“The welfare bill will destroy that state of grace. In its place will come massive and deadly poverty, sickness and all manner of violence. People will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar, everyone who can will move. Working- and middle-class communities all over America will become scary, violent wastelands created by a government that decided it has no obligation to its neediest citizens.” — Jill Nelson
“Welfare reform” is typically a phrase used by the right to push their agenda of eradicating what they call “entitlement culture”: It is wrong, they say, for people to feel that they are entitled to healthcare, basic education, and indeed the very means to survive.
It is wrong, in other words, for the United States to offer the same benefits to its citizens as do many other advanced countries around the world.
The underlying foundation of this ideal is often what economist Paul Krugman has termed “the laziness dogma.”
Essentially, it is the principle that people who are struggling are in that position because they are lazy, because they don’t work long enough hours, because they don’t try hard enough.
It all adds up to a vision of the world in which the biggest problem facing America is that we’re too nice to fellow citizens facing hardship. And the appeal of this vision to conservatives is obvious: it gives them another reason to do what they want to do anyway, namely slash aid to the less fortunate while cutting taxes on the rich.
This foundational belief has allowed Republicans to relentlessly pursue cuts in social programs, and social spending in general, which tend to be devastating to poorer communities in the country; and it allows them to justify their vehement opposition to proposals that would guarantee free education and healthcare for all citizens.
People are moochers, they say, so we must make everyone earn their way in the dog-eat-dog marketplace and force people take responsibility for their actions.
A strong position to adopt, coming from the party who has a curious tendency to blame President Obama and “liberals” for every problem facing the country.
But perhaps the most devastating and far-reaching “welfare reform” came from the Democratic side of the aisle: Bill Clinton, on this day in 1996, signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which also brought into play Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Here’s political scientist Joe Soss on the implications and effects of TANF:
The TANF program does not offer benefits sufficient to lift recipients out of poverty, and despite a strong economy, the majority of families who have moved off the TANF rolls have remained in poverty. Considerations of another traditional economic goal, reduction of inequality, only makes matters worse.
Welfare reform has coincided with massive growth in income and wealth disparities; it has done little to slow the expansion of inequality and may have actually accelerated the trend. Has welfare reform created job opportunities for the poor? Has it promoted wages that allow low-wage workers to escape poverty? In both of these areas, the economic story remains the same: we have little evidence that reform has produced achievements that warrant the label of success. — Joe Soss
Further, the title of the law (“Personal Responsibility…”) invokes the laziness dogma quite explicitly: People need to accept personal responsibility for their position in life, and they can’t expect the government to bail them out, or even help them out, when times are tough.
I’m not going to offer a detailed critique of the law, or delve into the specific effects that the law has had since its implementation, as both have been done elsewhere.
But it is important to also examine the underlying ideology behind proponents of “welfare reform” in the typical sense, to look at the actual facts behind various federal assistance programs in effect today, and to examine the real welfare queens in this country.
It cannot be denied people are affected by the economy of the country in which they live; downturns in the economy have an affect on people’s lives, effects which are quite beyond their control.
As we have seen in the various economic disasters of the past several decades, most recently in 2008, the well-being average person and his or her family is often left to the capriciousness of our greed-based economic system, one which can collapse at a moment’s notice, due to no fault of those who depend on their jobs to survive.
Those who lose their jobs, again due to no fault of their own, are left with nothing if the federal government decides that “it has no obligation to its neediest citizens,” in the words of Jill Nelson writing for The Nation.
Personal responsibility is an obviously vacuous answer to these problems.
It is also important to recognize the fact that a significant percentage of those on welfare today are employed, meaning they have done their part by getting a job and holding onto the job, but wages and benefits are so horrendous that they are forced to accept federal assistance in order to support themselves and their families.
This is quite contrary to the view of welfare recipients that proponents of “welfare reform” like to promote, but then again, the facts usually are.
Proponents of “welfare reform” paint those receiving federal assistance as dependent on the government because they are either unable or — most importantly —unwilling to seek employment, a view contradicted by the evidence.
Another inconvenient fact for the right: Federal assistance programs like food stamps literally keep millions of people and their families alive, while also providing a small boost to the economy. We’re not talking about luxury eating here, by the way; this is life or death.
Same with healthcare: Had recent attempts by the Republican party to repeal Obamacare succeeded, millions of poor people would have been left without basic healthcare.
Let’s be clear: I, too, desire complete “reform” of the welfare system; just not in the way that Republicans and “pro-business” Democrats do.
The welfare system should serve as a “safety net” for the less fortunate and for those working hard to improve their situation, and as a way to level the playing field, giving those who may have grown up in a disadvantageous environment a way to move upward into the middle class.
In short, it should be a way of creating a stronger middle class and more social mobility. You know, what the American Dream is supposed to be about.
I don’t, however, support welfare for massive corporations who thrive, at the expense of the population, on the government dole.
And this is the most significant welfare system which has come to exist in America today, a system which rewards fraud and pillage when committed by the wealthy, while actively pushing downward those who are truly in need of assistance to survive, whether it be disabled seniors or single mothers.
Ironically, Charles Koch has been one of the few figures on the right to denounce corporate welfare, even though his company has received robust federal subsidies over the years.
The current welfare system for the poor and disadvantaged is incredibly weak relative to that of other advanced nations, despite what pundits of the right would have you believe.
And this, I think, is the culmination of the prominent American ideal of selfishness and greed.
I’m going to get mine, who cares what happens to anyone else.
Thus, many executives of massive firms are rewarded for bringing about the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, while those who lost their jobs as a result of the disaster are told to stop being lazy and fuck off.
Welfare for the rich, a big screw you to everyone else. The poor must accept responsibility for their actions, while the wealthiest are free to run roughshod over the economy, facing few to zero consequences.
This is no country to be proud of.