Flip Side Barbara Ehrenreich

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).