What is Welfare and Who Does it Really Benefit?

By Brian Oliver Sheppard

Welfare is government money - in effect, taxpayer money - given to taxpayers. Or it is some service provided by a government for its citizens. Governments have traditionally been tolerated inasmuch as they provide these things for their constituents. But in the late 90's, establishment opinion unquestioningly regards "welfare" as evil - as the looting of one person's pocketbook for the fattening of another's. "Welfare" is commonly used to refer to programs and grants that assist the nation's most powerless and impoverished members. If government grants are given to the middle class or especially the wealthy, it's suddenly not "welfare" but is "common sense" or "what's good for America." The same logic that criticizes the one is rarely applied to the other, though any government benefit to anyone could accurately be criticized by this logic. In fact, America is a reverse welfare state where government exists not to benefit the poor or economically disadvantaged, but to secure the wealth of the most powerful and enable them to produce it. This is not a radical idea; the nation's political and economic leaders regularly affirm it to us. James Madison, one of the Framers of the Constitution, openly stated in The Federalist Papers, "The role of government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority." The majority gets taxed for this privilege.

Before engaging in a lengthier discussion of welfare changes in the 90's, it is interesting to note that many commentators on the subject don't agree on what the term "welfare" refers to. "Welfare" as it is popularly used is itself ambiguous, and of no certain, clearly-defined meaning. "In the broadest policy sense," Professor Elizabeth A. Segal writes, "welfare encompasses everything that government provides for its citizens. Such a broad definition could include public transportation, health care, public education, or social insurance." And, we should not forget public roads, public libraries, the post office, and other government features. The US government, inverting the issues as always, now says that welfare for the most impoverished Americans must be slashed if not eliminated, because, far from alleviating poverty, welfare creates and sustains poverty. So, in August of 1996, US President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill "ending the nation's six-decade guarantee of help for the neediest families," according to the Associated Press. This was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, often referred to simply as the "Personal Responsibility Act."

The Personal Responsibility Act aims to promote individual responsibility for economic circumstance so that responsibility no longer has to be shouldered by the government or business community. In effect, it's a Personal Irresponsibility Act because through it the government and business leaders are trying to escape responsibility for economic conditions they foster. The poor are to be held accountable for their own circumstances - including children - because nobody owes it to them to subsidize their life, even if things beyond the control of the poor have created their economic circumstance. (Was 30% unemployment in the Great Depression caused by the personal irresponsibility of all those unemployed?). The main program under assault was AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) which was a program, as its name implied, set up directly for the benefit of children, who comprise 2/3 of those who benefit from welfare for the poor. What must these children be held responsible for? AFDC has effectively been eliminated now and replaced with TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) which is given in the form of smaller block grants to states. Under this program, if you don't have a job within a certain allotted time period, you get kicked onto the streets.

Policy analyst Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation states that the three things individuals can do to become self sufficient are: "1) finish high school, 2) get a job, any job, and stick with it, and 3) do not have children outside marriage." This is the formula that is generally agreed upon by most politicians and right thinkers, whether Republican or Democrat. To this, Professor Segal replies, "the assumptions behind today's welfare reform are: schooling is accessible and adequate for all; employment that pays a living wage is available to all; keeping a job is completely within the control of each working person; and family planning and marriage are possible and desirable for all."

But even AFDC-cum-TANF is not the Welfare Program. There is no single federal program in the US that refers to itself as the "Welfare Program," though you will hear people talking about it a lot. Rather, the term "welfare" is commonly used -- selectively used, to be sure -- by media pundits and lecturing politicians to refer to any number of programs that assist the economically disadvantaged. There are popular images of "welfare lines" stretching from "welfare offices," yet you would be hard-pressed to locate a building in your town that bore a marquee claiming it was the local "Federal Welfare Department." There has been a deliberate attempt to associate the word "welfare" with the most reprehensible of evils so that, no matter the actual program in question, an accusation of it as being a "welfare program" is sure to rouse public opinion against it. This sort of blackballing of certain terms represents a strangely successful propaganda achievement. A December, 1994, study by the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes found that 80 percent of people polled felt that the government has "a responsibility to try to do away with poverty," yet programs referred to as "welfare" programs garnered little support. Interestingly, in a poll done by the same organization, aid programs described with such phrases as "assistance to the poor" or "help for the economically disadvantaged" claimed substantially more support than did programs that were referred to in the survey as "welfare programs." This is despite the fact that "welfare" and "assistance" programs are all essentially the same things. The word "welfare" has acquired a negative stigma, conjuring up visions of handouts to freeloaders eager to acquire unearned money, or of loose women going on carefree sexual sprees to have more children and thus increase the size of their benefits.

