Shredding the Safety Net

Betty Reid Mandell

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 19, Summer 1995]

Betty Reid Mandell has been a welfare rights activist since the 1960s. She founded and co-edits the newspaper, Survival News, written by and about poor people. Professor Emeritus from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, she is the author of several books on social welfare issues, most recently, An Introduction to Human Services: Policy and Practice, co-authored with Barbara Schram.

DAVID STOCKMAN, RONALD REAGAN'S BUDGET DIRECTOR, PREDICTED the future when he said, "There are no entitlements, period!" The goal of the Republicans then, as now, was to destroy the idea that the government owed anything to the people. Once that is accomplished, the safety net of the U.S. welfare state, never very strong compared to those in Europe, can be shredded entirely. Then, there is no buffer to protect people from having to take any low-waged job, or to protect women from having to remain in a painful marriage, or even to protect them from homelessness.

The dismantling of the welfare state is not just a Republican venture. Although they have been the most aggressive about it, the Democrats have done their share. But the Gingrich Republicans have dealt a body blow to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main program of support for poor children and their parents, by their passage of the Personal Responsibility Act (H.R. 4). This Act would convert the AFDC program into a federal block grant and turn the program over to the states with fixed funding for each of the next five years. If the Senate passes that Act and the President signs it, entitlements are over and state discretion is the order of the day. The federal/state cooperation in the program that has been in place since the original Social Security Act of 1935 is ended. No child would be assured of receiving help in times of need -- regardless of the depth of the child's poverty or the parents' willingness to work.

The Republicans call it devolution. George Will, writing in Newsweek, boasted that it would send power "back to where it came from and belongs, back to the people and their state governments." They say it will give states more flexibility to suit the program to local conditions. They even claim that it will help move people out of poverty and change their behavior. Yet there is not a shred of evidence that a block grant will either move people out of poverty or change their behavior and attitudes. What the block grant says is that people who play by the rules, whatever they may be, will be denied benefits arbitrarily when state politicians cannot decide on a tax increase or a local aid cut or whatever when a fiscal crisis occurs.

WE KNOW WHAT THE STATES DO WITH WELFARE when they decide to cut back expenses -- they cut it. The program that is funded entirely by states, General Assistance (GA), is always the first welfare program to be cut, even before AFDC (a state/federal matching program) is cut. The General Assistance program (sometimes called General Relief) is for people who do not qualify for AFDC or other entitlement programs -- disabled people in the process of applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI); unemployed, able-bodied individuals with little or no income who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits; and poor two-parent families whose primary wage-earner lacks a recent work history. Not all states even have the program. The Center on Budget and Policy Priority points to a 1992 survey which showed nine states with no GA program and ten other states that had GA programs only in some parts of the state. Even the 31 states and the District of Columbia did not cover all -- or even close to all -- categories of needy people and the level of aid was very low, a median of $215 a month, 36% of the poverty line.

During the 1991-1992 recession, Michigan abolished its General Relief program, ending benefits for about 82,000 recipients, and Illinois cut off benefits for about 66,000 GA recipients. Rhode Island abolished its program. Ohio ended aid after six months. Several other states cut back the program in various ways. Follow-up studies in Michigan and Ohio showed that relatively few former GA recipients became employed after their benefits were ended and those who did were in low wage and often temporary jobs. In Michigan, there was a 50 percent increase in homelessness. In Ohio, the ranks of the homeless increased substantially.

The Personal Responsibility Act

THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT (PRA) OF THE CONTRACT WITH AMERICA would attach some tight strings to the AFDC program before turning it back to the states. Couching their language in phrases that seem benignly protective of poor people's character, they promise to "end dependency" by getting women off the rolls by forcing them to work. They claim that their bill will increase women's self-sufficiency. They further promise to "strengthen family values" and end illegitimacy by denying support to unmarried teen mothers. At first, they threatened to put some children into orphanages if mothers could not care for them, but in the final version of the PRA, there was no mention of orphanages. And they promise to discourage women from having babies while they are on the dole by denying support to babies born to a mother who receives AFDC. They claim that all of this will reduce poverty.

