Welfare Reform and the Limits of Acceptable Debate in the United States

Welfare Reform, Cold and Warm


It is now nearly six years after the passage of landmark welfare “reform” legislation (the wonderfully named “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act”) that ended poor families’ 60-year entitlement to cash assistance and required work from adult welfare recipients.


Debate continues between and among the nation’s establishment policymakers, politicians, and commentators on how to evaluate and implement American-style welfare “reform.” For those who embrace what we might call the cold version of that policy, the massive decline (from nearly 14 to 5.3 million) in the number of Americans receiving welfare since 1996 is in and of itself proof of “welfare-to-work’s” success.


Cold reformers assume that former recipients are moving up and out of poverty and obtaining new meaning in their lives by attaching themselves to a self-evidently joyous and opportunity-filled labor market.


The main obstacles to welfare recipients’ “self-sufficiency,” they insist, are poor peoples’ own self-defeating behaviors, beliefs, and culture. The main reason that millions of adults have moved off welfare and into the job market since the 1990s, they argue, is the promulgation and enforcement of tough new “work-first” rules based on the notion that (as Wisconsin‘s onetime official public assistance slogan proclaimed) “only work should pay.”


As the nation’s family cash assistance plan (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], which replaced Aid for Families and Dependent Children in 1997) comes up for re-authorization this summer, the version favored by Republican President Bush administration and the majority Republican House of Representatives is clearly of the cold variety.


By 2007, under the Bush/House bill, at least 70 percent of a state’s adult welfare recipients must be engaged in work or job-preparation activities, up from 50 percent required under current law. Welfare recipients must engage in supervised activity for 40 hours a week, including at least 24 hours of “actual,” that is, paid work. Current law requires 20 hours of paid work in a 30-hour week.


By requiring in essence three days of paid and generally menial work for welfare mothers, the Bush/House bill will significantly reduce adult welfare recipients’ already limited ability to access education and job training resources. The bill denies states the latitude to count vocational education as work and provides only a paltry increase in child care funding, nothing close to what will be required to meet the “70/40″ goal.


Other measures in the Bush-House bill include denial of federal cash assistance to most legal immigrants and the provision of up to $300 million to states to promote marriage for welfare mothers. The latter measure is based on the misguided right-wing notion (Street, “Marriage as the Solution to Poverty,” Z Magazine, April 2002) that the root causes of poverty are out-of-wedlock births and the collapse of the traditional two-parent family.


Proponents of a warmer version of US welfare policy know that many of those who left welfare are worse off and that few have escaped poverty or entered the charmed ranks of the “self-sufficient.” Much of the former welfare population, they note, can be found in the ranks of the homeless, the unemployed (40 percent of adult former welfare recipients have no job), and the working poor, since work doesn’t pay all that much in the jobs open to former welfare recipients.


Most former recipients of family cash assistance continue, warm reformers note, to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other forms of government assistance. A rising number of former welfare recipients, some warm reformers know, are joining the nation’s unparalleled number and percentage of incarcerated people.


Warm reformers note the existence of serious barriers to the attainment of decent, family-sustaining employment by and the “self-sufficiency” of former welfare recipients. Those barriers include the dearth of good jobs in the rural and inner-city communities where reliance on family cash assistance remains most entrenched and persistent racial discrimination in housing and job markets, welfare offices, and the criminal justice system.


The problems are especially great, warm reformers know, for the current welfare population. The people left on family cash assistance more than six years after the initial “reform” include society’s most intractably poor households, those with the most severe disadvantages and barriers to remunerative employment.


These are the hardest cases – “the ones,” as noted warm reformer Peter Edelman recently argued in a New York Times (May 29) op-ed titled “The True Purpose of Welfare Reform,” who “have less education, less work experience and more personal problems. Rigid [work] requirements,” Edleman noted, “are the exact opposite of the individualized approach they need.”


The main reason that millions of adults moved off welfare and into the job market during the 1990s, warm reformers know, was the economic expansion that peaked in the late 1990s. That expansion’s hot labor market pulled people off “the dole,” consistent with standard historical patterns of interaction between job markets and public welfare.


Warm reformers also know that a significant number of welfare recipients have simply been forced off the rolls either because of their failure to comply with tough new program rules or because they have reached time limits mandated by mid-1990s welfare reform.


The current recession, they note, is hitting lesser skilled workers hard, making the Bush/House bill’s “get-tougher” provisions especially cruel and ironic – “more conservative than compassionate” in the Democrats’ standard rhetoric on Republican social policy.


The Democratic-led Senate will certainly advance a “kinder, gentler” version of welfare reform, one that includes more in flexibility, training, education, and child care funding.


Myths Self-sufficiency and the Deletion of Exploitation and Wealthfare


In a repetition of the original welfare “reform” “debate” in the mid-1990s, however, key dimensions of US welfare policy remain outside the parameters of acceptable controversy. Beneath the smoke rising from this summer’s emergent welfare debate in Washington, there is a chilling state-capitalist consensus uniting warm and cold welfare reformers across an all-too narrow spectrum of ideological difference.


