Reframing the Welfare “Reform” Debate

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Johanna Brenner

THE MYTHS, STEREOTYPES and just plain lies that circulate around “welfare reform” are so outrageous; yet they seem to be impervious to reasoned argument. The only politics that comes close to welfare reform in its level of irrational myth-making is the politics of crime. They are of course linked — through the fundamentally racist and sexist organizing concept that teen mothers raise criminal sons, and more specifically that young African-American mothers (and their irresponsible male lovers) are the main cause of poverty and violence.

One of the truly fascinating (horrifying) aspects of this politics is the increasing use of “illegitimacy” to characterize the pregnancies of unmarried women. Following the sexual revolution, the word illegitimacy had practically disappeared from our political and journalistic vocabulary, along with that moralizing bad girl/good girl discourse on sexuality which had been used to control young women’s sexual behavior.

Of course, the new vocabularies of sexuality were not uniformly women-friendly — for instance, the identification of sexual freedom with sexual availability. And as anyone familiar with young women’s heterosexual experiences knows, many negotiate intimacy, contraception and sexual pleasure with men under difficult, if not entirely restrictive and unequal conditions.

Still, lifting the stigma on unwed pregnancy as well as motherhood, along with expanding access to income support (AFDC, food stamps) for single mothers, in the 1960’s-mid-1970’s did expand women’s sexual autonomy and decreased their dependence on men. Now in op-ed pieces, editorials, journalistic accounts, political statements, we are confronted once again with a language of shame in which unwed motherhood is recast from a legitimate choice to a moral failing.

(There is also a more subdued attack on divorce filled with exaggerated claims about the emotional damage sustained by children whose parents selfishly divorce putting their own happiness ahead of their children’s needs. Proposals to make divorce more restrictive do not fall on such fertile ground, however, probably because divorce cuts across race and class boundaries in a way that teen pregnancy and motherhood does not.)

Clearly, targeting teen mothers in welfare reform proposals expresses a range of anxieties — about women’s sexuality, about gender relations, about security, especially economic security — displaced onto the convenient and conventional scapegoats of a racist society (young Black women and men).

What makes the current situation especially difficult for those of us organizing against the attack on single mothers is that it comes from so many different directions at once — from the political right, from the Clinton Administration, from Democrats as well as Republicans, from state governors and welfare system bureaucrats. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that almost no one, even among advocates for poor single mothers, is challenging the assumption that welfare is itself the primary problem, an assumption that Clinton reinforced with his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it.”

The reigning consensus of the welfare reform debate is that there are too many people on welfare, that receiving welfare is bad for you, that teen pregnancy is epidemic and responsible for many other problems, that families in general can and ought to be “self-sufficient,” that being responsible means being completely self-supporting through paid work even if you are a single mother with a young child.

The corollary of the last point, explicitly stated by right-wingers and communitarians alike, is that since so few single mothers can support themselves and their children on one paycheck, welfare as an alternative to the market lets men (and communities) off the hook.

While not all of them would go so far as to say this, many appear to support punitive policies such as denying young mothers the right to live independently or refusing additional benefits to a child born to a mother on welfare. These policies, they claim, will discourage out of wedlock births because it will force families/communities to police young people’s sexual behavior more closely and reinstate that great regulatory institution: the shotgun marriage.

This consensus is not simply a rightward backlash in response to the large social and cultural changes of previous decades, although it is that in part. It is not simply the brainchild of the secular and religious right, although it is also that. This consensus is the result of a more than decade-long campaign by social service professionals, social scientists, educators, population controllers, health professionals and other moral entrepreneurs, seeking state funding for their programs and research dollars in a hostile political climate.

Reagan’s election in 1980 definitively extinguished the already faltering war on poverty and its fundamental legitimating idea — that social and economic problems were the result of institutionalized social and economic inequalities. Faced with increasing competition for a shrinking public spending pie, program advocates adjusted to the new conservative rhetoric which located causes in individual behavior and dysfunctional families/communities.

It was not the right wing, but Planned Parenthood that first sounded the alarm about an epidemic of teen pregnancy with the slogan “children having children.” It was not the right wing, but the community colleges and other social service contractors who promised to reduce “welfare dependency” and promote “self-sufficiency” through “life skills” classes for single mothers.

It was not the right wing, but social workers, human services administrators, social scientists and public school educators who invented programs like Ohio’s LEAP, which cuts benefits to teen mothers when they don’t show up to school, or Wisconsin’s Learnfare which cuts benefits for mothers whose teenagers are truant.

It was not the right wing but mainstream feminists, lawyers, social scientists and social workers who identified “deadbeat dads” as the cause of single mothers’ impoverishment. Promising to solve complex social and economic problems by modifying individual behavior, advocates got money into some programs but reinforced the overall conservative drift.

Of course, poor single mothers who rely on AFDC know that it doesn’t meet their needs with its punitive rules, arbitrary enforcement, contradictory policies. There is no question that the welfare system should be changed. But welfare rights activists want to shift the focus and reframe the debate about welfare.

In Oregon, where I’m working, there are three strands to this strategy: 1) to argue that the problem is poverty — not welfare — and the solution is economic reform, not welfare reform; 2) to identify the difficulties facing single mothers as the same work/family conflicts facing many other working parents; 3) to challenge the use of federal waivers for “experimental” state programs on the ground that they violate basic human rights.

