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War on welfare

Poverty with all its inequities and ugliness is a part of the world's most powerful nation — the U.S.. MYTHILY SIVARAMAN writes on a social activist who was once a welfare recipient herself, and her crusade against poverty.


Social activist Diane Dujon believes that poverty should not be a way of life.

"WE have to ensure that everybody has a life worth living and if a person is always trying to find out where the next meal is going to come from, they will never have time to find out their purpose... And everybody has a right to get some pleasure, that's what gives life some meaning. It's what makes you want to get up the next day." This plea is not from a third World country mired in poverty; this comes from the world's most powerful and rich country, made by Diane Dujon, a Black American, former welfare-recipient-turned-college-teacher and social activist based in Boston; she was commenting, in an interview on the U.S. Government's welfare pruning measures since the mid 1990s. Poverty as an issue has been on the political agenda of the nation ever since the mid 1960s "March on Poverty" by Rev. Martin Luther King.

Why do poverty and its attendant iniquities and ugliness still persist in a nation where the availability of resources to eliminate them can never be a constraint? A brief perusal of the welfare debates in the last decade among the conservatives, the liberals and the welfare recipients themselves — an unwed mother on welfare, in this instance — provides useful insights. In America's multi-cultural society women on welfare who account for five per cent of the population, owe their benefits to the civil rights and welfare rights movements. Social protection as the universal right of all members of the country was fought on the belief that social problems arose from social structures and unequal distribution of assets and power and not from individual behaviour, as was perceived by the American power structure; the "liberal" Clinton regime brought in a welfare "reform" in 1996 — called "war on welfare" by its critics — that replaced the Assistance to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) by a Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). The old programme was emasculated: welfare benefits were restricted to five years, work requirements stiffened and the earlier system of entitlement guaranteed by Federal funding converted to grants requiring regular Congressional re-approval. A child exclusion clause in the TANF allows the states to deny increased cash aid to women who conceive and bear another child while on welfare. Welfare recipients who do not find work must "work off" their benefits by cleaning parks and offices for public or private agencies without any employee benefits or protection.

In their usual tirade against welfare, the conservatives reserve their special venom on unwed mothers for destroying the basic family values and work ethics of America: "illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time — more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness... single mothers drain community resources, destroy the community's capacity to sustain itself and should, therefore, not be given economic support". The message is simple: it is criminal to be poor. Dujon was forceful in her response to these charges: "What erodes family values is violence. It has a lot to do with violent men. The women feel trapped. Welfare is a way for poor women to escape it." It is appalling that the very sexually permissive and very violent American society — a woman is battered every 15 minutes in the U.S. and 2 to 4 million are battered every year — fails to appreciate that women required adequate welfare support to escape dangerous and exploitative relationships.

Quoting Clinton, who had said, "welfare shouldn't be a way of life", Dujon adds: "We don't want poverty to be a way of life either ... what ruins family lives? Money, or the lack of it. Not being able to meet ends makes people stressed. We don't fight to make sure that people get a decent living... we don't have peace, and that ruins family values." Dujon had not chosen welfare because she was a sluggard or had a baby out of wedlock. Reminiscing, she said, "When I had my daughter, my relationship (with the husband) was crumbling. I had to take care of my daughter myself... But I also realised that I had to sacrifice mothering for a few years, because college was going to be my route out of poverty. But for being on welfare for a few years, she was certain she would have never escaped the poverty trap. Not in tune with the philosophy of rugged individualism of the "pioneers" of the New World, Dujon believed that "if somebody doesn't have something, that means we are not doing something right. There's no reason for anybody here to have to live on the edge", she said.

Critics of welfare-pruning argue that it is not resource crunch but the fact that women taken off welfare are forced to flood the labour market as low paid labour, boosting profits, that is the real reason for it. The increased competition for jobs presses wages down and makes it harder for unions to negotiate good contracts. And significantly, overall welfare spending is far below the approximately $104 billion devoted to subsidies and tax breaks for U.S. corporations referred to as "corporate welfare". Critics insist that AFDC is not the real reason for government's budget deficit as amounts to only one per cent of federal budget as against 28 per cent for military spending. Above all, the truly poor, such as mothers with two children and no other source of income, living at about 72 per cent of the poverty line, the real experts on poverty, are never consulted on decisions. The consequence, Dujon thought, was the "Starvation diet" that welfare provided: "They asked a military nutrition unit to work out a diet for a soldier in trouble. What he would need to eat in a foxhole for a week. That's how they figured out the food budget.