This is voodoo social science. Taking away the economic life-line of poor women and children will only make their lives vastly more miserable than they already are on AFDC grants that are 50% below the poverty line. Women and children will swell the ranks of the homeless. But the Personal Responsibility Act brandishes a sword over women's heads, telling them that they had better get a man or a job to support them, or else. Following is a summary of its main provisions, as explained by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

States would be required to end both cash assistance and workfare slots for families who had received AFDC for five years. States could end assistance after two years. After their limit has been reached, families could not receive assistance again for a lifetime. The PRA would not provide jobs, education, or job training. It provides for no exemptions from work. States could require parents caring for disabled children or infants to work full time.

A large fraction of recipients would be required to work their AFDC benefits off for 35 hours a week at "wages" that would equal $2.42 an hour for a family of three in the typical state. Nationally nearly half of all children receiving assistance today -- or about 4.5 million children -- are in families that have received benefits for a cumulative total of five years. The five year cut-off would make millions of poor children ineligible for federal aid.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, "The bill includes a perverse incentive that allows states to meet their work participation rates simply by denying large numbers of families cash assistance under the block grant. If a state simply denied assistance to one-half of its caseload, it would reduce by one-half the number of parents that would be required to participate in the work program."

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that ultimately about half of the children, perhaps as many as six million, who receive AFDC under current law would be denied benefits due to the time limit, the child exclusion provision, or the provision denying aid to minor mothers and their children. Net reductions in programs under the PRA would amount to $65 billion over five years. These reductions in funding, they add, "represent a significant retreat in the federal government's commitment to protect vulnerable children and provide a safety net for poor families."

Clinton's Proposals

PRESIDENT CLINTON MADE A WEAK PROTEST ABOUT THE CONTRACT WITH AMERICA hurting children, but engaged in some macho posturing himself by saying the Republicans were not tough enough on work. His Work and Responsibility Act of 1994 called for a two-year time limit on AFDC, but recipients who had received two years of cash assistance would be required to work. If they could not find an unsubsidized job, they would be provided a subsidized work slot (workfare) and paid at least the federal minimum wage. Clinton's plan also called for parents who are minors to live at home or in a specified setting in order to get assistance; allowed states to implement a "Learnfare" program, cutting benefits if children fail to meet school attendance requirements; denied aid to children born while a mother is on AFDC; and denied aid to a mother who cannot name the father of her child.

When he was campaigning for president, Clinton talked of the importance of providing education and training to help welfare recipients succeed in the workplace and leave welfare for good. As Governor of Arkansas and chairman of the National Governors Association, Clinton helped shape the Family Support Act of 1988 which includes education and training. Now, however, Clinton has moved away from this position. His Work and Family Responsibility Act emphasized low wage or forced work rather than education and training.

Mistrust of the Government; Mistrust of the Poor

TWENTY YEARS AGO, RALPH NADER WARNED THAT THE REPUBLICANS WERE ENGAGED in a campaign to undermine people's trust in government so they could dismantle it, since it sometimes prevented the worst depredations of capitalism. Now we see how prescient Nader was. The Republicans, often aided by the Democrats, have succeeded in creating widespread mistrust of government. They have also succeeded in creating, or at least exacerbating, widespread mistrust of the poor. The two together create an explosive mixture that has led to a terroristic campaign against all poor people, but especially AFDC mothers, and particularly teenage mothers. Having created their designated scapegoats to draw the public's hostility, politicians, in the service of corporate interests, were free to close in for the kill and take away the supports that made it possible for the poor, at least, to survive. Corporate welfare went almost unnoticed while the public cried for the blood of welfare mothers.

