Bill Clinton photo

Remarks on Signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and an Exchange With Reporters

August 22, 1996

The President. Thank you very much. Lillie, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Vice President; to the members of the Cabinet; all of the Members of Congress who are here, thank you very much.

I'd like to say to Congressman Castle, I'm especially glad to see you here because 8 years ago about this time, when you were the Governor of Delaware and Governor Carper was the Congressman from Delaware, you and I were together at a signing like this.

Thank you, Senator Long, for coming here. Thank you, Governors Romer, Carper, Miller, and Caperton.

I'd also like to thank Penelope Howard and Janet Ferrel for coming here. They, too, have worked their way from welfare to independence, and we're honored to have them here.

I'd like to thank all of the people who worked on this bill who have been introduced from our staff and Cabinet, but I'd also like to especially thank Bruce Reed, who had a lot to do with working on the final compromises of this bill; I thank him.

Lillie Harden was up there talking, and I want to tell you how she happens to be here today. Ten years ago, Governor Castle and I were asked to cochair a Governors' task force on welfare reform, and we were asked to work together on it. And when we met at Hilton Head in South Carolina, we had a little panel, and 41 Governors showed up to listen to people who were on welfare from several States. So I asked Carol Rasco to find me somebody from our State who had been in one of our welfare reform programs and had gone to work. She found Lillie Harden, and Lillie showed up at the program.

And I was conducting this meeting, and I committed a mistake that they always tell lawyers never to do: Never ask a question you do not know the answer to. [Laughter] But she was doing so well talking about it, as you saw how well-spoken she was today, and I said, "Lillie, what's the best thing about being off welfare?" And she looked me straight in the eye and said, "When my boy goes to school, and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer." I have never forgotten that. And when I saw the success of all of her children and the success that she's had in the past 10 years—I can tell you, you've had a bigger impact on me than I've had on you. And I thank you for the power of your example, for your family's. And for all of America, thank you very much.

What we are trying to do today is to overcome the flaws of the welfare system for the people who are trapped on it. We all know that the typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago. We all know that there are a lot of good people on welfare who just get off of it in the ordinary course of business but that a significant number of people are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives.

Nearly 30 years ago, Robert Kennedy said, "Work is the meaning of what this country is all about. We need it as individuals, we need to sense it in our fellow citizens, and we need it as a society and as a people." He was right then, and it's right now. From now on, our Nation's answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare, it will be the dignity, the power, and the ethic of work. Today we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.

The bill I'm about to sign, as I have said many times, is far from perfect, but it has come a very long way. Congress sent me two previous bills that I strongly believe failed to protect our children and did too little to move people from welfare to work. I vetoed both of them. This bill had broad bipartisan support and is much, much better on both counts.

The new bill restores America's basic bargain of providing opportunity and demanding, in return, responsibility. It provides $14 billion for child care, $4 billion more than the present law does. It is good because without the assurance of child care it's all but impossible for a mother with young children to go to work. It requires States to maintain their own spending on welfare reform and gives them powerful performance incentives to place more people on welfare in jobs. It gives States the capacity to create jobs by taking money now used for welfare checks and giving it to employers as subsidies as incentives to hire people. This bill will help people to go to work so they can stop drawing a welfare check and start drawing a paycheck.

It's also better for children. It preserves the national safety net of food stamps and school lunches. It drops the deep cuts and the devastating changes in child protection, adoption, and help for disabled children. It preserves the national guarantee of health care for poor children, the disabled, the elderly, and people on welfare—the most important preservation of all.

It includes the tough child support enforcement measures that, as far as I know, every Member of Congress and everybody in the administration and every thinking person in the country has supported for more than 2 years now. It's the most sweeping crackdown on deadbeat parents in history. We have succeeded in increasing child support collection 40 percent, but over a third of the cases where there's delinquencies involve people who cross State lines. For a lot of women and children, the only reason they're on welfare today—the only reason— is that the father up and walked away when he could have made a contribution to the welfare of the children. That is wrong. If every parent paid the child support that he or she owes legally today, we could move 800,000 women and children off welfare immediately.

With this bill we say, if you don't pay the child support you owe, we'll garnish your wages, take away your driver's license, track you across State lines, if necessary, make you work off what you pay—what you owe. It is a good thing, and it will help dramatically to reduce welfare, increase independence, and reinforce parental responsibility.

As the Vice President said, we strongly disagree with a couple of provisions of this bill. We believe that the nutritional cuts are too deep, especially as they affect low-income working people and children. We should not be punishing people who are working for a living already; we should do everything we can to lift them up and keep them at work and help them to support their children. We also believe that the congressional leadership insisted on cuts in programs for legal immigrants that are far too deep.

These cuts, however, have nothing to do with the fundamental purpose of welfare reform. I signed this bill because this is an historic chance, where Republicans and Democrats got together and said, we're going to take this historic chance to try to re-create the Nation's social bargain with the poor. We're going to try to change the parameters of the debate. We're going to make it all new again and see if we can't create a system of incentives which reinforce work and family and independence. We can change what is wrong. We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right.

And so I want to ask all of you, without regard to party, to think through the implications of these other nonwelfare issues on the American people, and let's work together in good spirits and good faith to remedy what is wrong. We can balance the budget without these cuts. But let's not obscure the fundamental purpose of the welfare provisions of this legislation, which are good and solid and which can give us at least the chance to end the terrible, almost physical isolation of huge numbers of poor people and their children from the rest of mainstream America. We have to do that.

