This is a long read, but I believe it's well worth it. On this Labor Day, I hope we can all take a few moments to remember the poor and working class of America and to consider the struggle they endure while the wealthy and the comfortable ride on the backs of their labors. Happy Labor Day, America.
Within the sphere of American politics, there is extensive debate about controversial topics that range from same-sex marriage, to abortion, and other “culture war” fare. In the midst of the ideological firestorm, one particular subject has faded into political obscurity, left behind and forgotten in a nation that cares more about the latest pop star scandal than basic food security for poor children. That subject, of course, is poverty—specifically, the poverty that has persisted in a post-welfare-reform America, and has even flourished in some respects. There is no doubt that it is more than past time that we re-evaluated our welfare system and reformed the "reforms" that have left our social safety net barren, gaping, and not the least bit safe for anyone involved.
When the opponents of welfare sold us on the idea of "welfare reform", what we were supposed to get was a responsible, compassionately-repaired welfare system. What we actually received was, for all practical purposes, an abolishment of welfare for the sake of partisan politics. Little to no thought was given toward the future hardships that might be imposed upon America's poor; at the time that the reform bill passed, the country was in the midst of an economic boom, jobs were plentiful, and wealth was increasing at a staggering rate. Fourteen years later, as the nation faces an economic turndown of epic proportions, staggering job losses, sharply rising costs for food and fuel, and disappearing retirement accounts, the only things that seem to be increasing are need and despair.
Although welfare reform has resulted in a massive reduction of individuals "on the rolls", this drop is not necessarily a positive thing, as it has not been accompanied by a significant rise in self-sufficiency. Caseloads have decreased because of a combination of time limits and hassle-related drop-offs. Poverty remains a serious threat to the fabric of the nation, especially deep poverty, and the reformed welfare system is ill-prepared to address the imminent increase in poverty in a post-economic crash nation.
Therefore, the reformed welfare system must be re-evaluated and streamlined to eliminate hassle and red tape, the failed work-first philosophy discarded in favor of an education-first approach, motherhood revalued and respected again in our society, and strict time limit regulations relaxed in favor of personalized empowerment goals to be negotiated between recipients and their social workers. We as a nation must take this moment to ask ourselves—is our “safety net” functionally capable of handling American poverty during a serious economic downturn? Does the reformed welfare system actually accomplish anything positive for the poor? By what standards shall we measure success or failure? And, what will we do with the knowledge we gain? In order to answer these questions, we must first examine how the reform bill came to pass.
In 1994, the Republican Party, led by Speaker of the House Rep. Newt Gingrich, swept into power in Congress. Along with the Republican political tidal wave came the “Contract with America,” a conservative manifesto that included lowered taxes, pro-business policies, and a promise to reform the welfare system. After two years of political maneuvering, arm-twisting, and partisan wrangling, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) was passed through Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. This piece of legislation brought many changes, but the most dramatic (and the most controversial) was the replacement of the New Deal-era Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program.
Unlike AFDC, the new TANF program did not guarantee cash assistance to needy families who met income guidelines. States were given great leeway to make their own rules about eligibility for assistance, so long as certain guidelines (including time limits and work requirements) were met. With the exchange of AFDC for TANF, the American welfare system was basically abolished. The primary goal was to get people off of welfare and into full-time jobs, thus decreasing government spending and poverty, and increasing productivity and responsibility. However, the success of the reforms in implementing these ideals is debatable at best, and at worst, a tragic failure.
In today’s post-reform America, welfare rolls have been significantly reduced, and overall poverty (at least according to very selective statistics) seems to have decreased. Those who vehemently supported the PRWORA bill have pointed to the dramatic drop in welfare enrollment and the seemingly-improved poverty statistics as proof that the reforms were both just and necessary. As one of the crafters of the welfare reform bill, Ron Haskins, notes with pride:
Census Bureau data show that in 1993, earnings accounted for about 30 percent of the income of low-income mother-headed families while welfare payments accounted for nearly 55 percent. By 2000, this pattern had reversed: earnings had leaped by an astounding 136 percent to constitute almost 57 percent of income while welfare income had plummeted by nearly half to constitute only about 23 percent of income. (Haskins).