The divide-and-conquer diversionary tactic worked. A flood of conservative rhetoric condemned the "dependency" of people who got help from the government and who "didn't work." They never conceded that caring for children is work, unless it is caring for other people's children for pay. Welfare mothers were pictured as lazy and immoral, breeding children simply to get more welfare money. People who were stressed-out by falling wages, disappearing jobs, overwork, and lack of health insurance and child care, turned on those "lazy dependents" who seemed to be abetted by government "handouts." They let the Savings and Loan crooks off the hook, even though the money lost could have paid for AFDC in all 50 states for nearly seven years. The federal and state spending on AFDC is about $22 billion a year, $128 billion less than the government spent on the bailout resulting from the Saving and Loans scandal. But the media features endless stories about the dependency and fraud of welfare moms, not the dependency and fraud of S & L thieves. Nor does the media pay much attention to the vendors -- agencies and professionals such as doctors, dentists, and pharmacists who serve welfare clients and who commit 93% of the welfare fraud in Massachusetts.

The War Against Women

THE ECONOMIC WARFARE AGAINST THE POOR is combined with cultural warfare. Charles Murray, a man who seems crazed by the thought of teenagers having sex, has provided the theoretical underpinnings of much of the Personal Responsibility Act (if one can call his pseudo-science, palmed off as "research," theory). He blames teenage mothers for most of society's ills and claims to believe that depriving them of AFDC grants will prevent their getting pregnant. Of course that is absurd. But it will help to re-stigmatize having babies without getting married, which is what the right wing quite clearly says that it wants to do. Title I of the Personal Responsibility Act is entitled, "Reducing Illegitimacy." It declares that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society," and goes on to give a laundry list of "facts" about illegitimacy which features teenage mothers and links criminality with absent black fathers. States have joined in this warfare against teen parents, passing laws restricting welfare and giving them rewards (dubbed "Bridefare" or "Wedfare" programs) if they marry any man, not necessarily the father of their child.

Welfare is one of the battlegrounds of the war on women. The National Organization for Women has organized a "Committee of One Hundred" to fight against punitive welfare legislation. They say that not only does the Personal Responsibility Act wreak its havoc on poor women and their children, but it also "suggests a broader effort to pressure all women into a repressive sexuality, limited reproductive choices, and conventional family arrangements." The radical right understands the connection between a safety net and women's autonomy. By withdrawing federal assistance for women without male support (and by also attacking affirmative action, Title IX, and college financing), by branding welfare mothers with demeaning racial stereotypes, by pauperizing them and questioning their fitness as mothers, the right is pressuring all women to depend economically on men within a traditional marriage whether or not they want to, and whether or not the men are dependable. The economic alternative is so harsh that women may find themselves unable to provide for their families and have to give up their children to foster care or adoption.

AFDC does not encourage family break up and out of wedlock births. Single-parent households are on the rise but it is not due to AFDC. While the value of the AFDC benefit fell during the last 20 years, the number of mother-only households rose.

Unwed teenage mothers comprise a small portion of welfare mothers. Only 11 percent of welfare mothers are teenagers, of whom 65 percent live with their own parents, and 20 percent live with other adults. Unwed motherhood is on the rise due to divorce, delayed marriage, changing sexual norms, the falling standard of living, and other social conditions. The problem of teenage pregnancy has been vastly overstated and misrepresented. The teenage birthrate declined 20 percent between 1970 and 1984. Even as late as 1990, the teenage birthrate was just about back where it had been at the beginning of the 1970s.

If abortion were easily available to poor women, there would be fewer out-of-wedlock births. Predictably, the Hyde Amendment resulted in more births to low-income mothers by prohibiting federal funding for abortions. Sharon Thompson, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that in the late 1970s, before the right to life movement interfered, pregnancy and maternity rates fell to their lowest level since the 1940s. They began to rise as abortion became increasingly stigmatized and restricted, and the harder it has become to obtain abortion in a given state, the higher the teenage pregnancy rate. While the Reagan and Bush administrations' anti-abortion stance stigmatized pregnancy, the Clinton Administration, along with the Republican Congress, stigmatizes motherhood.

Teenagers are more likely to have babies when they see no other future for themselves. Those who go on to higher education or fulfilling careers are not as likely to have babies as those who drop out of high school. President Clinton acknowledges that the best approach to birth control in Third World countries is to educate the women, but he does not apply that insight to teenagers in the U.S. In European countries there is, by and large, as much teenage sex as there is in the U.S., but many fewer babies are born as a result of it. That is because Europeans give early and adequate sex education and contraception in schools, and have a healthier and less ambivalent attitude toward sex.

