Many social scientists have worked to understand the lasting effects of the Reagan years on social inequality. Far fewer have focused on the effects of the Clinton years. Given what we know about the Reagan effect, there should be a Clinton effect, and ultimately even an Obama effect. In our recent article in Critical Sociology, we started with a simple empirical question: Is there evidence of such an effect in the Clinton years—1993-2000?
Sociological debates on the Reagan years date back to research on the evisceration of environmental protection law and on brutal union busting efforts. What some call the Reagan Revolution and others call Thatcherism clearly confounded processes, including capital accumulation and shift from industrial to finance capital as the base of the “postmodern” global capitalist economy with what might be called “regime effects” that could be linked to the New Deal governing coalition of big labor, big capital and big government, which conservatives (or neoliberals) are now attempting to destroy.
Since we had been using the Current Population Study to study race, class, and gender inequality in annual earnings, and Bill Clinton had promised to end welfare as we knew it (under SSI and AFDC and other remnants of New Deal and Great Society policies and programs), this seemed a convenient opportunity to disentangle regime effects and historical processes. We chose to look at trends in racial and gender income inequality, focusing on the “Truly Disadvantaged” (Black women), using models that specified and then de-constructed the effects of race and gender on marital and family status and the effects of these variables on earnings—comparing Black and White women and Black men to the distinctively advantaged white men, in 1993 and 2000.
We do not claim to have resolved any debates on the relative importance of regime and historical effects, but we have offered a preliminary step in the right direction. That step is to offer some theory and some data in a form that is accessible if not entirely comprehensible to the bulk of the interested academic public. Attempting to translate this into a more accessible version—something we could post on a blog or publish in non-academic form, is probably not within our skill-set, but this could be an interesting retirement project. We hope that this will open a new discussion on regimes and stages of capital accumulation. We await the contributions of others to that discussion.
Meanwhile, we are convinced that Clinton’s policies did matter—not just his boot camp prisons and NAFTA but his draconian efforts to impose labor on “welfare mothers.” The old system was policed by snooping social workers, looking for a man in the house, while the new system relies on “free market” solutions that aggravate the misery of those struggling to balance the demands of life and work, who can’t afford to marry or have children, no matter how hard they work to achieve the American dream. Of course, for Black women (and men), even the New Deal programs were not intended to help them. Southern Democrats would not tolerate a New Deal that extended to agricultural or household labor. It was not until the Great Society and Equal Opportunity programs that some relief was offered and racial and eventually gender inequality declined precipitously, if unevenly.
If the Reagan effect is to reverse the trend toward racial equality, while the service economy offered increasing opportunities for white and even Black women, the Clinton effect was to counter the trend toward gender equality by increasing the burden on the truly disadvantaged—especially, Black women. The declining fortunes of organized labor and the increasing inequality continued unabated during the Clinton years. Whether things became worse during the Bush years or better under Obama remains to be seen, but we should not be surprised that labor rank-and-file or Black women abandoned Hillary. We don’t need a theory of false consciousness to explain the historic failure of what was supposed to be the continuing saga of the Bush versus Clinton dynasties. Perhaps we should retreat from our obsession with celebrity, cultural wars and ideologies and return to a consideration of race, class and gender interests, as well as identities. Then, perhaps, we won’t get fooled again.
Richard Hogan is an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University
Carolyn Cummings Perrucci is a professor of sociology at Purdue University
This article summarizes Hogan, Richard and Carolyn Cummings Perrucci. “We know about Reagan, but was there a Clinton Effect? Earnings by race, gender, marital and family status, 1993 and 2000” in Critical Sociology 2018.
Image: Clintons and Reagan C13132-2A. Wikimedia Commons.