clock menu more-arrow no yes

Lillie Harden was Bill Clinton’s welfare reform success story. Welfare reform failed her.

Honoring Harden's legacy includes recognizing the limits of welfare reform that doesn't reform what makes welfare necessary.

Lillie Harden stands alongside President Bill Clinton as he signs welfare reform into law.
Lillie Harden stands alongside President Bill Clinton as he signs welfare reform into law.
Social Security Administration

Twenty years ago Monday, President Bill Clinton sat on the White House lawn under the sweltering summer sun and signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), simply known as welfare reform, into law.

For Clinton, PRWORA represented keeping a 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." An advocate of similar legislation as governor of Arkansas, Clinton paralleled conservatives at the time who saw welfare not as a safety net but as a broken entitlement system fueling lazy dependence on the government that needed reform to incentivize the nation’s poor to work hard to escape their plight.

But the president’s victory rested largely on the presence of Lillie Harden. The 42-year-old black mother from Little Rock, Arkansas, once embodied the "welfare queen" stereotype burned into America’s collective conscience by Ronald Reagan, which she both fit and shattered standing over Clinton’s right shoulder that day on the White House lawn.

In Harden’s speech at the signing ceremony, she spoke of using welfare while unemployed for two years, of her son "pushing" her to go back to work, and, finally, enrolling in one of Arkansas’s welfare-to-work reform programs Clinton initiated as governor in 1989, which she credited with helping her land a job at a supermarket.

"When I got my job, my son was so proud of me," Harden said. "But I made a deal with him. I told him, ‘I'm going to work every day and take my work seriously.’"

Through Clinton, Harden demonstrated a new era in which policy reform pushed personal reform to the benefit both of citizens and the government that served them. But 20 years later, does this image of Harden and the benefits of welfare reform still hold up?

Harden symbolized black people taking "personal responsibility" for their poverty

Harden’s story was considered successful in large part because she calmed national anxiety that black women exploited welfare through the infamously racist stereotype of the (black) "welfare queen."

The welfare queen idea was an enduring talking point for Reagan’s 1976 presidential run, years before Harden was unemployed in 1981. As Josh Levin reported for Slate, Reagan’s campaign recounted stories of elusive figures living in public housing with pools, practicing witchcraft while collecting food stamps. Reagan told America the story of Linda Taylor, a Chicago con artist who had, in fact, cheated the government of $8,000 by 1976, using four aliases (though he claimed she used "80 names"), wearing a fur while driving a Cadillac to receive public assistance.

Discussions about welfare queens were fueled by racial resentment. Contrary to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, welfare had created chronic dependence on subsidies like Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). But rather than adjust the policy or address the core reasons so many people were stuck in the cycle, the conversation focused largely on vilifying welfare recipients as corrupt drains on society, leeching off hard-working American’s tax dollars.

And even though white and black families made up similar numbers of AFDC cases between 1983 and 1995, black women were the face of both welfare’s failure and the culprits who corrupted it, and an indictment of the Democratic Party that supported them.

Clinton, however, offered a different vision. After some back and forth with the GOP, the AFDC was effectively renamed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Through block grants, the policy required recipients to find a job two years after they began seeking benefits, and put a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits. Also among its goals was a push to promote two-parent households and marriage, drawing heavily from dubious ideas that women were using out-of-wedlock births to cash in on welfare checks.

PWRORA helped Clinton effectively dismantle a social safety net for the poorest Americans with a program that incentivized them to seek work because there was little money invested in supporting them otherwise.

Clinton also found a way to rebrand the political party he led by putting an end to the system championed by Democratic presidents before him. But he did so by following Reagan and other Republicans.

Clinton drew the ire of liberals, including Mary Jo Bane, Wendell Primus, and Peter Edelman — prominent officials at Health and Human Services under his administration who resigned in protest.

In a 1997 Atlantic essay titled "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," Edelman, a longtime friend of Clinton, lambasted just what was wrong with PRWORA: "The bill closes its eyes to all the fact and complexities of the real world and essentially says to recipients, Find a job. That has a nice bumper-sticker ring to it. But as a one-size-fits-all recipe it is totally unrealistic."

A part of this was simply politics. Clinton entered the White House as a Democrat appealing to "white flight Democrats," or those voters prepared to leave the party out of resentment for its growing alignment with the concerns of racial minorities. And like his infamous "Sister Souljah moment," welfare reform helped him capture racial resentment to his advantage.

In the 1990s, Clinton sought to champion both hard-working Americans and nonworking Americans alike by gutting government subsidies for the nation’s poorest, who, due to welfare, had little if any reason to work like their counterparts.

But with Harden, Clinton did what his GOP counterparts couldn’t: advocate for welfare reform without completely alienating black constituents. By pushing personal responsibility, Harden helped Clinton chastise welfare without completely vilifying black women. Harden showed that the "welfare queen" could be redeemed, transforming the face of welfare’s alleged problems into the same fare of welfare reform’s promise.

Welfare reform failed to address systemic inequalities that still hurt black women

Lillie Harden’s story may have been a triumph for Clinton’s welfare reform agenda. But in the decade after, her life showcased its undeniable limitations.

Last year, for Alternet, journalist Zaid Jilani tried to seek Harden, and found that she had died 12 years after she suffered a stroke in 2002, which left her unable to qualify for Medicaid or afford her bill for monthly prescriptions.

In American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare, Harden gave journalist Jason DeParle a different outlook on welfare reform: "It didn’t pay off in the end."

As Vox’s Dylan Matthew’s explained, the success of Clinton’s welfare reform depends on how one measures the goals. If it was to actually end welfare, then PRWORA was a victory. If the goal was to put an end to poverty, it’s hard to deny that it was an utter failure.

From 1993 to 2012, overall poverty dropped, particularly during the 1990s. However, Matthews noted:

That was true even in economic downturns. In 1993, as the nation recovered from the early 90s recession, the poverty rate was nearly 21 percent. In 2012, in the wake of the worst recession in post-WWII history, it spiked up to 16 percent, a huge improvement.

The same can't be said of deep poverty [or those living on $2 a day]. That fell in the '90s too — but by a comparatively tiny amount. And by 2012, it was back fairly close to its 1993 level.

Even today, black women like Harden remain extremely vulnerable to poverty. A 2013 report by the Center for American Progress found that African-American women comprise more than half (53.3 percent) of breadwinners in married black households. Nonetheless, black women’s poverty rate is nearly twice that of their white counterparts — 28.6 percent compared with 10.8 percent.

Not only does this make black women more vulnerable to the effects of poverty, but without support, the families many of them lead are put at risk too.

Two decades later, Harden may be remembered as the face of welfare reform. But given the fact that welfare also failed her, Harden’s legacy shows the limits of perpetuating personal responsibility narratives to redress systemic issues.

Harden reminds us that the poorest among us are not solely responsible for their plight, and regardless of political gains, welfare reform needs to include reforming the institutional conditions that make welfare necessary.