All these policies limit the choices of poor women, and further deepen the rift between poor women who have no choices and affluent women who do. These reproductive issues affect only poor women now, but they are related to the drive to limit reproductive choice for all women. Katha Pollitt of The Nation points out that the conservative talk about putting poor children into orphanages is not really about orphanages, but about women -- about reinforcing the sexual double standard.

Universal vs. Means-Tested Programs

THERE ARE ABOUT 3 MILLION CHILDREN WHO RECEIVE SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS, along with their parents. These children are the dependents of retired, deceased, or disabled workers or are themselves disabled. Most people are not even aware of the existence of these "dependents." Certainly their mothers are not subjected to scrutiny of their sex lives, work habits, housekeeping standards, or budgeting and shopping skills. That is because Social Security is a "universal" benefit, that is, everyone whether rich or poor is entitled to the benefit if they meet the basic qualifications, and over 90% of the population does. Universal programs have much stronger political support than do means-tested programs which are only for the poor. People who receive Social Security are called "claimants"; people who receive AFDC are called "recipients." As the late great British social welfare scholar, Richard Titmuss, said, "Programs for the poor are poor programs." Universal programs, however, are not invulnerable (nothing is), and we see both the Republicans and the Democrats itching to slash Social Security and Medicare. Congress has already cut vulnerable and little noticed populations from Social Security, such as college students and many of the disabled. They also reduced benefits for the very poor by eliminating the minimum level for benefits of $122 a month.

In her book, Pitied but Not Entitled, Linda Gordon argues that the deserving/undeserving, universal/means-tested, split was built into the Social Security law at its inception because of the differing philosophies of the men who developed the universal parts of the Act and the women who developed the means-tested ADC. The women were social workers who directed the Children's Bureau. Although they had been heavily influenced by the suffrage movement and helped to create many programs for children, they shared the elitism and racism of many in the Progressive movement. They felt morally superior to immigrants and blacks, and as social workers they felt it their duty to supervise them on an individual, case-by-case basis. They envisioned a small program with "nice" women, mostly widows and their children. They thought of it as a temporary program, presumably until women remarried. They ignored the large numbers of single mothers who could not or would not rely on a man for support.

The men who created the Social Insurance program, on the other hand, wanted a program to which workers were entitled. They were not interested in people's character flaws. Many of them were from Europe and had studied Germany's social insurance system. They developed the unemployment compensation system, workers' compensation, and Old Age Insurance. But they shaped a program that responded to the needs of working men, and the elite of the working class -- those with steady jobs with major employers, and professionals. It left out single mothers, the working poor who had low wages, and the workers who were not wage earners like farmers, sharecroppers, and small businessmen. Only much later were those people included. Women homemakers were never included in their own right, only as dependents of their husbands.

The framers of social insurance did not like the fact that ADC was means-tested rather than an entitlement program, and that it required supervision of clients. They were correct in believing that only by making social insurance a universal program could it avoid the "stigma of the dole and the humiliation of dependence." Yet, while creating a non-stigmatized program for the workers' male elite, they never seriously considered a universal program that would include housewives, sharecroppers, or domestic servants. To build political support for their program, they even created hostility in the public mind about the means-tested ADC program, thereby increasing its stigma. ADC (later called AFDC) continued as a stigmatized means-tested program giving its recipients much less money than social insurance claimants received, and scapegoating them as the "unworthy poor."