However, as critics of the reforms point out, the booming Clinton economy of the 90s (along with the steady supply of jobs) deserves more of the credit for the improved poverty statistics than do the reforms. In addition, such statistics only represent families who actually have a source of income to count, whether welfare income or job-related income; families with no source of income at all are completely unaccounted-for, which tends to skew the results to make the reforms seem more beneficial to the nation than they have actually been. However, even with the advantage of questionable statistical data skewing results in favor of reform, not all of the numbers are so rosy.
One particularly gruesome statistic that advocates of reform often ignore or downplay is the alarming increase in “deep poverty.” “Deep poverty,” defined as a family earning at less than half of the official federal poverty line for income (Street), has risen alarmingly. As one economic journalist reports, 43% of the nation’s 37 million poor people are now living in “deep poverty”—the highest rate since 1975 (Pugh). The reasons why are complex and multilayered, but upon objective examination, there is a lot of evidence that the changes that came along with welfare reform have played a significant role in this frightening increase of severe destitution.
Welfare assistance is now incredibly difficult to qualify for; the complicated paperwork, strict requirements, and burdensome reporting rules have discouraged countless genuinely needy families from ever seeking government assistance in the first place—yet another unaccounted-for statistical influence. The practical realities are dire for America’s poor; public assistance benefits have not kept up with inflation, despite the ever-rising costs of basic necessities like food, transportation, and housing. The Census Bureau’s official “poverty line” (the basic formula of which hasn’t substantially changed since the 60s) is woefully outdated and inaccurate at measuring real poverty in America (Street). According to recent news, there is supposed to be a new poverty standard introduced when the latest Census data is released, but there are already questions and concerns about whether or not the new standard will benefit or hurt the poor of America. One major concern is that the new standard will supposedly count government benefits like Food Stamps and Medicaid as "income". If public assistance is counted as income, will people who receive public assistance suddenly lose their eligibility for assistance because their assistance "income" has raised their overall income above the poverty line? That remains to be seen.
Millions of American citizens (many of whom are elderly, disabled, and/or children) are suffering hunger, homelessness, and a lack of even basic health care, and their plight goes unreported and unrepresented by a bureaucratic accounting system that, from the start, is biased against the poor. Now that the nation is facing a global economic crisis on a massive level, these problems will only worsen in both scale and severity. A casual observer might wonder, if the justifications and information available to our decision-making bodies is so flawed and potentially contradictory, why the welfare reforms were ever passed in the first place.
At the time it was implemented, the stated justifications for welfare reform were cloaked in the kind of political jargon that was meant to appeal to the middle-class political base. Proponents of reform had spent over a decade carefully crafting a public image of the typical welfare recipient as a lazy, unmotivated, irresponsible, typically Black mother who produced babies on a regular basis for the sole purpose of increasing her welfare check, and used hard-earned taxpayer dollars to buy luxuries rather than necessities. President Ronald Reagan once famously railed against the “welfare queens” (Krugman) who drove Cadillac cars bought and paid for with America’s tax dollars.
The slanderous and racist myth of the “welfare queen” became pervasive throughout the American culture of the 80s and early 90s. It helped to foster a simmering resentment within the country; a resentment that the opponents of welfare took advantage of in order to convince America that welfare reform was an urgent priority for the nation. When reform advocates finally gained the power to implement their ideas, they sold the idea of welfare reform to America as legislation that would not only benefit the middle-class by removing the “welfare queens” who were leeching away their tax dollars, but that would also benefit the poor, under the claim that “dependency on welfare” was the primary obstacle keeping these people from productive, self-sufficient lives.
The 1996 reform legislation was (ostensibly) crafted to uphold this ideal, stuffed full of lofty-sounding concepts like “encouraging self-sufficiency,” “restoring dignity,” and “ending dependency”—at least on the surface. Lurking subtly beneath the jargon were more sinister accusations and implications: welfare recipients were lazy, and lacked a proper work ethic. They were sexually promiscuous and irresponsible. Welfare was destroying “traditional American values” by making it easier for women to raise children without the governing presence of a husband. The racist spectre of oversexed Black women raising a multitude of Black babies was no small part of the fear campaign that the Republicans were waging against welfare.
