Lies, Damn Lies and “Reforms”

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

The Editors

“Our greatest responsibility is to embrace a new spirit of community for a new century,” intoned Bill Clinton in his inaugural address.  “For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one in America.”  Indeed, the features of Clinton’s “community for a new century” are already emerging.

Granted that presidential inaugural addresses are always the occasion for lofty phrases that hide brutal realities, but Clinton’s performance shows real daring.  To speak of “community,” at the moment when plans are coming to “privatize” social security through mandatory individual investment plans, is a perfect illustration of the method.

In the same speech, Clinton celebrated the “American century” in which the nation “time and again reached across the globe to millions who longed for the blessings of liberty.”  On August 1, food stamps and federal disability benefits for legal immigrants who sought said blessings-hundreds of thousands of whom are long-time U.S. residents-disappear, in order to help balance the budget by 2002.

Nor did Clinton neglect to revel that “Along the way, Americans produced the great middle class in security in old age.”  It’s certainly true that the “great middle class” has expanded, if only by definition, inasmuch as anyone who makes between $25,000 and $250,000 is encouraged to identify with the “middle class.”  As for old-age security, several tens of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts are about to be legislated, alongside the process of shuttling its recipients into Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

But let’s not dwell overly long on the mind-bending hypocrisy of the inaugural address.  Clinton is, after all, the first full two-term Democratic President in fifty years precisely because he is so skilled at the art of combining the pretense of compassion and caring for people with the real politics of screwing them. That’s the job description, and he happens to be damn good at it.

In any case, the horror show unfolding in the national social policy arena isn’t unique to Washington, D.C. It is part of a process extending from global down to the local levels.  Take medical care: When the Clintons came to Washington in 1992, “universal health coverage” was their mantra.  Many health care activists saw an opening to campaign for a single-payer system-as in Canada-where everyone is covered and where health insurance is a social entitlement rather than a private industry.

That hope vanished when the Clintons produced instead their absurdly bureaucratic and politically doomed program to incorporate the whole population into the for-profit managed- care system.  Four years later, far from the United States being pulled toward a more progressive national health care system, the momentum is the opposite.  Canada’s own system is in deep crisis and in danger of being infiltrated by American-style privatization.  That’s not because the single- payer system hasn’t worked well-it has, and even right-wing Canadian politicians hoping to dismantle it have to lie about their intentions-but because it’s being starved in budget cutbacks by the governing Liberal Party and by provincial governments.

Now comes front-page news (New York Times, January 30, 1997, A1) announcing “For British Health System, Bleak Prognosis.”  By imposing three percent annual cuts at all levels of the National Health Service, the British government has produced a breakdown of catastrophic proportions: month-long waiting lists for acute pain relief for terminal cancer patients, a million patients awaiting hospital treatment “for everything from tonsillectomies to heart bypasses to exploratory surgery for cancer,” a two- year wait for MRI scans, “a four-year waiting list for a consultation” with a hip specialist.

“About 12 percent of the population of 58 million now have private health insurance” in Britain, the report states.  Concentrated among the affluent, that’s probably a big enough lobby to effectively block the restoration of adequate funding for the National Health Service when the Tony Blair’s Labor Party-that’s “new Labor,” the precise analogue of Clinton’s “new Democrats”-takes office after Britain’s forthcoming election.

Britain’s health system, then, perhaps the flagship of the post- World War II western European welfare state, is likely headed toward becoming a bare-bones service for the poor and the lower levels of the working class, while the rest of society moves to the U.S. model of multitier health care based on ability to pay. This process symbolizes the neoliberal meaning of “reform:” the replacement of any vestiges of the welfare state by a new dispensation that forces everyone to survive or perish as atomized individuals.

Revolutionary socialists throughout this century opposed “reformism” for being an ineffectual way of making a bad system better; today we find ourselves opposing “reforms” that are sure to make a bad system even worse.

The Game of Musical Chairs

The new federal welfare “reform” law is like the game of musical chairs.  The federal mandate, leaving the specifics to the various states, is to drive poor women into the low- wage market.  In general every woman with school-age children is supposed to find work or perform twenty hours of community service each week. Welfare, formerly known as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), has now been replaced by something called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which limits assistance to a lifetime total of five years.  The result will be a flooded job market.  Those who do not grab a job will be left standing-while the clock ticks away. Then they will be dropped.  These are the “unfortunate poor,” whom the government “tried” to help but simply “failed” to make it.

Many welfare recipients, according to local newspaper accounts, seem glad that they are receiving transitional help—usually a year of Medicaid and child care—after they have found a job. Some regret the fact that they can’t stay at home and raise their children-they assert that “ought” to be considered a job. But their problem remains: “because the jobs they find are overwhelmingly low-wage jobs, they remain locked in poverty.”

Despite all the rhetoric about reducing “dependency,” the reality is that half the families affected by the “reform” have at least one family member already in the job market.  That is, even when one member is working, the family income is so low that they still qualified for some form of welfare.

The Christian Science Monitor (January 16, 1997, 1:10-11) identified one problem with the welfare “reform”-it doesn’t exempt recipients already enrolled in a college program the time to complete their education.  The Amsterdam News (March 9, 1996, 1:3) offered data demonstrating that in New York state alone the jobs really aren’t there.