First, we are arguing that the main difficulty facing single mothers is not a character flaw (‘welfare dependency”) but lack of access to living wage jobs. The vast majority of single mothers on welfare are working women who cannot earn enough to support themselves and their families.

Over one-half of the women who leave welfare to work are driven back onto welfare. Their needs could be met through welfare reforms that allowed families to combine paid work with cash assistance (for example, the EITC, or “fill the gap” plans which allow people to work and keep their AFDC benefits so their overall income is above poverty), and/or in-kind subsidies (universal health care, susidized and thus affordable childcare).

“Go to work” is no answer to poverty in an economy that increasingly relies on minimum wage jobs, where employers are cutting wages, slashing benefits or getting around them entirely by employing part-time, temporary or subcontracted workers, impoverishing families and communities.

Providing education and training on a voluntary basis to single mothers will help some move higher up the occupational ladder, but many single mothers will inevitably be employed in minimum wage jobs. Raising the minimum wage substantially would help single mothers escape poverty through paid work — and force employers to share responsibility for ensuring that no one has to live in poverty.

Other policies that would staunch the tide of low-wage employment are requiring state and local governments to only contract with employers who pay benefits to part-time as well as full-time employees, who stay neutral in union organizing campaigns, who pay above the median wage, etc.

A second strategy for reframing the debate is to challenge the myth that families can or should be self-sufficient. Raising children well requires resources which most families, including many two-parent families, can’t provide on their own. Government policies already recognize this in the dependent tax exemption and deductions for childcare expenses and mortgage payments, not to mention public education.

Of course these government subsidies, unlike AFDC, are not stigmatized for creating pathological “dependence.” Rather than pretending that single mother households can or should be self-sufficient, we are calling for an expansion of support to all parents.

The fact is that the ability to be a full-time caregiver to your own children when they are young is increasingly a privilege of the affluent. Only women married to high income earners can afford to work part-time or take time off work when their children are little.

There is a “crisis of caregiving” in the United States that is undermining the lives of children whose parents work far too many hours, whose childcare providers are underpaid and overworked, whose public schools are falling apart and whose neighborhoods provide fewer and fewer supervised recreational services.

Single mothers want the right to work part-time while their kids are young. They also want the difficulties they face as mothers, and therefore their right to refuse work when necessary, acknowledged. Their kids may have emotional or physical disabilities, often the legacy of poverty, homelessness and abuse; they may live in dangerous neighborhoods where unsupervised children are especially unsafe; they may have to care for other family members, etc.

The question is, how to assert these needs without giving ground on single mother’s rights also to living wage jobs, and on the claim that children can thrive when cared for in quality childcare settings?

Yet again, there is something unsettling about the evolution of this debate over women’s work. While family-values types want to meet children’s needs by putting women back into the home, neoliberals like Clinton are blithely serving up men, women and children to the maw of capitalist employment. Affluent professionals either find qualified help (often undocumented women) to care for their children, or take time off to do it themselves, but most working parents are being squeezed unmercifully.

No wonder that the proportion of working women saying they would prefer to be full-time homemakers is inching up. As one writer put it, working mothers talk about sleep the way a starving person talks about food.

Often, when we propose that single mothers should not be forced into low-waged jobs, we are told that lots of other mothers have to put their children in childcare and work full-time. We respond that society should be supporting mothers (and fathers) through a range of subsidies from quality, well-supervised, free before and after school programs, to quality childcare including a living wage for childcare providers, and mandated employment policies, e.g. paid parental leave, flexible hours and paid leave for family responsibilities.

A third strand of our strategy for reframing the debate is to challenge the increasing use of waivers allowing states to ignore federal laws regulating the provision of benefits. At first, applications for waivers were carefully scrutinized and intended to support relatively small pilot programs. Now they are practically routinely granted.

Under the pretense of freeing the “creativity” of local government, the feds have basically allowed states to institute behavior modification programs that deny benefits to enforce compliance. These waivers are undemocratic because with the stroke of a pen they unravel the guarantees (entitlements) and protections that advocates managed to get passed through Congress.

They are also immoral. They are justified as “experiments,” to test out the consequences of various policies — for instance, whether cutting benefits to single mothers whose teenagers are truant will raise graduation rates. But the experimental “subjects” do not have a choice about participating in this experiment. Every science that studies human beings recognizes that it is unethical to experiment on people without their permission.

Imagine whether this kind of arbitrary punitiveness could be implemented as an experiment on any other group? Or on the children of any other group? After all, we are talking here about depriving children of food or heat in order to control the behavior of their parents; or depriving parents of basic necessities in order to control the behavior of their children.

How about, for instance, an experiment in an affluent school district to see if students became more responsible when they received mild electric shocks for failing to turn in their homework?

Of course, none of these arguments will immediately stop the engine of welfare reform, now hurtling at top speed down the legislative track. But they are necessary to shift the way that people understand the issue, and can be effective in the longer term. These arguments appeal to basic ideals of fairness and justice; they speak to the realities of all working-class parents; and they challenge the logic of contemporary capitalism.

ATC 54, January-February 1995