[Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents Volume 32, Number 31 (Monday, August 5, 1996)]
[Pages 1379-1384]
[Online from the Government Publishing Office, www.gpo.gov]

Remarks on Welfare Reform Legislation and an Exchange With Reporters

July 31, 1996

    Good afternoon. When I ran for President 4 years ago, I pledged to 
end welfare as we know it. I have worked very hard for 4 years to do 
just that. Today the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a 
chance to live up to that promise: to transform a broken system that 
traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes 
work and independence, to give people on welfare a chance to draw a 
paycheck, not a welfare check. It gives us a better chance to give those 
on welfare what we want for all families in America, the opportunity to 
succeed at home and at work. For those reasons I will sign it into law. 
The legislation is, however, far from perfect. There are parts of it 
that are wrong, and I will address those parts in a moment.
    But on balance, this bill is a real step forward for our country, 
our values, and for people who are on welfare. For 15 years, I have 
worked on this problem, as Governor and as a President. I've spent time 
in welfare offices. I have talked to mothers on welfare who desperately 
want the chance to work and support their families independently. A long 
time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the 
basic values of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation 
after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was 
designed to help.
    Today we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was 
meant to be, a second chance, not a way of life. And even though the 
bill has serious flaws that are unrelated to welfare reform, I believe 
we have a duty to seize the opportunity it gives us to end welfare as we 
know it. Over the past 3\1/2\ years, I have done everything in my power 
as President to promote work and responsibility, working with 41 States 
to give them 69 welfare reform experiments. We have also required teen 
mothers to stay in school, required Federal employees to pay their child 
support, cracked down on people who owe child support and crossed State 
    As a result, child support collections are up 40 percent, to $11 
billion, and there are 1.3 million fewer people on welfare today than 
there were when I took office. From the outset, however, I have also 
worked with Members of both parties in Congress to achieve a national 
welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of 
the land. I made my principles for real welfare reform very clear from 
the beginning. First and foremost, it should be about moving people from 
welfare to work. It should impose time limits on welfare. It should give 
people the child care and the health care they need to move from welfare 
to work without hurting their children. It should crack down on child 
support enforcement, and it should protect our children.
    This legislation meets these principles. It gives us a chance we 
haven't had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for 
millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the 
world of work that gives structure, meaning, and dignity to most of our 
    We've come a long way in this debate. It's important to remember 
that not so very long ago, at the beginning of this very Congress, some 
wanted to put poor children in orphanages and take away all help for 
mothers simply because they were poor, young, and unmarried. Last year 
the Republican majority in Congress sent me legislation that had its 
priorities backward. It was soft on work and tough on children. It 
failed to provide child care and health care. It imposed deep and 
unacceptable cuts in school lunches, child welfare, and help for 
disabled children. The bill came to me twice, and I vetoed it twice.
    The bipartisan legislation before the Congress today is 
significantly better than the

[[Page 1380]]

bills I vetoed. Many of the worst elements I objected to are out of it. 
And many of the improvements I asked for are included. First, the new 
bill is strong on work. It provides $4 billion more for child care so 
that mothers can move from welfare to work and protects their children 
by maintaining health and safety standards for day care. These things 
are very important. You cannot ask somebody on welfare to go to work if 
they're going to neglect their children in doing it.
    It gives States powerful performance incentives to place people in 
jobs. It requires States to hold up their end of the bargain by 
maintaining their own spending on welfare. And it gives States the 
capacity to create jobs by taking money now used for welfare checks and 
giving it to employers as income subsidies as an incentive to hire 
people or being used to create community service jobs.
    Second, this new bill is better for children than the two I vetoed. 
It keeps the national nutritional safety net intact by eliminating the 
food stamp cap and the optional block grant. It drops the deep cuts and 
devastating changes in school lunch, child welfare, and help for 
disabled children. It allows States to use Federal money to provide 
vouchers to children whose parents can't find work after the time limits 
expire. And it preserves the national guarantee of health care for poor 
children, the disabled, pregnant women, the elderly, and people on 
    Just as important, this bill continues to include the child support 
enforcement measures I proposed 2 years ago, the most sweeping crackdown 
on deadbeat parents in history. If every parent paid the child support 
they should, we could move 800,000 women and children off welfare 
immediately. With this bill we say to parents, if you don't pay the 
child support you owe, we will garnish your wages, take away your 
driver's license, track you across State lines and, as necessary, make 
you work off what you owe. It is a very important advance that could 
only be achieved in legislation. I did not have the executive authority 
to do this without a bill.
    So I will sign this bill, first and foremost because the current 
system is broken; second, because Congress has made many of the changes 
I sought; and third, because even though serious problems remain in the 
nonwelfare reform provisions of the bill, this is the best chance we 
will have for a long, long time to complete the work of ending welfare 
as we know it by moving people from welfare to work, demanding 
responsibility, and doing better by children.
    However, I want to be very clear. Some parts of this bill still go 
too far, and I am determined to see that those areas are corrected. 
First, I am concerned that although we have made great strides to 
maintain the national nutritional safety net, this bill still cuts 
deeper than it should in nutritional assistance, mostly for working 
families with children. In the budget talks, we reached a tentative 
agreement on $21 billion in food stamp savings over the next several 
years. They are included in this bill.
    However, the congressional majority insisted on another cut we did 
not agree to, repealing a reform adopted 4 years ago in Congress which 
was to go into effect next year. It's called the excess shelter 
reduction, which helps some of our hardest pressed working families. 
Finally, we were going to treat working families with children the same 
way we treat senior citizens who draw food stamps today. Now, blocking 
this change, I believe--I know--will make it harder for some of our 
hardest pressed working families with children. This provision is a 
mistake, and I will work to correct it.
    Second, I am deeply disappointed that the congressional leadership 
insisted on attaching to this extraordinarily important bill a provision 
that will hurt legal immigrants in America, people who work hard for 
their families, pay taxes, serve in our military. This provision has 
nothing to do with welfare reform. It is simply a budget-saving measure, 
and it is not right.
    These immigrant families with children who fall on hard times 
through no fault of their own--for example, because they face the same 
risks the rest of us do from accidents, from criminal assaults, from 
serious illnesses--they should be eligible for medical and other help 
when they need it. The Republican majority could never have passed such 
a provision standing alone. You see that in the debate in the 
immigration bill, for example, over the Gallegly amendment, and