Women reformers criticized social insurance because it was based on insuring wage earners (leaving out women who cared for children), and was based on the assumption that women would be taken care of by men's insurance. Yet both the men and the women agreed with the concept of the "family wage," i.e., that a male worker's wage should be enough to support him and his family, while his wife should stay home to care for the children. The "family wage" ignored the many single mothers who had to support their family alone without the help of a man. The women were "maternalists," who framed their fight for poor women in terms of the needs of children rather than in terms of the mothers' right to an independent income. This weakened their position, since officials argued that the state was not obliged to meet those needs. It also meant that mothers' needs were ignored. The ADC program began in 1935 but did not include mothers until 1950. This strategy of appealing to people's pity for children and ignoring the mothers is similar to the strategy of the Children's Defense League (CDL) today. In an effort to placate conservative lawmakers and gain public sympathy, the League has emphasized the needs of children rather than the rights of mothers to compensation for their service as caretakers. It promoted children's nutrition programs and Head Start, but did not defend AFDC. As a result, the CDL left AFDC mothers, along with their children, undefended and at the mercy of right-wing assault without any support.

The men who framed the social insurance part of the Social Security Act were responding to powerful social movements from the grassroots, including workers' militancy, the Townsend movement, Huey Long's movement, and the unemployed movement. The women who framed the ADC program had no women's movement to support them in the 1930s. Poor single mothers had no movement to advance their claims in the political arena until the welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The second wave of the women's movement virtually ignored them until about two years ago, when the National Organization for Women (NOW) took up their cause. Only after they recognized the threat in the Contract With America did single-issue reproductive rights groups, such as the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) begin to fight for the reproductive rights of mothers on welfare. They had not at first fought vigorously against the Hyde amendment, but they now recognize it as an assault on all women's reproductive rights, as are the current proposals in various state legislatures to force Norplant contraception or to sterilize welfare mothers. Recently battered women's service groups have also included welfare mothers in their political action, since so many of the mothers have left battering men. (Some say as many as 60%.)

Myths and Stereotypes

IT IS THE MEANS-TESTED "RECIPIENTS" WHO ARE STIGMATIZED. The media are willing accomplices of business interests and public officials in stereotyping "welfare moms." The general public is abysmally ignorant about welfare. Myths abound. Mimi Abramovitz, author of Regulating the Lives of Women, debunks some of them, as follows:

Repression on the State Level

Many of the features of the PRA have already been put into practice by the states, with the help of the Clinton Administration. Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, has granted states many waivers from AFDC federal regulations to conduct "experiments" on recipients. These include a "Learnfare" program in Wisconsin that cuts AFDC grants when a child misses school a certain number of times; workfare programs in various states; "shotfare" programs that cut the grant if a mother does not get her child immunized; and "family cap" programs that refuse benefits for a child born after mother is on AFDC. Massachusetts is currently asking for permission to implement certain aspects of its recently passed law, including putting a two year time limit on AFDC grants. Lawyers are suing the state on the ground that these "experiments" violate the intent of federal AFDC law, which allows genuine experimentation to test a program on a small scale with the goal of improving it. The state proposals are not real experiments since they are applied wholesale to the entire AFDC population without any control group and, lawyers argue, they violate the rights of human subjects.

Disciplining the Work Force

In their book, Regulating the Poor, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward make a convincing argument for the thesis that welfare expands during times of civil turmoil, as during the Depression and the 1960s, in order to quell the turmoil, and contracts after the turmoil has subsided in order to discipline the work force. Income maintenance programs lessen economic insecurity, thus weakening capital's ability to depress wages. According to a principle in social welfare theory called "the principle of less eligibility," welfare pays lower than the lowest paid wages, in order to make any kind of work at any wage more desirable than welfare. However, that principle was challenged in the early 1970s when unemployment rose to the highest levels since the 1930s, and wages did not fall. Welfare benefits were sometimes competitive with wages during that period. Employers concluded that the expansion of income maintenance programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s had insulated wages from the effects of rising unemployment. They pressured legislators to slash benefits to remove the safety net that made it possible for people to avoid low-wage jobs. AFDC grant levels continued to fall until now they are only about half of the official poverty level in a majority of states, and less than a third of that level in a quarter of the states. And the poverty level is itself a very inadequate index of poverty.

Unemployment insurance has also been slashed. Although originally tax-exempt, it became fully taxable during the 1980s. When the unemployment level required to trigger benefits was raised, fewer people received benefits beyond the basic 26 weeks The number of workers who have exhausted their benefits is higher than at any time since 1951, when they began collecting data on the program.

