Flip Side Barbara Ehrenreich

Chamber of Welfare Reform

It was hard to miss the racism and misogyny that helped motivate welfare reform, which is about to come up for reauthorization by Congress. The stereotype of the welfare recipient--lazy, overweight, and endlessly fecund--had been a coded way of talking about African Americans at least since George Wallace's 1968 Presidential campaign.

As for misogyny, where to begin? The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 bears within it the assumption that families headed by single mothers are inherently defective, and not only on account of their relative poverty. In the rhetorical build-up to welfare reform, Republicans also sought to "restigmatize" out-of-wedlock births as "illegitimate," implying that only a male--the father--could confer respectability on a child. Bush's recent proposal for the reauthorization of welfare reform takes the gender politics to a lurid new low: $300 million would be allocated to encourage recipients to get married--to someone, anyone, as soon as possible.

One could not help but note, in the original arguments of welfare reform ideologues like author George Gilder and the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, an obsessive fascination with female sexuality, especially the sexuality of women of color. In the reformers' view, welfare recipients were moral outlaws, and they were this way because welfare supported them in their slovenly, sexually indulgent ways. Even welfare itself was sexualized in the reformers' overheated imaginations: It had "cuckholded" black men, usurping their rightful place as breadwinners, leaving them emasculated and demoralized.

But there was always a more rational, economically calculating motivation behind welfare reform, represented by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hailed the 1996 legislation as a reaffirmation of "America's work ethic." By supporting mothers to stay home with their children, welfare had supposedly been undermining this ethic--never mind that raising children in poverty is itself a tricky and exhausting job, or that most welfare recipients, even before "reform," held jobs on and off to supplement their meager benefits. The business supporters of welfare reform wanted regular, paid employment to be understood as the only form of work worthy of respect and recognition.

The rhetoric surrounding welfare reform helped establish this extremely narrow, and, one might say, anti-family, point of view. People without jobs--paid jobs, that is--were routinely described as "parasites" who were content to loll around at the "public trough." This kind of talk, reiterated throughout the quarter century leading up to welfare reform, established the notion that paid work of any kind is a "contribution" to the larger society, while caring for one's family members is a form of self-indulgence. In the "job-readiness" programs routinely inflicted on welfare recipients since 1996, poor women have it drummed into them that by getting a job they will win "self-esteem" and, at the same time, finally be able to provide a suitable "role model" for their children.

Stigmatizing unemployment--or, more accurately, unpaid, family-directed labor--obviously works to promote the kind of docility businesses crave in their employees. Any job, no matter how dangerous, abusive, or poorly paid, can be construed as better than no job at all. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, as reformed welfare is called) does not, of course, rely on an intangible "ethic" to promote work; it requires recipients to take whatever jobs are available, and usually the first job that comes along. Lose the job--because you have to stay home with a sick child, for example--and you may lose whatever supplementary benefits you were receiving. The message is clear: Do not complain or make trouble; accept employment on the bosses' terms or risk homelessness and hunger.

So race and gender are not the only dimensions of welfare reform as a political issue. From a rational, economic point of view, welfare reform has been an effort to provide American business with disciplined--and in most cases, desperate--workers. The disciplining effect goes well beyond TANF recipients themselves: Other workers are also susceptible to the harsh Calvinistic ideology that accompanied welfare reform and dictates passive obedience in the workplace. Furthermore, their attempts, if any, to fight for better conditions and pay can potentially be undercut by the absence of a safety net for those who might be fired as troublemakers.

Welfare reform can be understood, then, as one of several initiatives launched against American workers by their employers in the wave of class warfare that began in the 1970s. It was in that decade that business leaders, alarmed by the sudden growth of foreign competition, began to see American workers as overpaid, under-productive, and spoiled. This perception was reinforced by a series of militant strikes that swept America in the late '60s and early '70s, which, in some particularly daring cases, even included demands for worker participation in decision-making.

Management responded, first, with heightened supervision in the workplace, extending, in our own time, to video and electronic surveillance of employees' actions, phone calls, and computer use. White collar workers may find their e-mail monitored; data entry workers may have their key strokes counted; anyone can have his or her purse or backpack searched at any time.

Next came an even more intimate form of surveillance--drug testing--which was almost universally adopted by large employers in the '80s, despite the fact that it has no demonstrated effect on absenteeism or productivity. Along with pre-employment personality testing, drug testing serves to put the employee on notice that he or she must meet the same rigid standards of discipline and obedience, whether on the job or off.

Union-busting is another anti-worker initiative that has taken off in just the last couple of decades, to the point where employers now spend an estimated $1 billion a year on it. According to the AFL-CIO, 80 percent of employers today hire union-busting "consultants" when confronted with an organizing drive, and 30 percent fire union activists, although the latter practice is entirely illegal.

The combination of union-busting, heightened workplace surveillance, and intrusive forms of testing has made the American workplace, and especially the low-wage workplace, into a dictatorship in which all normal civil liberties are suspended. Thanks to welfare reform, fewer people can hope to escape from it.

So welfare reform has an impact that goes well beyond the twelve million people--mostly children--who were receiving benefits before 1996. To the extent that welfare served as a shield, however inadequate, against the worst forms of workplace exploitation, welfare was and remains a class issue. Racism and misogyny helped blind many to this fact six years ago, when welfare reform was passed, but we cannot let that happen again.

TANF reauthorization creates a precious opportunity to reform welfare reform, and this will require a determined effort on the part of everyone affected--which is just about all of us.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).

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Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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