[[Page 1381]]

the question of education of undocumented and illegal immigrant 
    This provision will cause great stress for States, for localities, 
for medical facilities that have to serve large numbers of legal 
immigrants. It is just wrong to say to people, we'll let you work here, 
you're helping our country, you'll pay taxes, you serve in our military, 
you may get killed defending America, but if somebody mugs you on a 
street corner or you get cancer or you get hit by a car or the same 
thing happens to your children, we're not going to give you assistance 
anymore. I am convinced this would never have passed alone, and I am 
convinced when we send legislation to Congress to correct it, it will be 
    In the meantime, let me also say that I intend to take further 
executive action directing the INS to continue to work to remove the 
bureaucratic roadblocks to citizenship to all eligible, legal 
immigrants. I will do everything in my power, in other words, to make 
sure that this bill lifts people up and does not become an excuse for 
anyone to turn their backs on this problem or on people who are 
generally in need through no fault of their own. This bill must also not 
let anyone off the hook. The States asked for this responsibility; now 
they have to shoulder it and not run away from it. We have to make sure 
that in the coming years reform and change actually result in moving 
people from welfare to work.
    The business community must provide greater private-sector jobs that 
people on welfare need to build good lives and strong families. I 
challenge every State to adopt the reforms that Wisconsin, Oregon, 
Missouri, and other States are proposing to do, to take the money that 
used to be available for welfare checks and offer it to the private 
sector as wage subsidies to begin to hire these people, to give them a 
chance to build their families and build their lives. All of us have to 
rise to this challenge and see that--this reform not as a chance to 
demonize or demean anyone but instead as an opportunity to bring 
everyone fully into the mainstream of American life, to give them a 
chance to share in the prosperity and the promise that most of our 
people are enjoying today.
    And we here in Washington must continue to do everything in our 
power to reward work and to expand opportunity for all people. The 
earned-income tax credit, which we expanded in 1993 dramatically, is now 
rewarding the work of 15 million working families. I am pleased that 
congressional efforts to gut this tax cut for the hardest pressed 
working people have been blocked. This legislation preserves the EITC 
and its benefits for working families. Now we must increase the minimum 
wage, which also will benefit millions of working people with families 
and help them to offset the impact of some of the nutritional cuts in 
this bill.
    Through these efforts, we all have to recognize, as I said in 1992, 
the best antipoverty program is still a job. I want to congratulate the 
Members of Congress in both parties who worked together on this welfare 
reform legislation. I want to challenge them to put politics aside and 
continue to work together to meet our other challenges and to correct 
the problems that are still there with this legislation. I am convinced 
that it does present an historic opportunity to finish the work of 
ending welfare as we know it, and that is why I have decided to sign it.
    Q. Mr. President, some civil rights groups and children's advocacy 
groups still say that they believe that this is going to hurt children. 
I wonder what your response is to that. And also, it took you a little 
while to decide whether you would go along with this bill or not. Can 
you give us some sense of what you and your advisers kind of talked 
about and the mood in the White House over this?
    The President. Sure. Well, first of all, the conference was not 
completed until late last evening, and there were changes being made in 
the bill right up to the very end. So when I went to bed last night, I 
didn't know what the bill said. And this was supposed to be a day off 
for me, and when I got up and I realized that the conference had 
completed its work late last night and that the bill was scheduled for a 
vote late this afternoon, after I did a little work around the house 
this morning, I came in and we went to work I think about 11 o'clock.
    And we simply--we got everybody in who had an interest in this, and 
we went through every provision of the bill, line by line, so

