Not Welfare Reform, but Welfare Deform

New Orleans   You may have missed the fact that welfare reform was on the priority list for the new Congress as it took office in Washington.  You may not have noticed all the signs at the Women’s March there and elsewhere demanding improvements in welfare benefits for women trying to raise children in the current system.  In fact, you may have missed the mention of welfare in the special New York Times supplement featuring stories about the war on poor women as mothers.

In fact, you may have missed all of these references to welfare report and the drastic need to really reform the welfare deform of the last twenty years, because they don’t exist.  Mothers and others on welfare, including their children, have become invisible except as political fodder victimized by old racist and classist tropes about welfare queens and baby-benefit-machines.   Welfare reform was not a priority for the Congress or raised as a major issue by all of the record-setting women who were newly elected.  There were no signs at the women’s marches demanding welfare reform.  The tragedy and travesty of the modern welfare system for poor women as mothers and the price paid by their children was not mentioned in the New York Times’ supplement.  Except as a punching bag for the right, welfare recipients have become invisible.

All of this was grist for the mill in talking to Felicia Kornbluh, a co-author with Gwendolyn Mink, on Wade’s World about their new book, Ensuring Poverty:  Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective.  The only thing clear about the results of the Clinton-era so-called reform “of welfare as we know it” has been how much money it has saved by governments by denying benefits to welfare recipients.  The title of their book is clear.  This is “ensure” as in guaranteeing poverty, not “insure” with an “i” that might entail protecting against poverty.

The book details the results of these deforms:

  • The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) has shortened recipients’ lives by nearly six months while saving governments $28,000 per recipient over her lifetime.

  • 74% of low-income families with children were NOT receiving TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families which is a 73% gap between average TANF grants and federal poverty definitions.

  • In 2016, states spent just 25% of their TANF funds on cash grants to clients, down 70% compared to the period before so-called reform.

  • The single-mother poverty rate is 35.6% overall with 38.8% for African-American female-headed families, 40.8% for Latina-headed families, 42.6% for Native American female-headed families, and 41.5% for families headed by foreign-born women.

The only way to miss the disastrous impact of these reforms and their ongoing punitive impact, is by not looking.  Kornbluh and Mink argue persuasively that it is has been accomplished in no small part because the intersectionality of race, gender, and income have victimized welfare recipients as women and mothers.  Their feminist analysis is also not kind about the division among feminists that has abetted this tragedy.

Part of their book is the story of the Women’s Committee of 100 that formed during the reform fight to argue for a different path.  The committee was largely spearheaded by Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Gwendolyn Mink’s mother, and both Kornbluh and Mink were counted among the one-hundred.

With all of the current discussion of inequality, it was hard not to ask why we don’t have a Women’s Committee of 100 and a standing army of millions of welfare recipients and their supports demanding real reform now.  The time will never be right politically, but the need continues to be urgent.


Dragging it out with Talk in France

New Orleans        The “Yellow Vest” protests have gone on for months now in France.  The protests began to spread throughout the country as people protested the government’s increase in the taxes on gas.   On successive weekends, especially in Paris, where marchers went right down the picturesque and usually tourist-filled Champ de Elysee to the Arch of Triumph, but also joined by tens of thousands throughout the rest of the country in cities and towns, large and small, the demands morphed into a more generalized protest against the policies of the president, Emmanuel Macron.  These policies were seen as sweepingly pro-business and favoring the wealthy.  Macron was something of an upstart candidate with an newly formed amalgamated political party with pieces from his former Socialist membership and other parties and politicians that sensed a winner.  Even before the gas hike, Macron’s program had become deeply unpopular, and his own poll ratings at 39% approval are about equal to President Donald Trump’s standing in the United States.

The protests are named after the yellow vests that are required to be kept in all vehicles licensed in the country, so that when a motorist has problems they can more easily be seen on the highways, thereby preventing accidents and fatalities.  That’s a great idea and a great symbol for the protests and protestors.

An idea that that seems less great and almost an obfuscating, delay tactic is Macron’s recent effort to respond to the protest and the anger underlying them with a national talk-a-thon.  He announced this at a meeting of 600 mayors from around the country that he pulled together to explain the dialogue, claiming it would be responsive to the protests.

On the face of it, this is an interesting and novel tactic, though of course not easy to pull off.  There are 67 million people in France.  In US terms, this would be a coffee klatch that would include everyone in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and the Dakotas to reach a similarly sized population, even though the geography is much different.  Early polling is not promising to Macron.  70% of respondents indicated that they doubt that this gabfest would do any good or make a difference.

Of course, the government has their fingers of the scale as well.  Though Macron claimed that nothing was “off the table” for the discussion, he also focused on four hey areas and posed several questions.  One question for example tried to tie the Yellow Vest protests to controlling climate change, diluting the fact the protests seem to be largely fueled as much by a reaction to tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and gas tax hikes for the rest of the country.  Protest leaders for the Yellow Vests have responded with their demands for national plebiscites on new government policies through an initiative process as well as lowing taxes and reducing officials’ salaries, quickly gaining 140,000 on-line signatures.  The input process, both online and direct, is supposed to cap off by mid-March, and Macron promises to respond by the end of April.

There are also risks for the government.  It’s hard not to see this as a smoke-and-mirrors process to sap the energy from the continued protests, already weakened after the gas tax was withdrawn and other concessions offered, and redirect that energy into a lot of talk over months of time.   While attempting to co-opt the movement with this tactic, Macron also may find himself in a situation where anything less that a full and comprehensive response backed up by real programs and potentially constitutional changes would make this process look like nothing other than a charade, putting his government in even worse peril.