A Reply to James Rytting

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

Johanna Brenner

JAMES RYTTING’s RESPONSE to Johanna Brenner’s article on the Family Support Act (PSA) of 1988 is shocking indeed. Who is this Brenner woman anyhow? A socialist-feminist who thinks that one of the most spineless and conservative Congresses in the post-war period has passed welfare reform legislation that is “in line with a politics of equality that advances socialist-feminist interests”? Could this be true?

Well, no, it’s not the case that Brenner supports the FSA or thinks that it “signals a change in liberal democrats’ political thinking, motivated by the AFDC’s proven inability to reduce poverty.” However, I am grateful to James Rytting for taking the time to reply so thoughtfully to my article. Evidently, I did not make myself clear on some important points.

Rytting says that the reason for the passage of the FSA is simple: the Democrats joined Republicans in order to “make political hay by attacking entitlements.” This may be true, but explains very little, since during much of the postwar period, the Democratic Party supported—however weakly compared to European Social Democrats—the expansion of entitlements. Further, throughout the 20th century, liberal reformers as well as social service professionals have argued that the state should support mothers who cannot rely on male breadwinners: Single mothers—especially mothers of young children—should not be forced to work for pay.

The passage of the FSA reflected a significant shift in the political discourses and political alliances that have shaped welfare policy—a shift that has to be explained. I analyzed this change by placing the FSA in the historical context of the evolution of 20th-century welfare policy and the political conjuncture of the 1980s, shaped by related changes in the economy and in-gender relations. Since I have already spent many words on this argument in my article, I won’t try to replicate it here.

I agree with Rytting’s critiques of the FSA, many of which! mentioned in the article (although Rytting got some of the details wrong).(1) The FSA is not in the real interests of poor women, will not end their poverty, will place them in low-wage jobs, and will harm many even if it helps others. Like previous “welfare to work” reforms, it will achieve none of the things that its promoters claim for it.

On the other hand, whether the new welfare system is better or worse than the previous program is difficult to assess. It depends on where you are and who you are. For example, from the point of view of a single mother with young children on welfare in Oregon, the FSA appears to be an improvement Oregon is a very low- benefit state with a punitive welfare system in which mothers of children over three were already being forced off welfare and into low-wage work, losing medical benefits and all support for their childcare costs. Under the FSA they will retain medical and childcare benefits for a year. Mothers of children under six cannot be forced to work more than twenty hours a week.

Since 1971, in all states, women with school-age children have been forced off welfare and into low-wage work, losing their Medicaid benefits Under the FSA, their benefits—including childcare—will be continued for a year. With few exceptions, AFDC benefits even in less punitive states had fallen so low that welfare families were very poor. Applicants faced a bureaucratic maze designed to keep many off the rolls, and recipients were continuously having to prove their eligibility and hide any additional income.

Teen mothers received minimal cash benefits and were given low-priority for services that might help them move off welfare. Under these conditions, single mothers’ “entitlement” to benefits didn’t mean much. Many poor women with young children were forced to move back and forth between low-paid work and welfare—even without the FSA. The bottom line is that both the old system and the new one are fundamentally terrible for poor women.

What are the Alternatives?

The question for socialist-feminists is not so much whether we defend one welfare system or the other, but rather how we critique both of them and what alternatives we propose. I certainly do not think that the FSA promotes equality by forcing women into low wage work. In talking about a “politics of difference” vs. a “politics of equality,” I was not describing the programs themselves, but different feminist strategies. Often we find ourselves caught between two evils and then spend a lot of effort arguing about which is the lesser.

Welfare reform is a case in point. We should defend poor women’s entitlement top from the state. But what kind of support should we demand? Support to enter wage labor? Or support to remain outside wage work? This was how the question was posed in the debate over “equal treatment” and “different treatment” strategies.

I think that the way out of this dilemma is to demand state programs that help everyone combine work and caregiving. This would align the needs of welfare families to those of the working poor and the non-poor. The distinction between “dependent” families (i.e. those that rely on the state) and “independent” families (i.e. those that rely on the market) has been fundamental to welfare policy and to the stigmatization of the poor in the United States.

A socialist-feminist strategy that rejected this distinction would argue that while families have different needs, almost all working parents need help from the state Fully paid parental leave for all workers and income subsidies for families relying on low-wage labor would make it possible for mothers (or fathers) to stay home with young children if they wanted to. Quality childcare, care for the elderly and healthcare would help ease all women’s double day. Reform demands that speak to the needs of all working-class families, not just those of single mothers, would make it easier to build political alliances—for example between employed and unemployed women and between unionized women and the working poor.

Survival and Power

Rytting argues that poor mothers’ first concern is daily survival whether or not “straight-welfare” perpetuates gender categories is a secondary issue for them. I wonder what he bases this perception on. I mentioned in my article that women in the Welfare Rights Organization opposed categorizing single mothers along with the aged and disabled as persons who ought not be expected to be self-supporting. While arguing for adequate benefits, they also argued for jobs, educational opportunity and equal access to vocational training and childcare. In other words, they cared very much about gender categories—about whether they would be forced to depend for their economic survival on either a man or a male-dominated state.

In contemporary interviews, cited in my article, low-income women supported voluntary job-training programs. Like many women in paid work, welfare mothers think motherhood is undervalued and ought to be recognized and supported through state policies. But they also seem to think that their ability to control their own lives depends very much on their access to decently paid work—even under male managers. Not surprisingly, they want help with improving their position in the labor market.

Rytting agrees that universal benefits should be fought for as a long-run strategy, but he argues that welfare advocates’ first order of business is to defend entitlements unlinked to work I think we have to argue for a national benefit standard that provides all families—Single parent or two-parent, working or currently unemployed—with a standard of living above poverty.

But that still doesn’t address the question of whether the goal of welfare policy should be to provide income to single mothers or to help them become self-supporting.

It seems to me that since the vast majority of mothers—even of young children—have to do paid work at least part-time, it does not make political sense to demand for poor women something that the rest of the working-class does not even have. From this starting point, and also given my sense that the FSA was not necessarily so much worse than AFDC—given the realities of AFDC—I argued for a strategy of organizing for a better FSA, linked to a broader agenda of guaranteed family income, full-employment, paid parental leave, universal healthcare and quality childcare for all.


  1. For what it’s worth, the Conference Committee worked out a compromise between the House and Senate approaches to education and basic literacy. Parents under age twenty without a high school diploma must participate in an educational activity. Alternative work or training activities maybe provided if the parent fails to make good progress or if it is determined by an educational assessment that participation in education is inappropriate. The state must provide educational services to parents over twenty who do not demonstrate basic literacy. Education services must be consistent with an individual’s employment goals. However, if the long-term employment goal of a recipient over twenty does not require (!) a high school diploma (or the equivalent), the state is not required to help recipients achieve a high school degree. Participation in educational services cannot be required unless childcare is guaranteed. Family Support Act of 1988, Conference Report, pp.142-143.
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  2. September-October 1991, ATC 34