Welfare and Social Responsibility
Length: 2932 words (8.4 double-spaced pages)
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Welfare. Read that word to yourself and ask what popular images surround it. The first thing is probably women and children. This one is correct, because 97% of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the federal "welfare" program) is made up of women and children. Young women? Not really-the average age of a mother receiving welfare is 29, and only 7.6% are under the age of 20. Is she black? Maybe, because the composition of the welfare roles is about the same percentage black and white. More kids than she can count? The average welfare family has 2.9 members. That means a single mom would have 1.9 children (fewer than the national average). Forever "dependent?"-the average length of a stay on welfare is 22 months. We certainly think that they don't work. Without bringing up the question of why raising children is not considered work, the average AFDC benefit plus food stamps still is only 69% of the poverty line. Women on welfare are constantly working to make up that difference. Do we think of welfare as expensive? AFDC represents just over 1% of the national budget. If welfare is not about young women having lots of babies and living their life off the generosity of the state, and if it's a minuscule part of the federal budget, why have Republicans chosen it as their pilot issue? Why, when our Federal Reserve is raising interest rates and attempting to maintain an unemployment rate of 6.2%, and when a job at minimum wage would still leave a mother with two children 23% below the poverty line, is entrance into the paid workforce being pushed as the panacea for poverty?
If we are serious about getting people to work we need relevant training programs, child care provisions, and efforts at job creation. These at least were discussed in the Clinton plan, if the plan was in many other ways as punitive and insubstantial as the Republican plan. The Republican ideology is particularly insidious because it shifts the entire frame of debate from the structural to the moral. It implies, even states, that if those people would just clean up their morals and stop being so lazy that they could have a place in the American Dream. Today welfare moms are understood to be the symbol for all that is morally wrong with America.
They are "dependent" on the state, and they do not fit into the American norm for family structure. The Republican act proclaims that their poverty is their fault, and that they need to take responsibility and get themselves out. If they can't, that is their own problem. The goal of the Republican act is to "restore the American family, reduce illegitimacy, control welfare spending and reduce welfare dependence."
The American family has been the latest political fad since the Murphy Brown debate, and the democrats quickly jumped on the Republican bandwagon. With everyone rushing to show off their cookie-baking ability and to expound on their belief in discipline and family values, no one seems to be asking why, if it is the cure for all evils, the mythical American family doesn't seem to be all that popular with the American public. People are waiting longer to get married, and since 1965 the rate of out-of-wedlock births has risen from 10 to 30 percent. People are getting married later and less often than they used to, and "shotgun" marriages are out of vogue. We all know the statistics about how many people get divorced. Some say that these stats reflect the fact that people just don't have the will to 'stick it out' anymore, and bemoan the loss of family values, but the fact is, people get divorced or decide not to marry out of choice, albeit an often constrained choice. Maybe the problem is that marriage is not as beneficial, or as necessary as it once was.
I would argue that the people are getting divorced and not ever getting married in large part because now it is often economically feasible for a woman not to marry. Access to the workplace for women and the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs has meant that women earn more compared to men, decreasing their economic need to marry. Being a single mother is more possible, and more accepted today than it ever has been. This doesn't mean that it is easy, however. Women can now work outside the home, but they still work most often in low-paying jobs and can't always make enough to raise a family on their own. Fifty percent of all female-headed households live in poverty.
Divorce and non-marriage are definitely corrolated with negative consequences for women and children, but is this something that can be fixed simply with a marriage license? The Republicans say so. Their proposal for welfare reform, the "Personal Responsibility Act," says that a child born to a woman under 18 (with state option to make the age 21) will never receive government assistance unless the mother marries the child's father or a man who will adopt the child.
The Republicans have it right in one respect-marriage rates have gone down in part because there are fewer coercive forces that push women to get married. The question is, can we make happy and functional marriages by legislating them? Considering that 50% of all people who willingly get married get divorced, it seems that forced marriages would be even less likely to stay together. This is especially true given the Cesus Bureau stat that poor couples are twice as likely to get divorced as non-poor couples.