Let me also say that there's something really good about this legislation. When I sign it, we all have to start again, and this becomes everybody's responsibility. After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue. The two parties cannot attack each other over it. Politicians cannot attack poor people over it. There are no encrusted habits, systems, and failures that can be laid at the foot of someone else. We have to begin again. This is not the end of welfare reform, this is the beginning. And we have to all assume responsibility. Now that we are saying with this bill we expect work, we have to make sure the people have a chance to go to work. If we really value work, everybody in this society—businesses, nonprofits, religious institutions, individuals, those in government— all have a responsibility to make sure the jobs are there.

These three women have great stories. Almost everybody on welfare would like to have a story like that. And the rest of us now have a responsibility to give them that story. We cannot blame the system for the jobs they don't have anymore. If it doesn't work now, it's everybody's fault: mine, yours, and everybody else. There is no longer a system in the way.

I've worked hard over the past 4 years to create jobs and to steer investment into places where there are large numbers of people on welfare because there's been no economic recovery. That's what the empowerment zone program was all about. That's what the community development bank initiative was all about. That's what our urban brownfield cleanup initiative was all about, trying to give people the means to make a living in areas that had been left behind.

I think we have to do more here in Washington to do that, and I'll have more to say about that later. But let me say again, we have to build a new work and family system. And this is everybody's responsibility now. The people on welfare are people just like these three people we honor here today and their families. They are human beings. And we owe it to all of them to give them a chance to come back.

I talked the other day when the Vice President and I went down to Tennessee, and we were working with Congressman Tanner's district; we were working on a church that had burned. And there was a pastor there from a church in North Carolina that brought a group of his people in to work. And he started asking me about welfare reform, and I started telling him about it. And I said, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to go tell Governor Hunt that you would hire somebody on welfare to work in your church if he would give you the welfare check as a wage supplement. You'd double their pay, and you'd keep them employed for a year or so and see if you couldn't train them and help their families and see if their kids were all right." I said, "Would you do that?" He said, "In a heartbeat."

I think there are people all over America like that. I think there are people all over America like that. That's what I want all of you to be thinking about today: What are we going to do now? This is not over, this is just beginning. The Congress deserves our thanks for creating a new reality, but we have to fill in the blanks. The Governors asked for this responsibility, now they've got to live up to it. There are mayors that have responsibilities, county officials that have responsibilities. Every employer in this country that ever made a disparaging remark about the welfare system needs to think about whether he or she should now hire somebody from welfare and go to work, go to the State and say, "Okay, you give me the check. I'll use it as an income supplement. I'll train these people. I'll help them to start their lives, and we'll go forward from here."

Every single person needs to be thinking— every person in America tonight who sees a report of this who has ever said a disparaging word about the welfare system should now say, "Okay, that's gone. What is my responsibility to make it better?"

Two days ago we signed a bill increasing the minimum wage here and making it easier for people in small businesses to get and keep pensions. Yesterday we signed the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill which makes health care available to up to 25 million Americans, many of them in lower income jobs where they're more vulnerable. The bill I'm signing today preserves the increases in the earned-income tax credit for working families. It is now clearly better to go to work than to stay on welfare—clearly better. Because of actions taken by the Congress in this session, it is clearly better. And what we have to do now is to make that work a reality.

I've said this many times, but, you know, most American families find that the greatest challenge of their lives is how to do a good job raising their kids and do a good job at work. Trying to balance work and family is the challenge that most Americans in the workplace face. Thankfully, that's the challenge Lillie Harden's had to face for the last 10 years. That's just what we want for everybody. We want at least the chance to strike the right balance for everybody.

Today we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began: a new day that offers hope, honors responsibility, rewards work, and changes the terms of the debate so that no one in America ever feels again the need to criticize people who are poor on welfare but instead feels the responsibility to reach out to men and women and children who are isolated, who need opportunity, and who are willing to assume responsibility, and give them the opportunity and the terms of responsibility.

Now, I'd like to ask Penelope Howard, Janet Ferrel, Lillie Harden, the Governors, and the Members of Congress from both parties who are here to come up and join me as I sign the welfare reform bill.

Tobacco Regulation

Q. Mr. President, before you sign the bill, could you tell us whether you think it's right to regulate tobacco or nicotine as a drug?

The President. You know, Wolf [Wolf Blitzer, CNN], under the law, I have to wait until the OMB makes a recommendation to me. I think we have to anticipate things. I can't say more than that right now.

[At this point, the President signed the legislation.]

Welfare Reform

Q. Mr. President, some of your core constituencies are furious with you for signing this bill. What do you say to them?

The President. Just what I said up there. We saved medical care. We saved food stamps. We saved child care. We saved the aid to disabled children. We saved the school lunch program. We saved the framework of support. What we did was to tell the States, now you have to create a system to give everyone a chance to go to work who is able-bodied, give everyone a chance to be independent. And we did—that is the right thing to do. And now welfare is no longer a political football to be kicked around. It's a personal responsibility of every American who ever criticized the welfare system to help the poor people now to move from welfare to work. That's what I say.

This is going to be a good thing for the country. We're going to monitor it, and we're going to fix whatever is wrong with it.

Q. What guarantees are there that these things will be fixed, Mr. President, especially if Republicans remain in control of Congress?

The President. That's what we have elections for.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:15 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to the following Governors: Tom Carper of Delaware, Roy Romer of Colorado, Bob Miller of Nevada, Gaston Caperton of West Virginia, and James B. Hunt, Jr., of North Carolina. The President also referred to former Senator Russell B. Long and Carol H. Rasco, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, who was senior executive assistant to the Governor when President Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. A portion of these remarks could not be verified because the tape was incomplete. H.R. 3734, approved August 22, was assigned Public Law No. 104-193.

William J. Clinton, Remarks on Signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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