A Conversation with Former Top White House Policy Adviser Bruce Reed

 /  Dec. 13, 2016, 4:15 p.m.


Bruce Reed has served as a top adviser for both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He served as an assistant to President Obama and as chief of staff to Vice President Biden from January 2011 to December 2013. An Idaho native, Reed has spent the majority of his career focused on domestic policy and served as the director of the Domestic Policy Council and chief domestic policy adviser during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Reed holds a long history of public service, including his work as a speechwriter for Senator Al Gore, policy director for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) under then-chairman Bill Clinton, founding editor of the DLC magazine, and president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Currently, Reed is the CEO of Civic Enterprises, the bipartisan policy ideas company he co-founded. The Gate’s Saisha Talwar sat down with Reed during his fall fellowship at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics to speak about his current and past work in the domestic policy sphere.

The Gate: You have spent the majority of your work focused on domestic policy and participated in creating notable welfare reformspecifically, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Actduring your tenure in the Clinton administration. Could you speak about the process of creating that reform, how it played into your larger work with welfare policy, and what progress reform has made in the past decade?

Bruce Reed: Bill Clinton was working on welfare reform before I went to work for him. As governor of Arkansas, he had helped lead the nation’s governors in passing the Family Support Act in 1988, which was Ronald Reagan's attempt to reform the welfare system. That bill didn’t go nearly as far as people on both sides wanted. So when Governor Clinton ran for president, we put welfare reform and “ending welfare as we know it” at the center of the campaign and then went through a four-year-long contentious legislative battle to enact it. Welfare reform had been called the Middle East of domestic policy because several presidents have tried and thrown up their hands because it was so hard to strike the right balance. We wanted to change the social contract from one that was based on simply providing minimal support into one that actually empowered people to work and gain the skills to be on their own. There were many opponents on my side of the aisle who opposed that idea because they thought that people trapped on welfare were too broken down to able to move to work. There were some who opposed from the other side of the aisle who said we should be spending less on helping the poornot more. Bill Clinton wanted to require people to work, help them find work, and reward them for going to work because, in his view, work was important for the money but also for more than thatit provided structure to people's lives, and it was of value in and of itself.

So, we did two things. First, we dramatically expanded the earned income tax credit, which resulted in work paying better than welfare. For many people on welfare, staying on welfare had been a smart economic decision because they would lose money when they went to work. The earned income tax credit changes that. Second, we transformed the system so that everybody was expected to go to work and, just as important, the state was expected to help people find work and not just send people a small check every month. What’s been most encouraging about the success of welfare reform is first, the response of individuals themselves. Nobody who is on welfare wants to stay there. People much prefer to work if they can find it, so if you reward work, accept work, and work is available, people will do it. That is an important lesson not just for welfare reform, but for social policy in general—that if we build a social contract around work, if we make it so that good things happen when people go to work, more people will do that, and they will be far better off for it. The second encouraging thing, which we weren’t sure would work, was that state governments responded, initially at least, to the challenge that we required the states to dramatically increase the number of people that they were putting to work. The law needs some updating: Democrats and physicians have been fighting for the last decade and have been unable to agree on how to extend it, so there are some improvements that would raise expectations on the states again and need to be done. I think the incentives are still there. The incentives on the states are not as strong as they need to be, and we still have a lot of work to do in fighting poverty. There are aspects of poverty that have not gotten nearly enough attention from either side of the aisle in decades. Housing, for example, is a huge problem for the urban poor, and there are other supports that we should be providing the working poor that are good for the middle class, too, like child care and other forms of leave that make it possible to raise a family in dignity.

Gate: You specifically mentioned that there is still a lot of work to be done in the sphere of social policy regarding poverty. What is one of the most common misconceptions on the part of the American public with regards to issues pertaining to poverty, in terms of domestic policy?

Reed: Every industrial society has wrestled with the question of what to do about the poor and how, in the old days and the early years of the industrial era, Britain made a conscious distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. I think that the biggest misconception that Americans have about poverty is the notion that there is anything easy about it and that anybody who is poor can somehow be using that to their advantage. When someone resents somebody else for getting food stamps, they don't realize how hard it is to accept that kind of assistance in the first place and how much more wounding it is to be on the receiving end of that resentment than to feel that resentment towards someone else. So, this is certainly true, though there was a long running myth in the ‘70s and ‘80s about “welfare queens” and people who were having children so they could go and stay on welfare. None of that was true or fair. A lot of people end up poor because they make mistakes or because they were born poor. I think most Americans don't understand how hard it is to be poor, how hard it is to stop being pooryou can’t just move somewhere else, and there are elements of being poor that have nothing to do with how much money you have. If you grow up in economic isolation in an economically segregated society and you want to go to work somewhere else, you don't know anyone thereyou’re an immigrant in your own country. People on the South Side of Chicago don’t go to work on the North Side because they don’t know anyone therethey don’t know where to start to look for work. Our social policies that are trying to correct for the inequalities go beyond income, and some of them are harder to talk about. Some of them are burdens that come with concentrations of povertywhen you have a bunch of households that only have one parent, that is a harder environment for everyone to grow up in because there is less help from the adults in navigating that society, and there are a number of other social challenges that come with that that you have to overcome. It is just wrong to resent people for being poor, and that happens because the people who are fostering those resentments are struggling in their own lives. Our country falls short in providing an equal opportunity for everyone to get ahead, and if we can realize that dream, then it is good for everybody. It's good for the poor, and it makes it easier for the middle class to stay middle class. When we fail at that, people turn against each other.