This also raises the fundamental question of what we value about marriage. Is it the label, the license, or the quality of relationships and the partnership that it represents? Is marriage for its own sake a valid goal? One could argue that for poor women it is, because two-parent families are less likely to be poor. But who are these women going to marry that is going to pull them up out of poverty? The lack of jobs in high poverty areas makes ir unlikley that a woman will find a husband with a steady income, and I don't notice a lot of rich old men walking the streets of Chicago or Appalachia looking for a wife with a few kids. If marriage per se is so advantageous for these women, why don't they realize it? The bottom line is that the problems of poverty and the change in the American family structure run much deeper than something which can be fixed by a marriage license.
The Republican's have one other strategy to try to enforce the family norm. They want to prevent poor women from having children at all. They are not alone in this-the Democratic plan has a similar provision for "family caps," which say that any woman who has a child on welfare will not receive any extra benefits to pay for the needs of that child. As it is now (depending on the state - some already have caps or a two-child limit) families get additional money for each additional child, although the actual amount per person goes down with each additional family member. The theory is that women have children to get more money, so that if we stop giving them more money, they will stop having more children. In practice, studies show that cutting benefits has no effect on birthrates. Actually the rate of births is usually lower in higher-benefit states, and the longer a woman is on welfare the less likely she is to have another child.
What will happen to those children who are born to the wrong parents? Lest we call them heartless, the Republicans do suggest something other than throwing them into the streets. This is where the orphanages come in. The act will give block grants to the states to deal with illegitimate children, which they can use to build orphanages, or to facilitate foster care and adoption. The only things state cannot do with the money is give it to individual people, or fund abortions. The Republicans find themselves in a particular bind here because they do not want to allow abortion, but they also don't want women having more children. In fact, many of the religious right oppose this legislation because they fear that it would increase abortions. The orphanage idea has been condemned by just about everyone-even President Clinton has criticized these measures, making the astute statement that "there is no substitute for the loving devotion and equally loving discipline of caring parents . . . Governments don't raise children; parents do." Aside from the fact that warehousing children is not best for them, orphanages are also incredibly expensive. The way the Republicans intended to pay for it was to eliminate most forms of aid to legal immingrants. Now both Gingrich and Dole have indicated that this provision will be stricken from the bill, which leaves them no way at all to pay for their proposals.
The most economical way for the government to care for small children is to pay their mothers to do it. Even foster care is more expensive than this because in our system you receive more money to take care of a foster child than you do to take care of your own (odd, since you would imagine that they would have the same needs). Keep in mind that these children would be removed from their parents for no reason other than the fact that they are poor. Foster care may be the only option for a child who is being neglected by their parents, but what makes it the best solution for children who are being neglected by the Federal Government?
The other main crime that women receiving welfare can be accused of is "dependency." The use of the phrase dependency is interesting, because it only applies to some people in this country, mainly poor people who are "dependent" on public programs. Many of us went to public school, and could not go to school here without low-interest federal loans (and if Newt has his way we won't have those either . . . ). Do we consider ourselves "dependent" on the government? Are corporations "dependent" on government subsidies? To give us a little perspective, the amount of direct subsidies to corporations each year is about $51 billion. The total cost of AFDC was about $24 billion last year.