However arguable the real goals of the legislation might have been, the proponents of reform almost universally claimed that the legislation would actually help impoverished families, while easing the tax burden on prosperous ones. The verdict on whether or not this has actually happened appears to be a negative, but before we can even begin to address that problem, we must first be able to define "success" and "failure". In pursuit of that, we must examine three major questions: have the reforms actually improved the lives of struggling families? By what (and whose) standard do we measure success or failure? If the reformed welfare system is indeed a failure, what actions can our government take to restore it and make it functional again?
The proponents of welfare reform largely think that success or failure can be ascertained by looking at statistical data. They proudly point to the dramatic drop in welfare enrollment as the most obvious sign of success. In 2001, Douglas Besharov, of the American Enterprise Institute, stated that “reducing welfare rolls is a tremendous and unprecedented achievement…If this result had been guaranteed when welfare reform was being debated in 1996, most opposition would surely have melted away” (Besharov). Like-minded reform advocates echo this mindset in regard to the effects of welfare reform; if it looks good on paper, then it’s a categorical success.
Other advocates of welfare reform believe that success is more about changing "undesirable" social narratives than immediate statistical vindication. This line of reasoning assumes that dependency was always the most serious obstacle that welfare recipients needed to overcome in order to achieve self-sufficiency. Ron Haskins, a conservative advocate of welfare reform from the Brookings Institute reflects that, “the reform measures fundamentally altered the ground of American social policy from dependency-producing entitlement to an expectation of work” (Haskins). If Haskins and his ideological brethren are correct, reformed welfare is a resounding success because developing a “dependency” on welfare benefits post-reform is practically impossible. As professor of government Anne Marie Cammisa flatly observes,
We have decided that reducing dependency is our ultimate goal in welfare. Will that help the poor? That remains to be seen. But with AFDC and its entitlement abolished, welfare can no longer be said to be the problem. Dependency has been legislated out of existence. If poverty persists, then new attempts at reform will have to acknowledge that poverty is the problem (Cammisa).
Opponents of welfare reform believe that neither statistics nor altered social narratives are adequate alone to determine the success of the legislation. Roman Catholic theology Professor Thomas Massaro asks,
Are [political] candidates interested enough in low-income families to push beyond a few reassuring statistics and consider the concrete burdens imposed by a welfare system that now relies almost exclusively on getting people to work rather than making sure they have enough income to feed themselves and their families, whether or not they have jobs (Massaro)?
Massaro’s point is a fair one—how can the proponents of welfare reform claim that the legislation is a success without measuring the actual living conditions of impoverished families—including families that have fallen through the cracks of both the system and the statistics, and survive invisibly by means that we have no method of measuring? There are missing voices and missing stories to be found, but very few reform advocates seem willing to do the legwork necessary to find them.
Much of this silence and invisibility is political by nature. The political fortress of the working class, union membership, has traditionally been a solid indicator of the condition of the poorer class. Increased political participation and self-empowerment actions (such as union membership) tends to occur most frequently when the working poor are doing well enough to have a few moments to breathe between work, eat, and sleep. However, when these people are stretched to the limit, exhausted from the constant struggle to feed their families and pay the rent, political participation deeply declines (Wolman). Tragically, this is a very-much neglected area of study. Of all the voices present in the debate about welfare reform, the silence is the loudest from the missing voices of the poor. These voices have been lost in the bureaucratic wilderness that our post-reform welfare system has become.
For years, many politicians who opposed entitlement welfare also claimed to loathe bureaucracy, calling for smaller, more personal government that treats people as individuals rather than numbers—unless the topic is welfare, in which case opponents of welfare demand that bureaucracy be as invasive, impersonal, anonymous, enormous, unmanageable, and complex as possible. In fact, if there is one thing that both sides of the debate can agree on, it is that the bureaucracy of the welfare system is certainly doing its best to discourage recipients from applying for, receiving, and maintaining welfare benefits. Those that do manage to navigate the system end up demoralized, defeated, and confused. As author Sharon Hays points out in Flat Broke with Children:
…the trouble with bureaucratic welfare is not just that its procedures are demeaning and degrading, picturing welfare recipients as childlike and manipulative, and burying the goals of reform in a bureaucratic swamp. There is also a real danger that the more valuable versions of the principles of independence and citizenship have been debased by this process, transformed into a demand for a new form of wage slavery, where the lives of welfare mothers and their children are treated as worth far less than those of the American middle class (Hays).