The repeal of the Comprehensive Education and Training Act removed 400,000 people from public service jobs. Disability rolls were slashed from both the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSDI) rolls. The food stamp program introduced various rules that cut people from the rolls, including work registration requirements and making strikers ineligible.

Piven and Cloward point out that the expanding service sector of the economy relies on a new "service proletariat" of low-wage workers, the vast majority of whom are women and minorities, who cook, serve, and clean. The attack on social programs occurred at the same time as increasingly large numbers of women entered the labor market. Cutting back programs that supplement their wages such as health benefits and food stamps makes them even more vulnerable in the job market.

Stigmatizing welfare recipients is a form of terrorism to frighten the entire population off the rolls. If people can be made to believe that welfare recipients are a lower form of humanity, they will go to great lengths to avoid becoming members of that degraded population. The scapegoating takes on racial dimensions when the majority of women and children on AFDC are blacks and Hispanics (40% black and 16% Hispanic in 1992). Piven and Cloward point out that the post-World War II black movement was largely responsible for creating the political pressures which led to the expansion of social spending in the 1960s. The current cutbacks are part of a racist backlash by whites against the rights that blacks gained in the 1960s.

Where Are the Jobs?

CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL SCIENTISTS PROPOSE TO DISMANTLE THE WELFARE STATE; liberal ones tinker with it. But both the liberals and conservatives are preoccupied with getting AFDC mothers into the work force. A liberal proposal that has been getting some attention recently, including an article in The Nation, was proposed by economists Barbara Bergmann and Heidi Hartmann, Co-chairs of the Economists' Policy Group for Women's Issues. They say that AFDC mothers could work and support their families, even with minimum wage jobs, if they were provided with health care, child care, Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and housing assistance. But they minimize the difficulty of finding jobs and exaggerate the level of job skills of AFDC mothers. They claim that most AFDC recipients have a high school diploma, when in fact over one-half do not. In the last 20 years, the incomes of high school dropouts entering the work force have plummeted 41%.

Compared to other single mothers, AFDC mothers are not only less educated, but also younger, have younger children, and are more likely to be African-American or Latina -- all factors leading to lower earnings potential. Young workers have faced deteriorating employment prospects and lower earnings in recent years.

Bergmann and Hartmann recommend education and training, but they make no mention of the importance of a college education in these days of high unemployment. While a college education offers no guarantees, without it women will surely be tracked into the low-wage female sector of the work force.

Bergmann and Hartmann do not call for raising the minimum wage, even though that would be the single most effective way to raise workers out of poverty. Although the Earned Income Tax Credit helps to raise a minimum wage, it is in fact a subsidy to employers. Why let them off the hook by subsidizing their low wages, rather than forcing them to pay better wages? And, although food stamps are a life saver to many families, they are also a means to subsidize agribusiness and food corporations. Furthermore, those who use them are subjected to humiliating ceremonies every time they buy groceries. Why not give people cash to buy their food, either in the form of wages or adequate welfare grants?

Bergmann and Hartmann do not support the right of a mother (or father) to care for young children themselves rather than putting the children into day care. Many women (and probably some men) would prefer to stay home to care for their children. In fact, a 1992 Roper poll showed that to be a majority opinion, with 53 per cent of all women and 64 percent of married women in the United States saying that they preferred to stay at home. Only a third of married women worked full-time throughout the year in 1992, and only 23 per cent of them had children under the age of three, even though they had a male partner to help juggle earner-parent roles.

Or is the right to care for your own children at home to be reserved for two parent affluent families and not single welfare mothers burdened with working and caring for children, without the help of a partner? Even David Ellwood, Clinton's welfare advisor, concedes that single parents of young children should not be expected to work full-time since they are doubly burdened by work and child care. And part-time work usually does not even support a single person, let alone a family.