The poor in the U.S. like poor everywhere suffer not merely from income poverty but from neighbourhood social problems like high crime, limited jobs, poor schools, deteriorating housing, gang violence, etc. And a deliberate falsehood is spread that the poor are all blacks or Latinos; though they are disproportionately poor, the majority of the poor are white as are the majority of welfare recipients, and while black women still have higher rates of single motherhood and non-marital births than white women, the disparity by race on both these measures has lessened due to declining rates among blacks and rising rates among whites.

Myths that women of colour ``wear the pants'' at home and are hyper-sexed and promiscuous, enjoy a great deal of social acceptance. However, Welfare advocates have denied with substantiation that welfare leads to large families or that marriage is an effective anti poverty strategy, claiming that two earner households represent one of the nation's fastest growing poverty groups. Countering that single mothers go on welfare to dodge work, critics of ``war on welfare'' point out that half of all single mothers on welfare had a prior work history, had worked while receiving benefits, and had left the rolls within two years in response to the availability of decent paying jobs with good transportation, child care and health benefits. As the Washington based Institute, Women's Policy Research, puts it ``recipients use AFDC for many reasons, including to supplement their low wage work effort and to provide a safety net during periods of unemployment, disability and family crises.''

After TANF, welfare rolls came down by 40 per cent. Did it prove the opponents of welfare true? Abromovitz, Professor of Social Work, New York, clarifies: ``those who proclaimed it a success did so without questioning the impact on the women who left the rolls. Inadequate wages, childcare services and inflexible time took a harsh toll''. And to add to their woes, Structural Adjustment Programmes — of which welfare cut was a part — carried out in full swing, led to privatisation of social security, the nation's strongest and universal income support program, cutting Government support for housing, healthcare, childcare, elder care, family leave and other services that ``shifted the costs of care taking and home making from the government back to women in the home.''

The inegalitarian nature of the American society is well recorded. Statistics show, for instance, that, during 1979-1997, average after-tax income of the richest one per cent of Americans grew by $414,000, adjusted for inflation, while this same number fell $100 for the poorest 20 per cent of Americans. Yet, the dominant thinking would seem to favour a drastic welfare cut. To the arrogance of those who admonish the poor, ``why did you have babies when you couldn't afford them''? Dujon responds: ``The American psyche puts a dollar bill on everything. If we can't have babies when we can't afford them and if this system has always been like this, there would be no black people in this country. When they freed us, they said — you're free now, you get no education, no land, no money. Nothing. Does it mean they can't have children because they have nothing?''

As welfare advocates see it, taking a welfare cut from the Clinton regime was bad enough, but its succession by the Bush Presidency is a disaster. And now, with America's single minded ``crusade'' against ``terrorism'' costing the Government many a treasure trove, it is most likely that these Dujon exhortations will sound subversive to the White House: ``... If we start abolishing poverty here what a role model it would be for the rest of the world! We should show leadership in not how many bombs we can make, how many missiles we can fly; how fast we can get to another planet. I want us to deal with what's going on right here in this country, because we have the potential to solve these problems. I think about the rise and fall of all the great civilisations. They all do the same way. Our legislature stayed two nights in a row to fund the basketball stadium for the Red Socks. They wouldn't stay up ten minutes for 10,000 people that are homeless in the city. If we don't do it now, we are going to be one of those civilisations that have fallen, and to me, we have already fallen.... It reminds me of Rome, the Coliseum, the gladiators and everybody entertaining the king, and forgetting the people.''

Is the American political establishment listening? With the booming bombs in Afghanistan drowning all other sounds, including pleas for elimination of domestic poverty and human degradation, the Dujons of America are unlikely to find willing ears.

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