An Attack on Entitlements

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

James Rytting

“IN WELFARE, iTS History and Politics” (ATC 31), Johanna Brenner argues that from a socialist-feminist perspective, the Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988 is preferable to the earlier Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Her reasoning is that the FSA’s workfare schemes—because they allow women with dependent children to leave the home and become wage earners—promote women’s equality and independence from both men and the state.

But the content of the FSA’s Job Opportunity and Basic Skills Program (JOBS) and Community Work Experience Program (CWEP)—together with the reason legislators passed these programs and the political-economic context in which they must be implemented—make it hard to figure how the FSA advances women. It is more likely that persistent recessionary conditions plus a lack of universal (available to all regardless of ability toy) welfare schemes—such as national healthcare and childcare—will be a context in which workfare programs create a double burden for women with dependent children.

Congressional representatives tout JOBS as a radical departure from past welfare policies, but it differs very little from the AFDC’s Work Incentives Program (WIN) in terms of training and counselling. Basically, JOBS expands the categories of persons which states can compel to seek work as a condition for getting welfare.

Thus WIN did not make women with dependents six years of age or less seek employment. But under the FSA states can compel women with dependents as young as three to seek employment. Those who cannot find work may be stuffed into a CWEP. CWEPs represent innovations—but for the worse.

In a CWEP, welfare recipients work off their dole doing jobs that welfare administrators create in government or private non-profit agencies. The number of hours recipients may be required to work can equal the number of times the minimum wage divides into their welfare check, up to forty hours per week. Supposedly these jobs will provide “useful public services” in health and recreation, to take two fields the FSA names directly. This means such exhausting work as being an orderly in a nursing home.

JOBS and CWEP seem to make the FSA even more regressive than the AFDC. The fruits of labor they offer certainly do not nourish women’s aspirations for equality and independence. So why does Brenner approve of the general direction—if not the details—of these programs, especially given how mindful she is of the FSA’s many pitfalls?

How Much Independence?

Brenner’s main argument is that the AFDC, by paying women to stay at home, encourages what she refers to as a “politics of difference,” which perpetuates gender-based characterizations of women as nurturers. These conceptions of women’s role therefore retard their progress toward equality and independence. The FSA on the other hand, promotes a politics of equality; it breaks down these gender categories by displacing women out of the home and into the workforce. As wage laborers, women can approach equality with men—or at least with their male cohorts on the job—while generating income and acquiring skills that will eventually allow them to sustain themselves independently.

But the way the FSA is funded and implemented undermines Brenner’s argument that the general direction of its workfare is in line with a politics of equality that advances socialist-feminist interests. First, JOBS will be underfunded and biased toward men. The FSA mandates that states place increasing percentages—seventy-five percent by 1998—of unemployed men on workfare. Struggling to meet their quota of welfare fathers, states will expend more on men than on women.

Second, job training will be minimal. The Senate axed a clause making literacy relevant to the assessment of an individual’s employability. If literacy is not relevant, job training need not include reading and writing–just bare manual skills.

Finally, states will underfund and unevenly provide childcare. Consequently, teenage parents may be compelled to participate in JOBS—despite a lack of childcare in their area—if they fall to make adequate progress in the educational activities they’re enrolled in [see Sarah Gideonse and William Meyers, “Why the Family Support Act Will Fall,” in Challenge Magazine, Sept-Oct 19891.

Even if times were rosier, the FSA would condemn poor women to low-paying, deskilled sectors of the economy. But JOBS and CWEP come amidst recession at conditions that are not about to abate. This exacerbates problems of funding and throttles the progressive hopes—such as alliances between poor and working women—which Brenner raise at the end of her paper. If anything, JOB candidates will come into competition with the growing ranks of the unemployed who are, as yet, ineligible for FSI programs. State subsidies of FSA worker may also force wages down at local companies.

Above everything else workin1 against it, the FSA leaves poor mother with a double dose of poverty and dependency. On the dead-end jobs b which the FSA consigns them, women may indeed achieve a specious, levelled equality with their male cohorts. Bu workfare mothers will invariably fa under male management, and their workplaces in general will remain arena of male domination. In addition, the FSA’s inadequate childcare provision will still force these women to shoulder nearly the entire burden of raising the children while facing an intrusive we fare system.

While certain economic tendencies inherent in the FSA—the depression c wages as well as competition among the poor for scarce jobs—favor employers, would be wrong to assume that legislators passed the FSA for these reason. These tendencies are mild. Like the AFDC programs, the FSA workfare programs hardly affect the labor market r all. Their low levels of funding will ensure their overall inability to influence the reproduction of cheap labor power.

Win Votes, Hurt the Poor

Brenner is also wrong to suggest that the FSA signals a change in liberal democrats’ political thinking, motivated by the AFDC’s proven inability to reduce poverty. Democrats joined Republicans in formulating and passing the FSA for one, long-standing reason: in order to make political hay by attacking entitlements. Lawmakers designed the FSA so as to garner middle- and upper-class votes by playin4 up sentiments against the “undeserving poor.”

In effect, the FSA’s workfare scheme implies that government does not owe individuals a thing just because they are citizens; rather, each recipient must earn any benefit which the state provides. The usual politically popular implication lurks behind this message: There are ii social relations as disadvantageous to an individual’s life chances as to warrant compensation from the state. The individual is to blame, even if she finds herself in the debilitating circumstances that perpetuate cyclical poverty.

Beating back attacks on entitlements is a precondition for overcoming domination and promoting independence for women and the poor. Such attacks are expressions of the powerful U.S. ideology of individualism, which denies that relations of domination between groups decidedly affect people’s life chances. “Straight welfare,” in contrast to workfare, acknowledges that society ought to take care of the basic needs of its poorest citizens. This position leaves open the possibility that there are structural—or at least non-individualistic—reasons why some individuals and groups are impoverished.

But progressives must push beyond the needs based, “means-tested- distribution of welfare benefits characteristic of U.S. welfare policies. Means-tested benefits—compared to universalized benefits—are sitting ducks for budget-cutting lawmakers. Further, more and more people are coming to accept the need for national healthcare, childcare, and care for the elderly—far fewer, at least, think these ideas are red menaces.

One reason why universal welfare programs are politically resilient is that they foster degrees of solidarity between low and middle income groups. Such solidarity can be enhanced by the way payment into a welfare scheme is structured. A better off group will usually acquiesce in—rather than actively oppose—subsidies for those with less, provided that their own benefits rise with the amount contributed.

Primarily, however, state-led universal welfare schemes are politically stable because large majorities of users prefer these programs to the privatized alternatives. Even sectors of the Canadian business establishment—while they may not be giddy about Canada’s national health policy—are pacific about it [See Albert Weale, “Equality, Social Solidarity, and the Welfare State,” Ethics 100 (April 1990) for an analysis of the political stability of welfare schemes.]

Poor mothers have to raise the kids—whether they are on workfare or welfare. Their first concern is the daily survival of their families. Questions about whether “straight welfare” perpetuates gender in equalities are strictly secondary.

Hence the first order of business for welfare advocates concerned with the needs of this group is to defend entitlements unlinked to work, so long as universal benefits that would reduce the burden and worry of rearing children are unavailable. The second order—to be pursued jointly with the first—is to build movements for universal benefits.

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September/October 1991, ATC 34