“You can’t always get what you want,” sang The Rolling Stones in 1969, “but if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need.” Across the pond, 182 years earlier, another group of men had already discovered this truth. But instead of penning a song about it, they drafted a constitution for a new nation.
America’s Founding Fathers recognized man’s natural tendencies toward self-interest, greed, and corruption and knew that, when push came to shove, politicians would succumb to selfish “needs” versus going to the mat for idealistic political “wants.” Hence, they created a government where leaders are elected by and accountable to the people. In a stroke of genius, wrote Robert T. Miller, they incentivized politicians to make decisions in the best interest of society, thus channeling their self-serving inclinations into something positive. “The best security for the fidelity of mankind,” Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 72, “is to make their interests coincide with their duty.” This principle is illustrated by President Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
In 1992, America’s welfare system was in shambles. Out-of-wedlock births had skyrocketed, intergenerational poverty was rising, and people on public assistance remained without jobs or prospects. Welfare was no longer a “hand-up.” Rather, it bred dependency. While both parties acknowledged the issue must be addressed, they disagreed on the solution.
Enter Democratic presidential nominee Clinton who vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” By August 1996, however, President Clinton found himself less than four months away from his next election without having fulfilled his promise. In fact, he vetoed two welfare reform bills because they fell short of his ideal. Now he faced a Republican-controlled Congress as well as Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole who was campaigning on Clinton’s inaction. Clinton was in a dilemma: make good on his campaign pledge by signing the latest Republican reform bill, PRWORA, thus helping salvage a second term, or veto an imperfect bill and risk losing the election. Advisor Dick Morris warned it was political suicide if he did not sign it; several in his administration threatened to resign if he did. Ultimately, Clinton signed welfare reform into law and was re-elected. Clinton’s self-interest trumped his political ideals, just as the Founders predicted.
It is clear that Clinton’s decision was also best for the nation. The Heritage Foundation reported that poverty among black children and children of single mothers fell, employment of single mothers surged, welfare caseloads were cut in half, and the explosive growth of nonmarital childbearing became almost static. Reflecting on PRWORA, Clinton wrote, “The 1996 Welfare Act shows us how much we can achieve when both parties…focus on doing what is best for the country.” Unwittingly, Clinton and his fellow politicians had simply conformed to the system the Constitution created.
President Clinton didn’t quite get what he wanted with PRWORA, but he did get what he needed: four more years in the White House. As a result, Americans got the welfare reform they desperately needed too.