The one thing that the welfare bureaucracy stresses more than anything else to modern welfare recipients is the “work-first” philosophy that lies at the heart of the welfare reform movement. The basic concept behind this philosophy is simple—any job is better than no job, and work should be every welfare recipient’s highest priority. Post-reform welfare places enormous pressure on recipients to seek, accept, and maintain a job. In some states, welfare recipients are required to accept the first minimum-wage-or-higher job that is offered to them, or they risk losing their benefits to harsh sanctions (Appendix). Gone are the days when poor people could hold out for a job that actually paid enough to survive on. In the modern welfare system, work—any work—takes foremost precedence on the priority list. The problems with this work-first approach are numerous and grave.
The work-first philosophy is intrinsically predicated on the idea that poverty is a result of personal failures and individual flaws, especially the lack of a “proper work ethic.” The simplistic solution to the problem posed by this assumption is to encourage, demand, and eventually force welfare recipients into whatever jobs can be found, regardless of whether or not those jobs pay enough to permit self-sufficiency. However, if poverty is indeed just the result of not working hard enough, then there should be no such thing as a “working poor” family. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case, as Allison Stevens points out in a recent article about welfare and single mothers:
More single mothers are employed now than were in the 1990s, according to Liz Schott, a welfare expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But recent declines suggest a healthy economy--rather than changes to welfare--helps people transition to work, she said. And many of those now working are still poor because they do not earn enough to afford child care, transportation and other work expenses (Stevens).
Some of the obstacles to the notion of “work as a solution to poverty” that go largely unconsidered by the work-first philosophy advocates are the peripheral (and often hidden) costs of working. Trustworthy child care, reliable transportation, the cost of suitable work clothes and personal grooming supplies, the cost of certifications, food handlers licenses, vital document costs, and identification fees—all of these factors place a serious burden on poor people seeking employment. Other barriers are more obvious, and more frustrating, as Washington Post journalist Mark Courtney found during a study of the Wisconsin work-first program:
More than four of five parents reported at least one potential barrier to employment: a disability; a disabled family member; poor or fair health; no high school diploma or general equivalency diploma; a mental health problem; an alcohol or drug problem; involvement in a physically abusive relationship. More than half reported two or more barriers to employment, and almost three in 10 reported three or more (Courtney).
These obstacles to employment are given little to no consideration within the scope of the work-first ideological camp, but are a serious dilemma for people who are facing harsh work requirements in order to qualify for financial assistance. A simplistic, work-first welfare policy that doesn’t seriously and comprehensively consider the complex barriers to employment that exist within the community of the poor is poorly-constructed at best, and deliberately neglectful at worst.
Possibly the most serious problem with the work-first philosophy is the fact that it places little to no value on the pursuit of higher education. Education is one of the most successful ways to rise out of poverty and stay out, but the work-first philosophy of welfare reform makes higher education extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. In order to meet the program requirements and rules that must be adhered to in order to receive desperately-needed financial assistance, single mothers are often forced to drop out of college (or forego it completely) for the sake of accepting the menial, low-wage jobs that are the hallmark of “workfare.” As author Vivian C. Adair notes in her essay about welfare mothers and higher education:
Unlike previous provisions in AFDC and JOBS education training programs in existence when I first went to college, TANF restrictions from 1996 do not allow higher education to be counted as work, and required a larger proportion of welfare recipients to engage in full-time recognized work activities. This Work-First philosophy emphasized rapid entry into the labor force and penalized states for allowing long-term access to either education or training (Adair).
Lacking any sort of livable wage and deprived of the higher education required for most “good” jobs, welfare recipients are simply shifted from welfare poverty to dead-end-job poverty, with no increase in living standards, and little hope for advancement. Work-first philosophy is damaging to both poor people and to the nation as a whole, because it supports and enforces a constant underclass of low-wage, low-skill workers without job security or a public safety net.