Because of their child care responsibilities, women with children work for wages considerably fewer hours than women without children. In their book, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, Randy Albelda and Chris Tilly point out that in 1991 in Massachusetts, single women with children worked an average of 908 hours a year while single women without children worked an average of 1,423 hours a year. (A year-round, full-time job typically is 2,000 hours per year.) And after their waged job, they have two other full-time jobs. Even when mothers put their children in child care, they spend "an average of 37 hours a week taking care of children -- another full-time job." And household work amounts to another full-time job -- 50 hours a week, according to one estimate.

Many European countries do not view single mothers as a "problem." In fact, in Britain single mothers are expected to stay at home with their children and be supported by the public if they are in financial need. In Norway, about 70% of all single mothers with children under age 10 receive a Transitional Benefit Program which is indexed and tax-free, and is worth about two-thirds of the wages of the average female worker. All of the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland) have established some form of guaranteed child support payment, paid for by the government when non-custodial parents fail to pay or pay inadequately.

Assuming that the mother has child care, health insurance, and housing subsidy in place and is ready to go to work -- where are the jobs? The National Jobs for All Coalition points out that although the U. S. does not regularly collect job vacancy data, "the occasional surveys of jobs vacancies show that even when unemployment rates are much lower than the current national average, there are several times as many job seekers as available jobs." One study in Harlem, New York found that 14 people applied for every job opening in fast food restaurants during a five month period in early 1993. Among those who were rejected, 73% had not found work of any kind a year later. The younger applicants, especially those under 20, had the most trouble finding a job.

Wall Street quakes when unemployment drops. The Federal Reserve bank raises interest rates whenever unemployment dips below six percent, keeping 18 million Americans either fully or partially unemployed. As the National Jobs for All Coalition puts it, "The unemployed are, in effect, involuntary inflation fighters,' drafted to hold down wages and prices." What will happen when millions of AFDC mothers enter an already depressed labor market?

Economists and policy makers are speculating about the permanent loss of jobs due in part to technology. There are many different points of view about this. The National Jobs for All Coalition calls for creating jobs in order to have full employment ("Fair Work, instead of Workfare"). On the other hand, Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio say in their book, The Jobless Future that large-scale unemployment is a permanent feature of the economy and we therefore need a guaranteed annual income. A proposal called the Basic Income Grant, a form of guaranteed annual income, is being seriously considered in Europe.

The French political philosopher, André Gorz, argues for both guaranteed work and guaranteed income. He fears that a guaranteed income without guaranteed work is fundamentally flawed because it leads to a dual stratification of society, consolidating a system dominated by capitalist relations of production and by what he calls the "working elite." The guaranteed minimum, he says, is a way of accepting this split-up and making it more tolerable. Gorz advocates distributing the labor savings brought about by technological changes in such a way that everyone can work, but work less without losing income. In his plan, there would be less work but greater flexibility of work time -- perhaps a total of 20,000 hours of work over a lifetime which could be divided up in many ways -- "ten years of full-time work, or twenty years of half-time work; or -- a more likely and sensible choice -- forty years of intermittent work." Regrettably, Gorz categorizes caretaking as a "spare time" activity in between intermittent work periods, when it should be regarded as paid work, and hard work at that.

I prefer Gorz's approach to the problem, but regardless of where one stands in this debate, everyone agrees that the labor market as it now exists cannot serve the needs of most workers. One should not, of course, accept the dominant capitalist view of how much "necessary work" there is. There is a vast amount of socially necessary work that needs to be done to meet presently unmet human needs. Caretaking is one of those important jobs. It seems ironic that in an era when jobs are disappearing forever, policy makers should be so eager to force single mothers into the waged work force. We should instead be placing a greater value on caretaking and providing decent remuneration for it.

Bergmann and Hartmann propose a fall-back package for unemployed parents, consisting mostly of vouchers for necessities. But here their distrust of the poor rears its ugly head. Since welfare began, there have always been policymakers who believed that the poor could not be trusted to spend their own money and needed supervision. Where is their evidence that they are not capable of spending their money wisely? The poor correctly perceive vouchers as an insult.

