Bill Clinton: If I had to make the welfare decision again tomorrow, I’d sign it again tomorrow. We had a 60 percent reduction in the welfare rolls. We had an enormous percentage of poor people move into the workforce, start middle-class lifestyles, and when we had a brief tech recession of six months in 2001, after I left office, people who had moved from welfare to work were less likely to be laid off than the general working population. So I would do it again.
Now I did not foresee that we would move so far to the right as a country, mostly because Democrats started winning the popular vote in presidential elections, and so a lot of them just don’t vote at midterm when the governors, the state legislatures, and the congressional districts are decided.
If somebody told me that eight states would abolish cash benefits altogether I guess I’d have had to rethink it, but since the ‘70s there was no minimum welfare benefit. You just couldn’t go below where you’d been on the date certain. So, for example, when I signed welfare reform, a poor family of three on welfare got $655 a month in Vermont. They had the highest benefits, and $183 a month in Mississippi, Texas, and one other place. In other words, I think people had this idea that there was some national welfare system. There wasn’t. The national welfare system was, everybody gets Medicaid for their kids, and you get food assistance. The Republicans tried to get rid of that, and I vetoed those first two bills because I wouldn’t do that.
I knew what would happen then, that a lot of people would be in trouble, but I didn’t foresee that they’d get rid of that altogether. Also, the law, as written, said that states will continue to get, no matter how small the welfare rolls get, the same amount of money they got in February of ‘94 when the welfare rolls hit an all-time high. After I left office that requirement was not enforced.
So the real question is: Should every president walk around thinking, “No matter how good this bill is, I should think of the worst-case scenario, and if anything bad might ever happen after three more elections occur, I shouldn’t ever sign a bill.”? I don’t think you can do that.