Although most poor people are not criminals, it’s a sad fact that increased poverty and financial desperation is acutely tied to an increase in crime (Morgan). This is evidence that the effects of unrelieved poverty in the United States are not confined solely to the community of the poor. Indeed, this is an issue in which all American citizens have a stake. Unfortunately, many financially-comfortable Americans fail to realize just how much the poverty of others can negatively affect their own lives. They assume that poverty is simply the result of not working hard enough, an unfortunate error in reasoning that has contributed to stripping the poor of the only safety net that stood between them and utter financial destitution.
Because the citizenry of America is largely unaware that the root cause of poverty is institutional, not individual, our society fails to invest in poor children from birth to adulthood; these children often go without decent education, health care, safe and adequate living conditions, and personal development opportunities. This leads to the generational cycle of poverty that is almost impossible to break out of without a dramatic and unlikely windfall of good fortune. The “work-first” philosophy is erroneous because it assumes that a lack of individual work ethic is mostly responsible for poverty, and legislates accordingly, placing all blame on the poor themselves rather an addressing the social framework that both supports and enforces financial destitution. An education-first approach along with more comprehensive assistance targeted to raise families up out of poverty in the long-term would make a much bigger difference for the impoverished welfare recipients in America, and for the well-being of the nation as a whole.
One goal for improving the plight of the poor in America is to change the ignorant, privileged worldview that perceives higher education as a luxury instead of as a national priority for people of all social and economic classes. It is often the only way out of the cycle of poverty, especially in today’s consumer-driven, de-industrialized economy, where the well-paid blue-collar factory jobs and pensions of old are becomingly increasingly rare. In order to alter this toxic way of thinking, we must first address our collective pre-conceived notions about poverty, and who “deserves” help.
America has cultural definitions of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor (Cammisa). Like them or not, agree with them or not, these definitions contributed greatly to the movement that culminated in welfare reform. Many welfare recipients were viewed as undeserving, due largely to “welfare queen” myths, simmering sexism, bigoted racism, and the oversimplified notion that people are largely to blame for their own destitution. It might be emotionally satisfying and conscience-friendly for the comfortable class to assign the blame for poverty to the poor people themselves, but truth and the complexity of reality are woefully missing from that rationalization.
Our society is fixated on blame and punishment; we blame the poor for not being industrious and “personally responsible” enough, and punish them with welfare restrictions. This way of thinking is wrong because it takes no account of institutional disadvantages and obstacles. Instead of trying to seek a comprehensive answer to a complex problem, our society simply chooses the easiest scapegoat and shamelessly points fingers. Poor people are some of the best scapegoats; since they have practically no social or political power, they can safely be blamed without fear of social or political consequences. However, there are some classes of people who nearly everyone considers to be “deserving” poor—mostly those who are perceived as unable to be responsible for their own well-being for reasons of biological necessity. The most obvious of these groups include children, the elderly, and the disabled.
Cash welfare assistance (TANF) is nearly universally reserved for families that contain at least one member who is elderly, a child, or disabled; it is practically impossible for an able-bodied, relatively young, childless adult to get cash welfare assistance—and that has been true since long before the 1996 reforms. With that in mind, the excuse that welfare reform was vital in order to keep able-bodied adults from getting a “free ride” seems flimsy, since these adults weren’t eligible for much (if any) welfare even under the old system.
The social myth of freeloading adults drinking the work-sweat of the nation and living the high life on welfare checks is a classic logical fallacy of composition. Just because some welfare recipients might be undeserving does not mean that all, or even most, recipients are undeserving. The adults who receive welfare are generally single mothers with young children, elderly people, and disabled people. Reforms that restrict and limit welfare assistance based on the “freeloader” myth do not make logical sense, because most of the people suffering in the aftermath of tightened restrictions and dramatically increased hassle are the exact people that Americans generally consider to be "deserving" of help. Even academic thinkers who otherwise approve of the work requirements that welfare reform implemented have recognized this flaw within the system, as public policy professor Brendon O’Conner observes:
I believe the emphasis on work in the [1996 welfare reforms] should be continued because it has been more successful than many, including myself, might have imagined; but what is needed in addition to this policy is a backup program that offers greater help to the hard to employ and a welfare safety net for children regardless of their parents’ behavior… (O’Conner).