Other programs that have, alternately and as needed, been referred to as "welfare" are food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance, Program Head Start, low-income energy assistance, and the Legal Services Corporation. Pell grants, the earned income tax credit, and the national school lunch and breakfast programs have also occasionally had the "welfare" stigma hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, again as needed and according to the agenda of the person talking about them. I've even been in classrooms where students on some sort of financial aid talked disparagingly of people who aren't self-sufficient and need help from the government or other sources. I'm sure those who drive on public roads are guilty of the same behavior, occasionally. A desire for self-sufficiency is fine, but desiring it for others while taking full advantage of government and public benefits for yourself is the utmost of hypocrisy. This is the position in which most politicians and business leaders find themselves, but by the way they speak you would never know it.

In the USA, the crumbs tossed to the poor comprise only a very small percentage of the annual federal budget. Most government benefits go to the middle and upper classes. But these are rarely under assault. The poor are relatively voiceless, do not contribute to campaign funds, and are seen as pariahs of the system - so it makes a lot of sense to attack this relatively defenseless group and blame as many of society's ills upon them as you can. The poor are an easy target for opportunistic politicians and the wealthy powers they serve. Organizations and institutions like the FDIC, NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Import-Export Bank, and the like are every bit as much "welfare" departments by the logic used against the poor. But these departments do the proper thing of creating a safety net for the already wealthy, so these are never axed with legislation that contain such condescending phrases as "Personal Responsibility."

Unemployment and poverty are the valuable tools that make workers more likely to accept low wages. To that extent, it is extremely useful to make sure there is always a certain percentage of the population kept in misery. The government, far from having any sort of policy towards full employment for all its citizens, has an active policy of encouraging unemployment. Full employment would damage the economy because wages would go sky high, and this increased cost of production would make inflation soar. Therefore, the Federal Reserve has a policy of raising interest rates when unemployment drops too low; this encourages companies to lay off workers and restrain their growth to keep down "inflation." Stocks and bonds go down when wages go up. High wages mean less profits - less money that a company gets to keep as its profit but instead has to pay its workforce. A Reuters article from 8/11/99 gives an example of the sort of policy making many federal officials find themselves engaged in: "Federal Reserve Governor Laurence Meyer said Wednesday the tight U.S. labor market risked fueling inflation but left it open whether the central bank would raise interest rates soon to counter that threat." There is a "threat" in people getting paid too well or being employed too much - people have to be kept down. Or look at this Associated Press article after the UPS Teamsters strike in 1997: "Federal Reserve policy-makers were worried in August that the United Parcel Service strike might signal a more militant work force demanding inflationary increases in wages, according to minutes released Thursday." So, while the Federal Reserve and other government elements regard full employment as a threat and act to eliminate it, it also doesn't want to give any form of aid to those who are kept down and who help the financial system that way.

Keeping a segment of the workforce unemployed is itself a useful function that the government performs for the business community, and it is this sort of "welfare" for the wealthy that needs to be eliminated, not those programs that protect the most vulnerable of us.

"Just as oncologists often become numb to death, so do psychiatrists tend to grow insensitive to the everyday exercise of what is, after all, an incredible degree of social power."
-- Dr. Neil Scheurich Psychiatric Times, January 1997.

"Social adaptation to a dysfunctional society may be very dangerous."
-- R. D. Laing

"When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called 'the People's Stick.'"
-- Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy