Fact-checking Bill Clinton’s defense of his legacy on crime and poverty
The decreases in African American victimization and poverty rates which Clinton boasted about on Thursday began years before he took office
For about 12 minutes this week, Bill Clinton defended his presidency to protesters who accused him and his wife of harming black communities with their policies on crime and welfare, as well as their language about “super-predators”. “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” Clinton told them, though protesters insisted that he contributed to the mass incarceration of black people and increases in poverty.
Were the protesters “trying to get good television”, as Clinton later said in a half-hearted apology ? Or was Clinton not telling “the whole story”, as protesters claimed?
‘Because of that bill, we had a 25-year low in crime’
The law under scrutiny is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made sweeping changes in the US justice system, including tougher sentences and money for police officers and prisons.
Clinton is right that in 1995 crime rates fell, though he can’t take all the credit for a decline in crime that began before he took office. In 1995, the crime rate (defined as the total number of property and violent crimes per 100,000 people) fell from 5,374 to 5,275, a its lowest level in 10 years – not 25, as Clinton claimed on Thursday. Statistics and studies also show that crime had been falling since 1991, long before his crime bill was passed. Clinton’s claim that crime rates were immediately and dramatically affected by the law lacks support.
‘A 33-year low in the murder rate’
Clinton also credited the bill with lowering murder rates, specifically. Here again, there’s a similar obfuscation of statistics. In 1995, the murder rate was 8.2 per 100,000 US inhabitants, the lowest level since 1985 and not the 33-year low Clinton claimed.
These statistics vary little once you account for race. In 1995, 31.2 out of every 100,000 black Americans was a homicide victim – the lowest level since 1987 but still almost seven times higher than the white victimization rate. Those who are keen to focus on the issue of crime committed by African Americans against other African Americans should keep in mind that victims and offenders usually know each other, making intra-racial violent crime a general trend in the US. Black-on-black crime accounts for a similar percentage of all homicides as white-on-white crime.
‘The largest drop in African American poverty in history’
In 1996, Bill Clinton signed into law a contested welfare reform bill. Much like Clinton’s other claims on Thursday, his defense of it has some support. During Clinton’s presidency (1993-2001), black poverty rates did fall to historic lows. By 2000, the percentage of black Americans living in poverty had fallen to 22.5%, the lowest level since 1974. However, like the crime statistics mentioned above, the downward trend began in 1991, and the effect of the law was not so clear cut as to work for the general good of all African Americans. Single mothers benefited from the reform bill, for instance, but the number of Americans living in extreme poverty – a minority within the group living in poverty – more than doubled from 1996 to 2013.
‘Record increases in income and record low unemployment’
Median income rose for all Americans, including black Americans, after the introduction of the 1996 welfare reforms. However, household incomes had already been on an upward trajectory since 1991.
And the unemployment rate had been trending downward.
But if the law Clinton signed don’t deserve all the credit for lowering crime rates and poverty, it also doesn’t deserve sole responsibility for mass incarceration – that too was on an upward trend before the 1994 crime bill was passed. America’s black incarceration rate had been steadily climbing since 1980 , as successive presidents and Congresses passed laws related to the “war on drugs”.
Clinton himself has recognized that his legislation made an existing problem worse, in comments made after the rally disruption, as well as last year. In a foreword to a book on mass incarceration published a year ago, he wrote “ we have overshot the mark ”, and speaking at an NAACP convention last July, the former president conceded : “We had a lot of people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
Mass incarceration continues to disproportionately affect black Americans. For every 100 black women who are not in jail, there are only 83 black men. A statistic which led the New York Times to calculate last year that there are 1.5 million “missing” black men in America.
Everic White contributed to this article.
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