Welfare reform based on the illogical “welfare queen” urban legend has the stated goal of cutting out “freeloaders,” but the practical effect of disproportionately hurting the innocent people who have the least resources to care for themselves; those who need a compassionate society’s help most of all. There is nothing just, moral, or ethical about forcing children to suffer deprivation for the sake of punishing their parents.
Some proponents of the “welfare queen” myth argue that making children eligible for welfare regardless of whether or not their parents are eligible just encourages irresponsible, lazy women sit at home and have babies for the sole purpose of collecting more welfare assistance. These arguments are flatly ridiculous; even before welfare was reformed, the additional benefit for having another baby was minimal—in New Jersey, for example, an AFDC family received a very modest $44 increase when a new baby was born, while in Mississippi the monthly increase was a mere $24 for a new baby (Boonstra). Those amounts are barely enough to buy a few packages of diapers, much less all of the other expensive necessities that arise when a newborn enters the family. It is patently absurd to surmise that, for the sake of an extra pittance of free cash each month, women will gleefully put their lives at risk to bear a pregnancy to term, in addition to taking on eighteen years’ worth of childrearing costs that measure far, far beyond the scope of what the additional child benefit can provide.
The simplistic pathos appeal of the “welfare queen freeloader” is powerful, but under logical scrutiny, is shown to be nothing more than sexist, racist smoke and mirrors. If Americans were helped to understand that practically every welfare family contains at least one person who is definitely a member of the "deserving poor", and that the reform legislation that was meant to punish “lazy” adults has had the actual and tragic effect of punishing their innocent children, elderly parents, and disabled family members, perhaps our country would be more open to the idea of re-evaluating and softening the harsh restrictions and rules that were implemented with the 1996 reforms. It may be that the best way to start changing the minds of Americans is to educate them on what poverty actually is, and what it is not.
Too many Americans believe that poverty is a condition that results from individual, personal moral failures. This belief is simply not true. Poverty is in fact an institutional problem, not an individual problem (Gatta), and it serves many subtle functions in the nation’s economy. For example: poverty keeps people desperate for jobs, so that they will accept terrible working conditions and negligible wages that financially secure workers would pass over. This benefits the corporate world in a profound way by providing a class of low-skill, under-paid, fearfully compliant workers who don’t dare to push for benefits, pensions, and higher wages for fear of losing what meager jobs they do have.
Poverty also serves the wealthy elite by maintaining a perpetual class of uneducated people for whom basic survival is the most important day-to-day objective. This effectively silences the voices of the people whose interests directly conflict with those of the wealthy. If the poor are kept busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from, they are unlikely to be terribly concerned about governmental and corporate policies, and even more unlikely to make an inconvenient fuss about things like improved working conditions, fair wages, and decent benefits.
The old welfare system guaranteed at least a basic minimal standard of living. Workers could safely refuse poorly-paid or unsafe jobs, they could organize their labor, and they could go on strike to gain access to better working conditions and wages, all without fear of utter starvation and destitution. The welfare safety net was always there if something went wrong, and all citizens who met income guidelines were entitled to governmental assistance. Reformed welfare no longer entitles anyone to aid—not even children. States are no longer required to help all eligible needy families. Stringent work requirements, complex paperwork and reporting rules, degrading social engineering regulations about personal and sexual behaviors, and a constant hassle of verifications and red tape all combine to force poor people into poorly-paid, dead-end jobs (sometimes two or three per person) with no guaranteed safety net if something should go wrong.
A chilling effect upon organization and union activity occurs as a result, because the working poor no longer have the reassurance of guaranteed public aid to help them survive through a potential strike or job loss. This has historical precedent—union membership has sharply and dramatically declined during periods of high poverty and low job security, such as the Great Depression (Wolman) and the Panic of 1873 (Skrabec), both periods of time in which the American working class was functioning purely in survival mode, and had little time to worry about strikes, working conditions, or fair wages.
