Academic journal article Social Justice

Welfare Dependency, and a Public Ethic of Care

Academic journal article Social Justice

Welfare Dependency, and a Public Ethic of Care

Article excerpt

There is every reason to react with alarm to the prospect of a world filled with self-actualizing persons pulling their own strings, capable of guiltlessly saying "no" to anyone about anything, and freely choosing when to begin and end all their relationships. It is hard to see how, in such a world, children could be raised, the sick or disturbed could be cared for, or people could know each other through their lives and grow old together (Scheman, 1983: 240).

"Welfare Is a Woman's Issue"(1) - The Subtext of Welfare "Reform"

A strange cacophony of justifications and rebuttals dominates contemporary discussions of welfare and welfare reform. While the Right speaks of "family values," "unwed mothers," "family breakdown," and "teenage pregnancy," the Left responds with appeals to "structural unemployment," "creating jobs," and "ending poverty." "Welfare policies encourage dependency," the Right insists. "Provide jobs" answers the Left. "Provide 'values,'" the Right retorts. Is this the mismatch in call and response it seems to be, or do these two stances share certain philosophical underpinnings? Both positions, in different ways, assume a conception of the citizen based upon a male model of the "independent" wage earner. Both see the person on welfare as someone who can only be incorporated as a full citizen by fulfilling the role of the "independent" wage earner. Neither questions the conception of social cooperation that presumes, but does not credit, women's unpaid labor as caretaker (Young, 1995; Pateman, 1989). Feminists, meanwhile, see welfare and the welfare state as a woman's issue: as patriarchal control over the lives of poor women, but also as an essential safety net for all women.(2) Paraphrasing Johnnie Tillmon, in a recent talk(3) on welfare Kate Millet remarked, "the Man walked out - he quit." Yet poverty remains and it is poverty with a woman's face.

Although most recipients of the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC) were children, 90% of the adults benefiting from this program, which we called "welfare," were women. The new welfare program established under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), similarly affects mostly women and their children. Clearly, welfare is not only a poverty issue, it is also a woman's issue. Moreover, the thrust of welfare reform threatens feminist gains. It is, first, a challenge to the reproductive rights of women - poor women's right to bear children. Also, despite some pious calls for ending violence against women in the home, the constriction of aid to solo mothers deeply affects women's exit options in abusive relationships. As some current studies indicate, more than half the women who make use of public assistance are coming out of situations of domestic violence.(4) Furthermore, the new welfare law makes a mockery of feminist demands for fulfilling and well-paying nonfamilial labor. To be compelled to leave your child in a stranger's care, or with no care at all, and to accept whatever work is offered is another form of subordination, not a liberation. It devalues the work women traditionally have done.

The issue of welfare, then, is a woman's issue both in the sense that it affects primarily women and that it pertains to feminist goals. The end of AFDC, which guaranteed women with children a basic level of income if they fall below a certain level of poverty, must be a siren call to understand why "a war against poor women is a war against all women" (as the slogan of a feminist advocacy group, the "Women's Committee of One Hundred," declares). This moment, however, should also be grasped as the occasion to reconsider the basis of welfare. We need to muster the political will to shape and support welfare policies that can serve women raising families without stigmatizing those in need. Such policies are necessary for the consolidation of feminist gains and for the achievement of full citizenship for women, especially in the context of modern industrial economies (Fraser, 1997; Young, 1995; Sevenhuijsen, 1996; Mink, 1995; Orloff, 1993). …

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