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(DV) Street: Bill Clinton Was No Champion of the Poor







Bill Clinton Was No Champion of the Poor
by Paul Street
September 29, 2005

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"We Had a Different Policy"

It's interesting to see former Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton speaking for the poor and against those who would distribute wealth yet further upward in America.  Two Saturdays ago, Clinton told ABC News that "you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people and up and when you tell people to do something they don't have the means to do you're going to leave the poor out."  Clinton added that Tropical Storm Katrina pointed up steep "class division[s] that often play out along racial lines" in America.

Before making these comments, Clinton reminded ABC that poverty fell in the United States (U.S.) during his presidency. As Clinton knows, American poverty has risen during every single year of the George W. Bush presidency -- the first time that the nation's official deprivation gauge has gone up for five consecutive years. 

The White House was so stung by Clinton's comments that Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was compelled to make a curiously reflective announcement.  "There is a deep history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality" in the U.S., McClellan noted, "and it will not be overcome instantly." 

"From Day 1," McClellan added, Bush "has been acting boldly to achieve real results for real Americans." 

By Clinton's accurate account, Bush's "real results for real Americans" have included the redistribution of money and wealth from real lower and middle-class Americans to really rich Americans. 

"Whether it's race-based or not," Clinton told ABC, "if you give tax cuts to the rich and hope everything turns out alright and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects brown and black people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the 80s; that's what they've done in this decade." "In the middle," Clinton reflected, "we had a different policy." (Phillip Shenon, "the Ex-President: Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism of the President's Relief Effort," New York Times, 19 September 2005, A17).

How "Different?"

Fair enough on Reagan and the two Bushes. But how "different" and more socio-economically and therefore (by Clinton's analysis) racially democratic was administration policy under Bill Clinton, the self-appointed post-Katrina champion of the poor? By Clinton's account, McClellan's "deep history of injustice" was under egalitarian federal assault during the years of the Clinton regime. The record suggests otherwise.

A good place to check that history against Clinton's populist claims is the thirteenth chapter, titled "The Clinton Presidency," of Howard Zinn's magnificent modern history counter-text The Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2003). Another place to look is progressive economist Robert Pollin's excellent Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fracturing and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York, NY: Verso, 2003). 

What emerges from a careful reading of these and numerous other texts and sources is a Clinton administration that defied mainstream public support for socially democratic policies by conducting the public business in regressive accord with the interrelated neoliberal and racially disparate imperatives of empire and inequality.

Clinton's domestic agenda was first announced as a gigantic jobs-creation program coupled with a determined effort to guarantee health care for all. But, Zinn notes, Clinton quickly betrayed these declared campaign priorities by "concentrating on reduction of the deficit, which under Reagan and Bush I had left a national debt of $4 trillion." This emphasis, Zinn argued, "meant that there would be no bold programs of expenditures for universal health care, education, child care, housing, the environment, the arts, or job creation." Clinton's "small gestures" toward social democracy did "not come close to what was needed in a nation where one-fourth of the children lived in poverty; where homeless people lived on the streets in every major city; where women could not look for work for lack of child care; where the air, the water were deteriorating dangerously."

More than being merely inadequate to the needs of America's millions of truly disadvantaged citizens, the Clinton administration actually attacked the disproportionately non-white poor in numerous interrelated ways. Clinton signed a punitive neoliberal welfare "reform" bill that ended the federal government's guarantee of financial help to impoverished families with dependent children. By forcing poor families getting federal cash assistance (such families were mainly non-white single-parent units) to find employment without establishing concomitant government programs to create or directly provide livable wage jobs, Clinton flooded the nation's low- and poverty-wage and no-benefits job market with hundreds of thousands of defenseless new proletarians. He also scored points with the grinders of the poor by taking welfare benefits away from legal as well as illegal immigrants. 

It was all done in the name of "Personal Responsibility," "Work Opportunity," and "Reconciliation," to use the key Orwellian phrases of the Clinton-Gingrich welfare-elimination regime.

Clinton enthusiastically signed a "Crime Bill" that expanded federal prison construction, helping turn the "land of freedom" into the world's leading incarceration state. Poor blacks made up a wildly disproportionate number of the Clinton era's massive and expanding army of prisoners and felony-marked "ex-offenders". 

Meanwhile, Clinton increased economic insecurity in poor and working-class American communities by signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA destroyed tens of thousands of American industrial jobs by tearing down long-established regulatory barriers to the movement of corporate capital and commodities across the U.S.-Mexican border. 

Clinton claimed that "the era of big government is over."  He was more than content, however, to sustain funding for the regressive, repressive, and militaristic "right hand of the state."  His concern with balanced budgets did not extend to the prison- and military- industrial complexes.  As Zinn notes, Clinton's federal government "continued to spend at least $250 billion a year to maintain the military machine." Clinton "accept[ed] the Republican claim that the nation must be ready to fight two regional wars simultaneously, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989." 

It was only the left hand of the state, the part that serves the poor and non-affluent majority, that Clinton targeted in his quest for deficit reduction. 

