The presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton recently received a major boost in the form of the first ever presidential endorsement by the nation’s largest provider of reproductive healthcare, Planned Parenthood. This is a major victory for the candidate, who has been steadily losing her lead over the major Democratic challenger, nominal socialist Bernie Sanders, since his campaign began in May. Since fraudulent videos attacking the organization for profiting from “baby parts” provoked controversy this summer, Planned Parenthood has become a symbol of the increasingly urgent struggle to protect women’s basic rights to reproductive control in the face of a resurgence in religious fundamentalism that has unified the new Republican insurgency. The support of the world’s most powerful women’s rights organizations, especially in a moment when their survival is essential for the short-term maintenance of fundamental human rights, feeds the Clinton campaign’s only tool in reaching progressives: their apparent feminism.
The former senator’s voting record on abortion is consistent (although Planned Parenthood’s claim that she “fights harder” than Sanders for reproductive rights reviews the two candidates’ records with vague language and selective observations). She is also the most successful female presidential candidate in American history, a fact with profound implications that as a man I will never be able to fully appreciate. But paving the path for women in the White House would not necessarily improve the lives of the 3.6 billion women alive right now who will never be the President of the United States. As an active participant in her husband’s administration, as a Senator for the state of New York, and as the Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term, Clinton consistently supported policies that were specifically harmful to women who are not part of her white upper class. While exploring the misogyny in her foreign policy and her public image could take several weeks, deep truths about Hillary Clinton’s feminism can be revealed in a single case study: her husband’s destruction of the American welfare system.
Supporters of Secretary Clinton point out that lumping Hillary with her husband’s presidency together could be patronizing to the former first lady and undermine her own significant political record. But members of the Clinton administration remember her as a top advisor to the President, who actively negotiated with Congress and used her public face to protect him from political attacks. Even if she hadn’t participated in the administration, the fact that she lent her publicity to Bill’s campaigns for President and Governor of Arkansas, and the fact that he is actively campaigning for hers, means that Hillary shares responsibility for the policies and effects of Bill Clinton’s presidency. It’s also fair to assume, since she explicitly touts the “success” of her husband’s economic policies (which can basically be summed up in Wall Street deregulation, in neoliberal trade agreements that devastate workers both here and abroad, and in welfare reform that I will discuss) as a major selling point of her campaign, her own economic policies as president would follow his model.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, possibly the most destructive abandonment of the American poor by their state since before the New Deal. By replacing Franklin Roosevelt’s Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program with highly restrictive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Clinton told the American poor that paying for housing and feeding their children are not human rights, they are conditional privileges. Government spending on welfare programs was vastly reduced, and welfare recipients were submitted to austerity measures with minimal support in compliance. While this had disastrous effects for all Americans rendered incapable of earning a living wage, welfare reform had by far the largest negative impact on poor women and their children.
Many of the austerity measures instituted in Clinton’s welfare reform were designed to promote two-parent households, and inversely, to punish single mothers. Congressional testimonies by pseudoscientific authorities focused entirely on the effect and never the cause had convinced Americans that two married heterosexual parents raise more successful children (a statement rendered entirely false when studies use controls for poverty and social class), so the President’s welfare bill offered more benefits to married recipients than unmarried ones in an appeal to social conservatives. Acutely aware that leaving their husbands would make them less likely to receive food and housing relief for their families, women receiving TANF are significantly less likely to leave abusive relationships (30% of women on welfare report physical abuse from their current partner), and cite their welfare eligibility as a reason why. Keep that in mind the next time Hillary mentions her anti-domestic violence platform.
Another austerity measure of TANF is the requirement that all beneficiaries be employed or actively seeking employment. While this mandate led to a short term drop in unemployment (which had already been sinking since 1992 thanks not to welfare reform but general economic growth), the job training offered by TANF was for short term employment in only specific sectors. By 2002, unemployment had already risen above its 1996 rate. This return to poverty is more notable in female recipient; a third of women who leave welfare return within a year, and half within two years. Almost unquestionably, this is because TANF eliminated educational opportunities for welfare recipients, especially single mothers. In 1996, the AFDC welfare program provided cash assistance to 649,000 parents, most of them single mothers, who were enrolled in full-time educational programs in order to find a more permanent path out of poverty. Today only 27,000 people receiving any TANF aid (which does not consider educational programs employment) are enrolled as full-time students. Because they must be seeking employment, TANF recipients almost never have time for education, and for single mothers whose time and money is consumed by raising children (in a country with less state support for childcare than any other in the developed world), college education, and with it an escape from poverty, is impossible. Certainly Hillary, whose No Ceilings organization advocates women’s education around the world, must appreciate the importance of what she helped take from impoverished women in her own country.
But perhaps the most anti-feminist element of Clinton’s welfare reform is its premise.
Social welfare programs, programs that guarantee a basic standard of living to those most brutally disenfranchised by the economic and political establishment, are the most essential responsibility of any government. The American system of welfare was established in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of Democrats to prevent massive economic and humanitarian disaster after the first collapse of capitalism in 1929. While in many ways woefully insufficient, it represents the American government’s most daunting approach to populism, a move so revolutionary that a coalition of bankers briefly contemplated launching a fascist coup to reclaim the government which had always been (and would soon be again) their plaything. For fifty years, the idea that the wealthiest empire in human history would not offer some tiny relief to its poorest citizens was rightly laughed off as absurd and inhumane in both political parties. New Deal welfare remained a major American institution for most of the twentieth century.
But in the 1980s, a smooth-talking failed movie star named Ronald Reagan proved that an American president barely needs to pretend to value the interests of his people if enough of them like the way he smiles. Reagan’s administration (and their illegal corporate sponsors) created the legend of the Welfare Queen to defame the welfare program and ultimately steal its funds to be put to more practical use as tax breaks for the wealthiest capitalists, who can in turn use their extra wealth to push more people into poverty. Reagan described the (categorically false) increase in welfare fraud as embodied by a woman “from Chicago’s South Side” who used her exorbitant welfare payments to fund her hedonism and lechery while abandoning her children. This played into the American bourgeoisie’s deep condescension towards and fear of poor people, black people, and women. Implying that a poor, black, single mother’s impulse would be to cheat the system for short-term personal pleasure at the cost of her children exemplifies the worst of America’s classism, racism, and especially misogyny. But this implication is essential in the argument for welfare reform.
It turned out not even Ronald Reagan could kill America’s welfare program. That took the son of a single mother from Arkansas elected because of his personal experience with poverty and the political powerhouse he created with his wealthy, Yale educated wife. The Clintons let welfare reform take credit for the economic boom of the late 90s (perhaps overlooking the economic revolution that we now call the internet), and conveniently ignored its complete failure on both economic and humanitarian levels a few years later. Hillary became a Senator, giving her the opportunity to vote for an illegal war that toppled a secular government and increased religious fundamentalist violence against women in Iraq. President Obama made her Secretary of State, a post that let her protect the interests of her own multi-billion dollar foundation and its sponsors (including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, possibly the most overtly anti-women state in the world). And now she is well on her way to becoming the first female President of the United States, proving to women everywhere that America is the land of opportunity for women (if they start out white and rich and at every step of their career pledge loyalty to the fundamentally patriarchal structures of capitalism). It would be imprudent to forget the human cost, especially to women, that was paid for her political career.