What is the “true purpose of welfare reform,” to use the title of Edelman’s op-ed? Conservatives and liberals may disagree on means and methods, but they and even a number of progressive grassroots critics seem to agree that the proper goal is to make poor people “self-sufficient” and that this is attained through “work.” “Work,” in turn, is defined as renting oneself out to an employer, the direct antithesis of self-sufficiency.”


“Self-sufficiency” resonates strongly with the nation’s founding republican worldview and the ideal of the independent farmer, artisan, and manufacturer. According to that highly gendered ideal, no man, family, or community should rely on other persons or institutions to meet their own needs. People pursue and attain happiness by working diligently on their own property. They interact and exchange with others only when they choose to and not out of necessity. They do not depend on social networks and elite outsiders to make their way.


Problematic even in its supposed pre-industrial heyday, self-sufficiency is a hopelessly impossible ideal for people moving off welfare into the lower rungs of the job market. Those people are particularly unable to meet basic needs without private and public assistance, from the good will of employers and co-workers to the need for private charity and/or public assistance to close the considerable gaps left by insecure, irregular, and non-benefit employment.


In truth, however, most people, including affluent professionals, depend on other individuals or an organization to pay them a wage or salary. Such is the reality of a highly commodified society in which the preponderant majority of people own no meaningful share of the core economic institutions. Few if any individuals or families are literally self-sufficient in our highly interdependent and “globalized” world order.


Are the nation’s wealthiest citizens “self-sufficient”? Did they attain their privileged status by virtue of their hard work? No, their wealth depends heavily on and emerges from a network of exploitative relationships and institutional arrangements that put other people’s labor and taxpayer dollars to work for the enlargement of their parasitic grandeur.


They would dwell among the masses but for their special structurally enabled capacity to extract surplus from working people and to obtain corporate welfare and other routine forms of state-capitalist subsidy (tariffs, patents, export credits, cost-plus “defense” contracts, tax-breaks, military protection, etc.) from their friends in the “public sector.”


“Only work should pay”? Tell it to the rentier denizens of the economic “elite,” whose income comes less from work and more from investments and partnerships the closer you get to the top.


“Get a Job“: Conflating Work and Wage Labor


All of which raises interesting questions about the meaning and definition of “work.” Modern welfare reformers ritually invoke the virtue of “work,” infusing the word with sacred virtue, contrasting it with the sin of welfare, and deleting the social relations that shape the labor process. But how should we understand the essence of meaningful “work?”


Most people hunger to conceive and execute tasks that are “connected,” Iris Young writes, “to social uses and recognized by others for the contribution to the well-being of men and women and their environment. Meaningful work,” she elaborates, “ought to engage a person’s interest, intellect, and commitment in at least some of its aspects, and the worker ought to be able to take pride in the work when it is well done. It ought to contribute in determinate ways to the development of a person’s capacities, either directly in the skills the work requires one to learn or indirectly in its requirements for cooperative interaction with others” (Young, “New Disciplines of Work and Welfare,” Dissent, Summer 2000).


There is nothing in this excellent description, consistent with standard humanist principles, mandating that work take place within the framework of the employer-employee relationship, requiring workers to rent themselves out to a privileged profit-seeking and surplus-appropriating other.


By contrast, the essence of American-style “work first” welfare reform is the requirement that welfare recipients “get a job,” meaning that they accept any legal wage-labor position they can find as soon as possible. By the rules of welfare reform, warm or cold, the difficult and dedicated effort involved in organizing, say, the residents of a public housing project for their own protection does not qualify as meaningful work unless it is somehow performed for a wage. The same goes for the difficult, indeed heroic exertion required to make and sustain a nurturing home for one’s children in the inner city.


Such activities, after all, involve the production of socially useful value for immediate family and community. They don’t involve the provision of service and value to the employer class. They don’t involve the truly valuable activity like speculating on stock markets, serving Big Macs, or manufacturing cruise missiles. As Chomsky noted a year before the passage of the Personal Responsibility Act, “the whole welfare ‘debate,’ as it’s called, is based on the assumption that raising children isn’t work.”


In the holy name of “work,” recipients are supposed to take whatever legal waged work is available to them. The nature, content, purpose, or consequences of the work performed in return for the payment is completely besides the point. There is no requirement that the work pay enough to permit even the illusion of “self-sufficiency” or hold any human or social value. The real point and key mandate holds that only wage work should pay anything at all.


Say no to the safety net “yes” to employment per se is the key message of American-style welfare reform. The message, of course, is all too perfectly matched to and reflective of the employer class’s longstanding determination – as old as capitalism itself – to narrow the options enjoyed by the working-class and to use the most disadvantaged segments of the working population against the rest.


Welfare reform, now as from the start, remains part of the American’s elite’s carefully honed top-down class warfare – something else that simply cannot be acknowledged by those who wish to be heard in the current debate over welfare reform in the United States.






Paul Street is a social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected]



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