So why are some poor people "dependent" and others not? We consider tax write-offs to be an investment in business, and education to be an investment in children. Welfare is not considered an investment, partly because people are assumed to stay on it forever. Only 25% of people stay on welfare for more than eight years, and many of those people have chronic illnesses, or are otherwise unable to work. The philosophy of poverty in this country is also changing. Poverty is becoming the fault of the individual, and not a result of structural limitations in our capitalist system. There are 39 million living in poverty in America today. Why are they poor? Since Hegel, people have understood that capitalism is a system based on the free opportunity of all, but that some are left out. It is our responsibility, as a society, to take care of those people, or our premise of opportunity is merely a facade. Choosing not to recognize this, the Republican plan eliminates the thing called "entitlement," which says that you have a right to government assistance. Instead, all government aid would be conceived of as charity. The Republican are insisting that everyone help themselves, but the fact is, it is a lot easier to help yourself when you have a seat at the table. Our table is shrinking as the gap between the rich and poor grows. In the 80's the poorest fifth of Americans saw their incomes drop and average of 2.1 percent while the richest fifth saw their incomes grow 20.4 percent. We are told that our economy has recently begun a recovery, and the Federal Reserve's response has been to increase the interest rates several times, because they believe that we need a certain level of unemployment.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, and Clinton, are demanding that people on welfare just get a job. With the Republican plan state will have the option of cutting aid off to people after two years of training or after one year of experience in a government work program, whether or not the person can find a job. My question is, where are the jobs? Minimum wage jobs are often the only ones available, and working at $4.25 an hour all year round earns you just $8840 per year (or 77% of the federal poverty line). The earned income tax credit and food stamps can help raise a family out of poverty, the Republicans point out. Of course, they have also been historically opposed both programs, and neither program is extensive enough, which is shown by the fact that 5.5% of all full-time workers live below the poverty line. (The poverty level is also ridiculously low compared to the actual cost of living. Recent independent estimates indicate that the actual poverty level should be 155% of what it now is).
Working is expensive-there are transportation and clothing costs, and if you are a parent you have to pay for child care. It amazes me that 46% of all people who leave welfare leave for a job, which usually pays between $5.10 - $5.50 an hour. How these people do it is beyond me, but what I think this should demonstrate very clearly to us is that these women do not want to be on welfare any more than you or I would, and they will make sacrifices and take risks to get off of it. Many people who receive welfare want to work, but they also want work to bring them out of poverty. They want to be trained, but for jobs that will pay them a living wage, and which are necessary in our changing economy. These are things that we all want and hope for, which brings me to my last point. The recent debate over welfare has very much been a discussion of "those people," those mythical welfare queens who are smart enough to bilk the system but too dumb to figure out what their best interests are, who want to breed until their dying day and live their lives in poverty instead of getting a job. If I came up to you and said, "Hey-I have a deal for you. Have a child. Or two. Then make sure that you have no assets whatsoever, and no family to fall back on. Then you get to go to this big office and wait around for hours to apply for help. Better not have any assets when you come, or we won't help you. Of course, the month or so it takes us to process your application will be tough, but you're resourceful. Then, you get money-something for nothing, the (other) American dream. Depending on where you live, you'll get a monthly check for anywhere from $740 to $120 per month. The average is more like $366, but hey, that's 33% of the poverty line! You also get food stamps-just ignore the looks of those people in the supermarket when you try to pay with them. Of course, there is no possible way for you to live on the money and benefits that we give you, especially since we can only offer one out of every ten customers a place in our militarized (but cheap) public housing. We said you wouldn't have to work, but to be fair we should let you know that you really will be working all the time or you won't have enough money to live. Any income you make you have to report to us, and we'll take it out of your check. Most people work 'off the books' to make up the difference-you know, as a cleaning person or something. Of course, if we find you doing that you're a welfare cheat and we'll cut you off altogether. And you will have those two children to take care of, but we all know that that isn't work. Did we mention that your kids will probably have a very slim chance of making their way into the good and virtuous world of the rest of America? Don't get too attached to them, because if you get too poor (poverty is so bad for those little guys!) we might just take them away from you. And then there is also that little stigma thing . . . but being scapegoated by the entire society is probably not all that bad. So, how 'bout it?"
Would you take the "deal?" Would you choose that life? If you wouldn't choose it, why would someone else? It takes a real failure of imagination, and a lazy mind to believe the stereotypes we are being fed. Welfare is and will continue to be necessary in a country which is characterized by an unemployment rate of at least 6.2% and a widening gap between the rich and poor. We can ignore the real causes of poverty or try to reduce it to a question of the immorality of the poor at our peril. The "Personal Responsibility Act" does both of these, and for that reason will not help to lift anyone out of poverty. Personal Responsibility is nice; so is social responsibility. We can't have one without the other, and we can't have a society without both.