The Family Support Act of 1988 called for requiring waged work of welfare recipients, but it also called for the supports to make this possible, including child care and health insurance. Many policy makers agreed with the work requirement, arguing that the supports would enable welfare recipients to get a waged job. However, it did not work out. Proposals for health insurance were killed. Child care subsidies were increased only slightly. Subsidized housing was cut back. The realities of recession and conservatism took over and the welfare "reform" which some people thought held much promise became merely another punitive law making life more difficult for poor mothers.

Reformers can concoct schemes that look good on paper, but they would do better to put their energy into saving the essential programs that exist, weak though they are. The Republicans' proposal for ending AFDC as an entitlement program and turning it over to the states in a block grant would tear apart the meager safety net that exists for poor mothers and children. The first order of business is to save AFDC as a federalized program and improve it, raising the grants to at least the poverty level. After we do that, we can begin the long hard road to win universal health insurance and universal day care. After that, perhaps we can begin to work for a guaranteed annual income or, at the very least, a universal family allowance. Whatever we work for, it should be universal and not means tested.

The only good thing about the Contract With America is that it frightened a lot of people into an awareness that legislators are increasingly becoming the lackeys of the avaricious and powerful rich. It has the potential for uniting people on the left who had previously been working on single issues, and it has inspired a new spirit of activism.

The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) died in the early 1970s, and there was no large-scale national welfare organizing until the formation of the National Welfare Rights Union (NWRU) in 1987. It was formed by people from various advocacy groups. It has chapters in several states and holds national board meetings and conferences. The president, Marian Kramer, has been one of the main speakers at NOW marches and is frequently called upon to speak by other organizations. Many of its members and allies are veterans of the NWRO movement.

Welfare organizing continued in some states even after the demise of the NWRO. Massachusetts has a particularly strong network of welfare organizing and advocacy which includes a state-wide organization of welfare mothers, the Coalition for Basic Human Needs, and Massachusetts Welfare Rights Union, as well as several advocacy groups working on welfare issues. Two U. Mass. professors, Ann Withorn and Randy Albelda, organized about 100 academics into a group called Academic Working Group on Poverty. Its members are popularizing welfare information for the general public. In cooperation with Survival News, a newspaper for and by low-income people which I founded in 1987, they are setting up a speakers' and consultants' bureau. They are also doing research requested by Mass. Law Reform to help in a suit against the state regarding waivers.1

The Failure of the Left

THE OLD LEFT HAS, FOR THE MOST PART, BEEN CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT from the welfare debate until recently, and while the new left has considered it in their theoretical works, they have not been put welfare struggles very high on their agenda. The reasons for the absence of the old left may be similar to the reasons of the men who constructed the first social insurance program in this country. They responded to the demands of an elite, largely male, white working class and did not ally themselves with married mothers in their role as caretakers, single working mothers, domestic workers, or black sharecroppers.

Radicals have always been ambivalent about the welfare state, ever since the German Chancellor Bismarck gave pensions to state workers to "silence the siren sounds of Socialism." Welfare is often used for social control and to stave off more radical reform. It has often bought off militants at a very low price. Yet it has also been fought for by workers, parents, and students. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights asserts that people have a right to have their basic needs met. Although the United States never signed that declaration, we are entitled to a guarantee that our basic needs will be met, and we are entitled to have a voice in how our welfare state will be run.

Newt Gingrich professes to admire Thomas Jefferson, but has he read his 1785 letter to Madison in which he warns against an inequity of wealth? "The consequences of this enormous inequality (in France) producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property." As an Enlightenment man, Jefferson argued for a more equitable distribution of wealth with reasons based not on morality, but on self-interest. The French Revolution was only four years away.

Gingrich considers himself a futurist. Can he, or anyone else, imagine what our country will look like in four years if he and his like continue to turn their back on the poor? Who among the right will be the McNamara to come forth then and weep tears of contrition for homeless bands of starving people?


  1. For a fuller discussion of the history of welfare organizing in Massachusetts, see Betty Reid Mandell and Ann Withorn, "Keep on Keeping On: Organizing for Welfare Rights in Massachusetts," in Robert Fisher and Joseph Kling, Eds., Mobilizing the Community: Local Politics in the Era of the Global City, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993. return

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 19

New Politics home page