Academic journal article Social Justice

After the Family Wage: What Do Women Want in Social Welfare?

Academic journal article Social Justice

After the Family Wage: What Do Women Want in Social Welfare?

Article excerpt

AS MY POINT OF DEPARTURE, I AM VERY COMMITTED TO BUILDING A MOVEMENT out of the ideas under discussion that debunk the myths surrounding women and welfare reform and seek creative solutions. Basically, I wish to explore a vision that would inform such a movement. Thus, I will need to pull back somewhat from the specifics and discuss some broad principles and visions.

President Clinton has promised us that he wants to end welfare as we know it. Most of us agree that the current system is such a mess that it is difficult to disagree with that goal. Yet what do we want in its place? To answer that question, we need a benchmark for evaluating alternative proposals. I wish for us to take as our benchmark an extremely ambitious standard; that is, I want us to try to imagine what a maximalist vision of a just and humane social welfare system would be like. To be sure, such a vision may not be realizable in the immediate future, as David Ellwood from the Department of Health and Human Services has suggested. Still, such an exercise has practical value as a critical yardstick and long-term goal.

The question I wish to raise is: "What would a just and humane welfare system look like?" I will explore two contrasting answers to that question, either one of which would represent an enormous improvement over what we have now. At the same time, neither provides everything we want. Therefore, after presenting these two alternatives, I will ask you to try to imagine a third possibility that would be even better.

First, however, let me describe what I think is really wrong with welfare as we know it. As many have noted, in the United States the word "welfare" typically means Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and criticisms of welfare and the welfare state are typically criticisms of that program. Yet AFDC is really only one part of a much broader system of social welfare, parts of which are not called "welfare," but nevertheless should be. That broader system emerged from a social world that no longer exists, the social world of industrial capitalism. In its idealized form, this was a world in which people were supposed to be organized into male-headed households that lived principall from the man's labor market earnings. The male head of the household was supposed to be paid a family wage, a wage sufficient to support a full-time wif and mother and their children. Of course, countless lives never actually fit that pattern, but the ideal underlies the structure of the welfare system we have inherited from industrial capitalism.

This welfare system -- I use the term welfare very broadly to include Social Security, AFDC, and, very importantly, all the private forms of welfare that come in the forms of labor market compensations -- had three tiers. Social insurance programs occupied the first rank and were designed to protect people from the vagaries of the labor market. They were intended to replace the breadwinner's wage in the case of sickness, unemployment, disability, or old age. Many countries also featured a second tier of programs that provided direc support for full-time female homemaking and mothering. I have in mind programs like mother's pensions, child allowances, family allowances, endowment of motherhood, and so on. A third tier of welfare served the residuum. Largely a holdover from the traditions of Poor Relief, these programs provided very paltr and stigmatized means-tested aid to people who didn't fit the family wage picture because they were neither breadwinners nor mothers, in the approved sense, and who therefore had no basis for claiming any honorable support.

Welfare states in all Western democracies fit this broad pattern. Yet the U.S. is exceptional in at least two important respects. First, here more than elsewhere, social insurance is provided through a private welfare state in whic benefits are part of labor market compensation rather than citizen entitlements Thus, not only wage and salary income, but also a wide range of benefits, including pensions and health care, have been paid by particular firms rather than by the government. …

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