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On the welfare ‘reform' movement

The recently­passed U.S. welfare ‘reform' bill reminds me of a lecture of my father's that I attended when I was younger. He was discussing the concept of ‘Luxury' in 18th­century England (e.g. in Smollett, whom I haven't read).

Basically, his point was that, in that time and place, the sin of luxury (and it was considered a sin) was defined as simply wanting things above one's station in life, i.e., things that were not considered appropriate for one's socioeconomic class. So it was not luxury at all for a wealthy nobleman to own and be proud of several estates and a fine team of horses, but woe betide the poor woman who wants butter for her child's bread, or complains about slaving long hours for low wages. She doesn't deserve better than her lot. And the world (and the rich) don't owe her anything. If her child starves, well, the will of the Lord is sometimes inscrutable to us mortals.

That's what I see happening in the current political climate around me. The poor are (almost by definition) vulnerable, and politicians need a scapegoat to take the electorate's mind off of real problems. As in other times and places, the most vulnerable are demonized. We, those of us who have the luxury of putting food on our children's plates and helping our parents with their medical expenses in their old age, forget that these are people, people with loves and fears, virtues and foibles, wisdom and quirks, just like us and our neighbours.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than that, because deep down, I think we realize that it's not such an unreasonable thing to ask some small portion of our tax money to feed the poor and keep rooves over their heads. So if we thought of the poor as just ordinary people, we'd probably feel bad when we said no and turned them away. Since we don't want to feel bad, what do we do? Why, we decide the poor are our enemies! We hate the poor! Now not only don't we feel bad any more, why, we feel positively virtuous about taking from the poor to give to the rich. It's only our civic duty!

I'm not trying to claim that there's nothing wrong with the existing welfare system; there certainly is. I'm not trying to say that independence isn't vastly preferable to dependence, that work isn't better than idleness. But demonizing the poor isn't going to help. Unfortunately, poverty is a hard problem. If all the tax money we've spent on alleviating it, all the thought and effort, all the prayers of the pious and labour of the strong, have not managed to eliminate it yet, it is foolish to think that if we simply turn our backs on it and cover our ears it will magically go away.

Conservative Republicans and their ideological colleages are right that replacing a welfare check with a paycheck is a worthy goal, and a very important one. But by and large, the jobs aren't there in the numbers poor people need. And creating jobs and enabling people to take them is, frankly, very expensive. What poor people need in order to work is jobs, obviously. And more than that, they need child care. They need training. They need health care. All these things cost money.

I haven't seen figures, but I've seen it claimed that we've been doing welfare the way we have for the past couple of decates because it's cheaper than actually getting people jobs and giving them the support they need to be able to take those jobs. I don't know if that's true, but it seems at least plausible.

In any case, ‘ending welfare as we know it' is certainly a worthy goal, but what will we replace it with? If nothing, then we will have starving (and sometimes abandoned) children; more crime; more violence; more desperation, misery and hatred; more homelessness; higher health­care costs for those who can afford to pay; and an ugly, brutal society. It's simply not worth it. It's a step in the wrong direction. And it's a depressing irony to hear this lauded as the crowning glory of a Congress for whom the most holy word is ‘family.' If this nation thinks it can't afford to take care of its children, its next generation, then it is in serious (and unnecessary, avoidable) trouble, and ‘family values' are just hollow words.

My mother Ruth read this essay, and had this to add: “Any country considering forcing people to work should first consider letting them work.” It's actually been done, and it worked. The public works projects (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which my grandfather worked in) in the '30s and '40s gave many people good jobs, marketable skills, and a sense of dignity and pride.
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Jay Sekora <js@aq.org>
last modified 2003.10.11; originally written 1996.10.05
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