[[Page 1382]]

that I made sure that I understood exactly what had come out of the 
conference. And then I gave everybody in the administration who was 
there a chance to voice their opinion on it and to explore what their 
views were and what our options were. And as soon as we finished the 
meeting, I went in and had a brief talk with the Vice President and with 
Mr. Panetta, and I told them that I had decided that, on balance, I 
should sign the bill. And then we called this press conference.
    Q. And what about the civil rights groups----
    The President. I would say to them that there are some groups who 
basically have never agreed with me on this, who never agreed that we 
should do anything to give the States much greater flexibility on this 
if it meant doing away with the individual entitlement to the welfare 
check. And that is still, I think, the central objection to most of the 
    My view about that is that for a very long time it's hard to say 
that we've had anything that approaches a uniform AFDC system when the 
benefits range from a low of $187 a month to a high of $655 a month for 
a family of 3 or 4. And I think that the system we have is not working. 
It works for half the people who just use it for a little while and get 
off. It will continue to work for them. I think the States will continue 
to provide for them.
    For the other half of the people who are trapped on it, it is not 
working. And I believe that the child support provisions here, the child 
care provisions here, the protection of the medical benefits, indeed, 
the expansion of the medical guarantee now from 1998 to 2002, mean that 
on balance these families will be better off. I think the problems in 
this bill are in the nonwelfare reform provisions, in the nutritional 
provisions that I mentioned, and especially in the legal immigrant 
provisions that I mentioned.
    Q. Mr. President, it seems likely there will be a kind of political 
contest to see who gets the credit or the blame on this measure. Senator 
Dole is out with a statement saying that you've been brought along to 
sign his bill. Are you concerned at all that you will be seen as having 
been kind of dragged into going along with something that you originally 
promised to do and that this will look like you signing onto a 
Republican initiative?
    The President. No. First of all, because I don't--you know, if we're 
doing the right thing there will be enough credit to go around. And if 
we're doing the wrong thing there will be enough blame to go around. I'm 
not worried about that. I've always wanted to work with Senator Dole and 
others. And before he left the Senate, I asked him not to leave the 
budget negotiations. So I'm not worried about that.
    But that's a pretty hard case to make, since I vetoed their previous 
bills twice and since while they were talking about it we were doing it. 
It's now generally accepted by everybody who has looked at the evidence 
that we effected what the New York Times called a quiet revolution in 
welfare. There are 1.3 million fewer people on welfare today than there 
were when I took office.
    But there are limits to what we can do with these waivers. We 
couldn't get the child support enforcement. We couldn't get the extra 
child care. Those are two things that we had to have legislation to do. 
And the third thing is we needed to put all the States in a position 
where they had to move right now to try to create more jobs. So far--I 
know that we had Wisconsin and, earlier, Oregon and I believe Missouri. 
And I think those are the only three States, for example, that had taken 
up the challenge that I gave to the Governors in Vermont a couple of 
years ago to start taking the welfare payments and use it for wage 
subsidies to the private sector to actually create jobs. You can't tell 
people to go to work if there is no job out there.
    So now they all have the power, and they have financial incentives 
to create jobs, plus we've got the child care locked in and the medical 
care locked in and the child support enforcement locked in. None of this 
could have happened without legislation. That's why I thought this 
legislation was important.
    Q. Mr. President, some of the critics of this bill say that the 
flaws will be very hard to fix because that will involve adding to the 
budget and in the current political climate adding to the expenditures 
is politically impossible. How would you respond to that?

[[Page 1383]]