"The Traumatized Worker"

Ironically (or fittingly) given its insistence on throwing poor people onto the mercies of the "free" labor market, where most Americans obtain (uniquely among industrialized states) their health insurance, the Clinton administration ended without any serious effort to meaningfully deliver on its initial health insurance promises. It also failed to advance any meaningful initiative to protect the beleaguered rights of workers or to increase the woefully inadequate minimum wage. "Both the average wages for non-supervisory workers and the earnings of those in the lowest 10 percent of wage earners," notes Robert Pollin, "not only remained well below those of the Nixon/Ford and Carter administrations, but were actually lower than that even than those of the Reagan/Bush years. Moreover, wage inequality -- as measured by the ratio of the 90th to the 10th wage decile -- increased sharply during Clinton's tenure in office, even relative to the Republican heyday of the 1980s." To make matters worse, the percentage of Americans living at or below the poverty level during the Clinton administration (13.2) was only minimally smaller than the corresponding statistic for the Reagan/Bush era (14.1). The circumstances of the officially "poor" population actually worsened under Clinton. This partly reflected the Clinton administration's neoliberal slashing of federal family cash assistance for jobless single mothers and its related reliance on the capitalist labor market to improve the conditions of society's most vulnerable.  

As Pollin shows, following the testimony of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the leading explanation for the exceptionally low level of wage growth that occurred even amidst a tightening labor market during the 1990s was the reluctance of workers to demand higher incomes. This reluctance emerged from the weakness of labor's bargaining power in an increasingly global economy where employers widely and quite credibly threaten to close their shops and relocate if workers voted to unionize. It also emerged from the neoliberal pro-corporate-globalization stance of the Clinton administration, which did virtually nothing to enhance workers' bargaining power vis-à-vis business, thereby making it certain that the "traumatized [American] worker" (as Greenspan described American working people to Congress in 1997) would accept historically minor wage increases during the 1990s boom.

"Putting People First?"

Clinton's heralded fiscal transformation (from deficit to surplus) was achieved only at extraordinary public cost. The single leading factor behind this transformation, Pollin shows, was neither faster economic growth nor the Clinton administration's modest reversal of massive Reagan-Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, but the significant reduction of federal government spending as a percentage of American GDP from 22% in 1992 to 18% in 2000. While post-Cold war cuts in military spending explained part of this reduction, a bigger share came through significant declines in federal spending on education, poverty-reduction, environmental protection, economic regulation, and equity promotion -- all while wealth exploded at the top and the "poverty gap" (the amount of money required to bring all poor people exactly up to the official poverty line) rose from $1,538 to $1,620 from 1993 to 1999. At the same time, Pollin notes, the U.S. military budget remained "more than the amount spent by all the rest of NATO plus Russia, plus all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel, combined."

Finally, the significant, albeit limited and uneven, economic expansion that occurred under Clinton was purchased against the future.  It was fueled primarily by an inherently tenuous, debt-financed stock market bubble that fueled primarily upper class consumption and which inevitably burst, with recessionary consequences passed on to the presidency of Bush II. The dramatic and dangerous over-escalation of stock prices could have been stemmed with elementary regulatory measures the Clinton administration refused to undertake because of its allegiance to neoliberal prescriptions against government intervention in the workings of the supposed "free market" to limit the excesses of private economic elites.

This performance made a mockery of Clinton's 1992 campaign slogan, "Putting People First," which communicated a populist message Clinton rapidly abandoned once he attained the White House, and his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (former head of Goldman Sachs) reminded him that extremely wealthy folks are the people who matter most when it comes to running the country. Even before Rubin's reminder, however, Clinton was a veteran of the Republican-light Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed to increase the influence of big business and reduce the influence of labor and other progressive forces within the Democratic Party. The Clinton Democrats’ basic commitment to business-class neoliberal values poisoned the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore could see nothing better to do with Clinton's federal surplus than to pay down the national debt even as nearly 700,000 African-American children lived in "deep poverty" (at less than half of the nation's notoriously inadequate poverty level) and beyond.   

Beyond Centrist-Democratic Snakeoil

You can't blame Clinton for trying to help his wife and his party make some pseudo-populist political hay out of the Bush administration's pathetic performance before and during Tropical Storm and Societal Failure Katrina. Clinton has always had a strong sense of when to push populist buttons and when (more commonly) to return to standard corporate-neoliberal rostrums. Since he does in fact come (as he told ABC News) "out of an environment with a disproportionate amount of poor people," he's always been more genuinely comfortable around the sort of non-affluent people that tend to make the aristocratic Bush clan wince. Still, Americans who wish to substantively overcome McClellan's "deep history of injustice" would do well to remember that the sociopolitical construction of American inequality is a richly bipartisan affair. Real solutions will require dedicated activism against reactionary agents of class and race privilege within both wings of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Party. They will not emerge from the superficially populist rhetoric of past American presidents, no matter how accurate those ex-presidents' critical take on current Republican policy.  

Paul Street is an historian, journalist, and public speaker in DeKalb, IL. He is the author of three books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004); Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005).  Street’s next book, Racial Apartheid in the Global Metropolis (New York, NY: Rowman-Littefield) will be published in late 2006. He can be reached at:

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