If you’ve been watching the Republican presidential debates, you’ve likely heard a surprising amount of talk about welfare reform. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum identify the 1996 law, which the Republican Congress eventually forced President Clinton to sign, as their signature achievements, emblematic of the kind of policies they would pursue as president. Even the logic, if you can call it that, behind Gingrich’s proposal to have schoolchildren work as janitors is lifted straight from the most extreme rhetoric of welfare reform: that poor kids live in neighborhoods where no one at all works, and thus need to be exposed to real labor.
The problem for Republicans after the welfare reform law passed was that, having achieved the victory, they no longer had the issue: The specter of the non-working poor could no longer be reliably evoked, and nothing with a similar power to divide voters has emerged to take its place. They tried going after the “lucky duckies,” those people who pay no federal income tax, but that hasn’t really caught on. Affirmative action has faded as an issue.
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