort for people in extreme circumstances. This is mostly the way we talk about benefits now, in the parlance of a “safety net” for the precariously balanced and fallen. In this vein of thought, it makes sense to limit benefits to the extremely needy and to impose terms even upon those benefits, so as to prevent dependency—since the point is, after all, eventually ending one’s use of benefits.
Then there is the other way of looking at benefits: the social-democratic way. In his 1990 book Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen described firstly the “‘liberal’ welfare state, in which means-tested assistance, modest universal transfers, or modest social-insurance plans predominate,” and “benefits cater mainly to a clientele of low-income, usually working-class, state dependents.” Then there is the social-democratic world, which consists of “a welfare state that would promote an equality of the highest standards, not an equality of minimal needs,” thus promising “that equality be furnished by guaranteeing workers full participation in the quality of rights enjoyed by the better-off.”