    The President. Well, it just depends on what your priorities are. 
For one thing, it will be somewhat easier to balance the budget now in 
the time period because the deficit this year is $23 billion less than 
it was the last time we did our budget calculations. So we've lowered 
that base $23 billion this year. Now, in the out years it still comes 
up, but there's some savings there that we could turn around and put 
back into this.
    Next, if you look at--my budget corrects it right now. I had $42 
billion in savings; this bill has about $57 billion in savings. You 
could correct all these problems that I mentioned with money to spare in 
the gap there. So when we get down to the budget negotiations either at 
the end of this year or at the beginning of next year, I think the 
American people will say, we can stand marginally smaller tax cuts, for 
example, or cut somewhere else to cure this problem of immigrants and 
children, to cure the nutritional problems. We're not talking about vast 
amounts of money over a 6-year period. It's not a big budget number, and 
I think it can easily be fixed given where we are in the budget 
    Q. The last couple days in these meetings among your staff and this 
morning, would you say there was no disagreement among people in the 
administration about what you should do? Some disagreement? A lot of 
    The President. No, I would say that there was--first of all, I have 
rarely been as impressed with the people who work in this administration 
on any issue as I have been on this. There was significant disagreement 
among my advisers about whether this bill should be signed or vetoed, 
but 100 percent of them recognized the power of the arguments on the 
other side. It was a very moving thing. Today the conversation was 
almost 100 percent about the merits of the bill and not the political 
implications of it, because I think those things are very hard to 
calculate anyway. I think they're virtually impossible.
    I have tried to thank all of them personally, including those who 
are here in the room and those who are not here, because they did have 
differences of opinion about whether we should sign or veto, but each 
side recognized the power of the arguments on the other side. And 100 
percent of them, just like 100 percent of the Congress, recognized that 
we needed to change fundamentally the framework within which welfare 
operates in this country. The only question was whether the problems in 
the nonwelfare reform provisions were so great that they would justify a 
veto and giving up what might be what I'm convinced is our last best 
chance to fundamentally change the system.
    Q. Mr. President, even in spite of all the details of this, you as a 
Democrat are actually helping to dismantle something that was put in 
place by Democrats 60 years ago. Did that give you pause, that 
overarching question?
    The President. No. No, because it was put in place 60 years ago when 
the poverty population of America was fundamentally different than it is 
now. As Senator Moynihan--you know, Senator Moynihan strongly disagrees 
with me on this, but as he has pointed out repeatedly, when welfare was 
created the typical welfare recipient was a miner's widow with no 
education, small children, husband dies in the mine, no expectation that 
there was a job for the widow to do or that she ever could do it--very 
few out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births. The whole dynamics were 
different then.
    So I have always thought that the Democratic Party should be on the 
side of creating opportunity and promoting empowerment and 
responsibility for people, and a system that was in place 60 years ago 
that worked for the poverty population then is not the one we need now. 
But that's why I have worked so hard too to veto previous bills. That 
does not mean I think we can walk away from the guarantee that our party 
gave on Medicaid, the guarantee our party gave on nutrition, the 
guarantee our party gave in school lunches, because that has not 
changed. But the nature of the poverty population is so different now 
that I am convinced we have got to be willing to experiment, to try to 
work to find ways to break the cycle of dependency that keeps dragging 
folks down.
    And I think the States are going to find out pretty quickly that 
they're going to have to be willing to invest something in these people 
to make sure that they can go to work in the ways that I suggested.

[[Page 1384]]

    Yes, one last question.
    Q. Mr. President, you mentioned Senator Moynihan. Have you spoken to 
him or other congressional leaders, especially congressional Democrats? 
And what was the conversation and the reaction to your indication?
    The President. Well, I talked to him as recently, I think, as about 
a week ago. When we went up to meet with the TWA families, we talked 
about it again. And you know, I have an enormous amount of respect for 
him. And he has been a powerful and cogent critic of this whole move. 
I'll just have to hope that in this one case I'm right and he's wrong, 
because I have an enormous regard for him. And I've spoken to a number 
of other Democrats, and some think I'm right and some don't.
    This is a case where, you know, I have been working with this issue 
for such a long time, a long time before it became--to go back to Mr. 
Hume's [Brit Hume, ABC News] question, a long time before it became a 
cause celebre in Washington or anyone tried to make it a partisan 
political issue. It wasn't much of a political hot potato when I first 
started working on it. I just was concerned that the system didn't seem 
to be working. And I was most concerned about those who were trapped on 
it and their children and the prospect that their children would be 
trapped on it.
    I think we all have to admit here--we all need a certain level of 
humility today. We are trying to continue a process that I've been 
pushing for 3\1/2\ years. We're trying to get the legal changes we need 
in Federal law that will work to move these folks to a position of 
independence where they can support their children and their lives as 
workers and in families will be stronger.
    But if this were an easy question, we wouldn't have had the 2\1/2\-
hour discussion with my advisers today and we'd all have a lot more 
answers than we do. But I'm convinced that we're moving in the right 
direction. I'm convinced it's an opportunity we should seize. I'm 
convinced that we have to change the two problems in this bill that are 
not related to welfare reform, that were just sort of put under the big 
shade of the tree here, that are part of this budget strategy with which 
I disagree. And I'm convinced when we bring those things out into the 
light of day we will be able to do it. And I think some Republicans will 
agree with us, and we'll be able to get what we need to do to change it.
    Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:27 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White