When the working class is occupied in a struggle for day-to-day survival, poor and/or unsafe working conditions frequently go unreported for fear of an OSHA shutdown or an employer retaliation that might jeopardize a job, or even just a single paycheck. This has grave ramifications for the rest of society—how can we be sure that our food manufacturing systems are safe and clean, for example, when the laborers who perform these jobs are often too frightened of losing their paychecks to speak up about the dangerous practices that they might witness? Considering the recent downturn of the economy, and the dire predictions on the nightly news about the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, these concerns are extremely relevant. A nation that values the democratic process must consider the well-being of the working class and the poor; the loss of political efficacy of such an enormous and important group should chill the marrow of any citizen who claims to cherish democracy, and, for the sake of practical good sense, any citizen who wishes to be sure that the products sitting on our store shelves are wholesome, clean, and safe for consumption.
Institutional poverty also serves an ugly but functional role within the basic structure of our American economy. Because poor people are forced into taking low-wage jobs with poor working conditions, and are silenced from speaking up about it for fear of losing those jobs in a nation with no safety net in place to support them, consumer prices for goods are kept enticingly (and falsely) low. It's uncomfortable for some of us to admit it, but the fact is that American middle-class society has a serious financial stake in ensuring that the working poor stay poor, and that welfare benefits are not entitled or guaranteed to anyone. The constant low-level fear of job loss that pervades the community of the working poor and keeps them checking out groceries, washing cars, mowing lawns, cleaning hotel rooms, picking produce, scrubbing airport toilets, and cleaning Wal-Mart floors for pittance wages, without complaint, also helps to keep costs down for the more comfortable classes.
The raises, benefits, and pensions of the working poor have been usurped for the sake of keeping commodity prices low and middle-class consumers happy. It is the ultimate redistribution of wealth in America—from the bottom, to the top. It is difficult to convince American consumers to support a compassionate welfare entitlement when such a thing is in direct conflict with their own personal interests. But difficult as it may be, this is something that must be done in order to roll back the abolition of welfare and return to a system that guarantees help to all qualifying families who are in need.
An honest examination of the aftermath of welfare reform reveals that welfare didn’t need to be reformed in the first place. The sad truth is that most of the premises that proponents of reform used to justify throttling our welfare system were blatant falsehoods, deliberate distortions, bigoted assumptions about the causes of poverty, and blundering, simplistic accusations that failed to take the nuance and complexity of the issue into account. However, since welfare reform is already a political reality, we now need dramatic new reform legislation that rebuilds our welfare system from the ground up. The PRWORA bill was supposed to have been reviewed and adjusted six years after implementation, but Congress chose to renew the bill as-is and put off any in-depth examination of welfare reform until at least 2010. That gives us a unique opportunity right now in which to develop a new welfare plan based on pro-action, rather than punishment, and to start building support for its eventual passage.
The new welfare reform legislation must address poverty for what it is—a product of institutional racism, corporate self-interest, structural sexism, and class oppression—rather than as a condition of personal failure. It must not attempt to dabble in partisan social engineering experiments meant to exert patriarchal control over the sexual behavior of women. It must address the peripheral costs of poverty, and provide meaningful and easy-to-access assistance to help poor people overcome those obstacles to self-sufficient employment. It needs to be compassionate and sensible. Most importantly, the new reform legislation needs to abandon the failed work-first, tight-fisted philosophy of the past, and embrace the idea of education-centered empowerment, coupled with a return to the entitlement framework of welfare that enables impoverished people to securely participate in organized labor, to demand fair wages and safe working conditions, and to feel safe reporting hazardous corporate practices without fear of starvation if a job loss results.
If long-term relief of poverty is the goal that all of us, liberal and conservative, claim to aspire to, then long-term solutions should be the priority for welfare reform. The working poor are the gears that keep this nation moving smoothly; it’s not too much to ask for the wealthiest nation in the world to promise its most vulnerable and fragile citizens that no matter what else might happen, they will not have to face the future in humiliation, hunger, and destitution.
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