The US was among the last industrialized nations to offer citizens a basic income guarantee – welfare – and among the first to dispose of it. When the Clinton administration succeeded in “ending welfare as we know it” in 1996, nearly 5 million families were receiving relief under the Aid to Dependent Children program. As of September 2008, welfare recipients were pared down to 1.6 million families under the Temporary Relief for Needy Families program created to replace welfare.
Historically, government stances toward the poor have been shaped by several approaches: neglect, punishment, charity, forced employment (public and private), the labor market, human rights and social duty, depending upon the class nature of government and the prevailing societal notion of the nature of poverty.
With the rise of capitalism, much attention was paid to the effects of poverty upon labor markets: the necessity of employment as opposed to idleness and self-worth defined by productive effort. For the capitalist system to advance, able-bodied persons were necessarily herded into the work force and away from independent, though perhaps sustainable activities. A new template was created: the citizen defined by his or her place in the work force.
As government became dominated by the capitalist class, the posture towards the poor took on a punitive face, branding those outside of the work force as lazy and undeserving of any compassion. Neglect and forced labor (vagrancy laws and the poor house) were prescribed for the able-bodied and charity for those unable to work. Both effectively deepened the work ethic and labor discipline among the population.
Socialists, on the other hand, advocated an income minimum for everyone as a human right or collective, social duty.
The mass misery of the Great Depression and the determined struggle of millions of working people forced a modest welfare program upon the capitalist class with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) – later, Aid to Families and Dependent Children (AFDC) – offered the poor a modest guaranteed income base, though allowing little more than a subsistence life. Nonetheless, this constituted the US welfare system until 1996.
Several factors contributed to the destruction of this system, including the active, often violent attack upon welfare rights organizations (they were largely destroyed by 1976) and the rise to dominance of the neo-liberal doctrines beginning in the late 1970’s and capped with the winning of political power by Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US. The crude rhetoric of “welfare queens” and “welfare fraud” and the wide-spread racist edge was amplified with the public through media megaphones who dutifully restored the stigmas attached to the poor, stigmas that well serve capitalism.
When competition with the Socialist world receded after 1991, the US ruling class lost any incentive to present a human face to the rest of the world. Despite costing annually only $24 billion at its peak (roughly the program cost of 20 Stealth Bombers), welfare was doomed and President Clinton and Congress eagerly killed AFDC in 1996.
The TANF program, which replaced AFDC, limits income relief to a maximum totaling five years and gives the states a fixed amount to be mixed between job training and cash payments. Immigrants were largely excluded. Today, the average monthly cash payout to a family is an indecent $372.
When adopted, states scurried to force recipients into low-paying jobs while placing strict job-seeking requirements on assistance applicants. With a reasonably buoyant economy and an expanding low-wage service sector, supporters pronounced the changes a success.
But now, with jobs disappearing and unemployment exploding, the TANF program is failing to keep up with the needs of an increasing jobless work force. In June alone, 358,000 people exhausted unemployment benefits and essentially departed from the labor force. Public assistance is the only recourse for these people and millions like them.
According to The Wall Street Journal (6-22-09), 23 of the 30 largest states, accounting for 88% of the US population have seen increases in cases from a year ago. Unfortunately, observers have noted an ominous sign: welfare case increases frequently lag far behind the unemployment rate and the increases in food stamp usage. Many believe this lag reflects the draconian barriers placed in front of applicants, barriers designed to force job-seeking in a labor market where there are no jobs. For some it is a mystery: “…how can there be such a rapid increase in unemployment and long-term unemployment and not show up in the welfare [system]?” asks Mark H. Greenberg, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy (WSJ, 06-22-09). For others, it is an early sign of the collapse of Clinton’s final solution to welfare, a measure that will now leave an indelible stain on his accommodation of neo-liberalism.
Michigan is a case in point. With the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in the US (14.1 by the most conservative government tally), welfare caseloads were actually down 4.8% in April from a year earlier! Since food stamps are relatively easy to secure, recipients were up 13% in April, totaling 1.4 million people (There are only 70,000 families on welfare). But to receive assistance, an applicant must often look for work for a month before seeing a caseworker. The threshold for eligibility has remained the same for the last twenty years and benefits can only be received for two years in a lifetime. Should one qualify, the assistance is a mere $492 a month for a family of four. This forebodes a real human catastrophe in the not too distant future, a disaster only too avoidable.
The emerging welfare crisis shamefully has received little attention from the media (with the exception of The Wall Street Journal – giving credit where credit is due!) or politicians. At a time of escalating human suffering, it is outrageous that neglect and a medieval punitive posture continue to dominate the US approach to relief for the needy. Labor should be reminded that forcing the poor into competition for dwindling, low paying jobs only weakens the struggle for a fair days pay. We urgently need to raise the call for a minimum guaranteed income for all citizens including immigrants, along with a full employment bill similar to the Employment Act of 1946, but with a federal mandate to achieve a target, low rate of unemployment, a rate secured by federal hiring on socially useful public projects. If the money was there for bank bailouts, the money should be there for human needs.
Rapacious banks or human lives? The choice should be easy…