But the Economic Policy Institute has pinpointed an even more troubling problem: “even if the U.S. economy could absorb a million former welfare recipients, the competition would cut the wages of the lowest third of the workforce by an additional 12 percent.  And the Children’s Defense Fund estimated that child poverty will be increased by one million.”

Under the “reform” most legal immigrants or permanent residents of the United States have been disqualified from receiving food stamps and SSI (Supplemental Security Income).  All current beneficiaries-it is estimated that there are 900,000 who receive food stamps and 500,000 who receive SSI-will be reexamined by the state authorities and “unqualified immigrants” eliminated from the lists this summer.  (Exempt from the limitations are refugees who have less than five years in the United States, veterans of the armed forces, and those persons that have worked in the U.S. for more than ten years.  Legal immigrants also remain eligible for Medicaid, but many will not realize this.)

The Immigration and Naturalization Service must develop an affidavit of support which will allow federal, state and local authorities to sue sponsors who refuse to support the immigrants they helped bring into the country.  (Migration News, v.3 no.9, Sept. 1996)

Discipline at the Bottom

This is precisely where welfare “reform” meets immigration “reform”: In combination, the “reforms” will have the effect of worsening conditions for unskilled workers and immigrants, through the ferocious competition for jobs that the welfare reform will generate.  The result will be the emergence of ferocious competition between U.S.-born workers who have lost their benefits, and working immigrants who never them had, for a few meager low paying jobs. In short, those above are squeezing those below into labor market “discipline” (i.e. bad working conditions and low pay).

This situation is likely to deepen U.S.-born workers’ fear of immigrants-thus creating political conditions for further anti-immigrant backlash-yet in fact, repression against immigrants threatens the standards of all workers.  While studies do not indicate that immigrants displace U.S.-born workers nor depress their wages of wages, “the creation of a permanent substratum of workers without rights and without possibility of integration to the national occupational standards” will indeed result in a deterioration of the working conditions.

In the New York subway, a struggle is taking place to prevent the layoff of 500 unionized workers and their replacement with 500 welfare recipients who have lost their benefits, and are in the new “Workfare” program.  This particular process involves workers who are citizens, but it illustrates the willingness of employers and the state to manipulate and orchestrate competition among workers in the poorest segments of the labor market.

Various commentators, seeking to strike the proper hard- headed yet compassionate pose “tough love,” like to talk about the “necessary but hard transition” that society must pass through, from a culture of welfare dependency to the ethic of work and the bright future that “welfare reform” promises.

In fact, however, the “transition” is proving to be relatively easy, and to a large degree already in place.  It’s not a transition in the social reality of permanent structural unemployment, but “the transition from an official culture that at least pretends to worry about child malnutrition and severe poverty to one that openly doesn’t care.”

That’s the transition that makes $24 billion in food stamp cuts a political winner for Clinton and Gingrich alike.  That’s why states can get away with policies whereby mothers under age 18 whose parents have thrown them out cannot get benefits, no recipient gets additional money if she has another child, people are cut off SSI if their primary disability is determined to be drug or alcohol addiction and why anyone convicted of any drug felony is permanently barred from receiving any welfare.

It’s why the new head of Michigan’s Family Independence Agency, imported from New York state, could announce that she isn’t going to be hoodwinked by sad stories of welfare recipients unable to get to their jobs or get child care, since she “knows” they manage to find transportation and babysitters when they want to party.  Such pronouncements are now acceptable as public policy, not just as barroom talk or in the discourse of the privileged speaking among themselves.

The mythology, of course-brilliantly propagated to the point where many of those directly affected even believe it—is that job seminars and placement will get people into productive and self-sufficient employment.  So long as (official) unemployment remains around its year-end level of 5.3 percent, this will look credible.  One employment training consultant told Raja Mishra in the “Detroit Sunday Journal” (January 26, 1997), “The economy is generating a lot of entry-level, low-pay positions, so the market is favorable for (welfare) reform.”

But as Mishra points out: “What will happen during an economic downturn or a recession?  If there are 162,000 people on welfare and, in the best of times, only 72,000 jobs (last year’s net employment gain in Michigan-ed) are created, how can welfare reform ever truly succeed?”

Welfare “reform” will reinforce poverty, not offer a chance out of it. How could this happen?  We live in an society that is becoming more and more unequal.  While the United States never had the social welfare network of other industrialized countries, nonetheless even that must be attacked.

After all, more than 100 countries have been forced by the World Bank to undergo structural adjustment, whereby governments are forced to cut social spending to the bone, privatize nationalized industries and decrease the state- sector work force.  The state is not supposed to adjust income disparity or set up other social or environmental constraints-the market is to reign as regulator.

In an era of globalization, this process of dismantling collective rights cannot remain limited to Third World countries.  Insofar as welfare reform has already removed several million of the most vulnerable people in society from those considered deserving of protection, it may be already considered among the most brilliant success stories in the construction of Bill Clinton’s twenty-first century American community.

ATC 67, March-April 1997