Gate: Policy reforms aim to combat deep social issues, like poverty, but you also mentioned that a common misconception on the part of the American public is the poor don’t deserve help. Is there anything on the individual level that people can do to be more aware of this misconception?

Reed: The best way is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Spending time as a mentor, volunteering, seeing what poverty is likethat is one way. Giving someone who comes from harder circumstances a chance is another. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realize how hard life can be for others. I would say that as a society, we have always been better off when people who have some security realize how fragile that security is, and then band together with people who lack that security and advocate for policies to make it easier to get ahead. The poor and the middle class should not be enemies. That happens sometimes when income growth and economic growth get stalled. When the middle class is having a hard time, they are quicker to resent people on food stamps than they should be and are maybe not as aware of the enormous loopholes that taxpayers use to help the wealthy, or those who don’t need the help.

Gate: You are an Idaho native and the son of senator and an environmental attorney. How do you think your roots in Idaho affected your career focus on domestic policy issues? Are there any specific issues in your home state that have driven your work in public service? How has your perspective in coming from Idaho influenced your time in Washington, DC?

Reed: I was lucky to grow up in a small town where everybody was pretty equal. It didn’t matter whether you had gone to college, and it didn’t matter whether you had other advantages. People treated each other the same and respected people who worked hard and did right and had the same dreams. In a small town, you can see the difference one person can make. My father took a stand in protecting some of the most beautiful land in Idaho, and he was stubborn enough for long enough that the city finally set land aside for good. My mom, who was a state senator, would help people with their problems, and their lives were better off for it. So, even though the state I grew up in took a dim view of politics and politicians, and had some pretty bad ones, I got a chance to see people of principle make a difference. I also grew up with a healthy understanding of the limits of what government could do on its own. I learned that a lot of the good the federal government does doesn’t reach as far as the foothills of the Rockies, and a lot gets lost in translation along the way. This lesson has been useful to me throughout my career in politics: real people take what we say with a big grain of salt, and they are often right to do so. I think that it is important to dream big but not lose your common sense, and our country is always trying to strike that balance. I was very fortunate that my first two bosses lined up as president and vice president of the United States. I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t expect to work on policy, but I have always been grateful to approach politics from the standpoint of an independent-minded skeptic, like everyone around me growing up in Idaho. They weren’t partisan, they didn't care much about politics at all. They cared about the character of the people who were doing politics, and they listened to the arguments being made. I think that one of the shortcomings of the political profession is we spend too little time trying to persuade and explain what we are doing to people who have doubts about what we do. Policies don’t work very well when 51 percent are for them and 49 percent are against them. Each side thinks the other is dead wrong. Neither party has a monopoly on the truth. Many of the differences that we have across party lines are just failures of translation and not listening to each other. So, growing up surrounded by people of another party wasn't great when I was knocking on doors or handing out bumper stickers, but it has been useful later in life.

Gate: What do you think is our nation’s most significant domestic policy issue, and what concrete steps do you hope President-elect Donald Trump will take to combat this issue?

Reed: I think the most important issue we face is restoring and expanding equality of opportunity. The United States is very divided, but the most profound question is whether all of us can dream the same dreams and whether, if we work hard, we can achieve what we hope for ourselves and for our children. America doesn't work without this hope. Some of that means asking more of those who are most fortunate; some of it is just organizing ourselves to make sure that every kid has access to a good education. The new information technology that Americans have invented makes it possible for us to be a more equal society and for anyone from anywhere to gain access to anything. But it is only theoretically possiblewe haven’t made it possible yet. I think that Americans are not bitterly partisan peoplethey are practical people. They just want their lives to go better. They don't want to hate on each other. And they don't want the government to solve all their problems. They just want the chance to make tomorrow a little better than today. We are the richest country on Earth, and we have the most amazingly diverse country on Earth. We have every possible advantage. We just have to figure out how to stop leaving so many people out, leaving so many people behind, and shutting so many people out.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Saisha Talwar

Saisha is a third year studying political science. This past summer, she interned with ABC News' Political Unit in Washington DC. Previously, Saisha worked at Dow Jones and the McKinsey Social Initiative. On campus, she is a research intern at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats, and a tour guide for the admissions office. Saisha enjoys traveling and consuming unhealthy amounts of flaming hot cheetos.


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