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A quarter century ago, I and other members of Bill Clinton's cabinet urged him to reject the Republican's proposal to end welfare. It was too punitive, we said, subjecting poor Americans to deep and abiding poverty. But Clinton's political advisers warned that unless he went along, he jeopardized his reelection.
That was the end of welfare as we knew it. As Clinton boasted in his State of the Union address to Congress -- that year, "The era of big government is over."
Until last Thursday, that is, when Joe Biden signed into law the biggest expansion of government assistance since the 1960s -- a guaranteed income for most families with children, raising the maximum benefit by up to 80 percent per child.
As Biden put it in his address to the nation, as if answering Clinton, "The government isn't some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it's us, all of us, we the people."
As a senator, Biden had supported Clinton's 1996 welfare restrictions, as did most Americans. What happened between then and now? Three big things.
First, COVID. The pandemic has been a national wake-up call on the fragility of middle-class incomes. The deep COVID recession has revealed the harsh consequences of most Americans now living paycheck to paycheck.
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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.