The program we call welfare provides a bare subsistence income to four million women raising children. It costs $22 billion dollars, much less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and only 2 or 3 percent of most state budgets. Yet this small program has become the focus of big intellectual and political guns. Liberals and conservatives agree that welfare is our big problem, bad for the country, and bad for the poor. Presumably, it drains public budgets and reduces work effort. And by allowing poor mothers to opt out of paid work, it saps their initiative, and nourishes the cultural and psychological disabilities attributed to the "underclass." As a result, welfare is said to worsen poverty. The proposed remedies vary, but they usually involve cutting benefits and pushing mothers into the labor market.
These themes have been developed in an enlarging stream of literature: Nathan Glazer's "The Limits of Social Policy" (1971); Martin Anderson's Welfare (1978); George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty (1981); Ken Auletta's The Underclass (1982); Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984); and in 1992 alone, Lawrence M. Meads' The New Politics of Poverty, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "How the Great Society Destroyed the American Family," by which he means the black family,(1) and Micky Kaus's The End of Equality, which was reviewed in the December issue of Monthly Review.
The Left is apparently paralyzed, even mesmerized, by these assaults. No doubt, there are many reasons. One is that we suffer from a touch of socialist puritanism, which glorifies wage work no matter the terms, and a socialist romanticism which imagines that wage work is the first step toward proletarian power, no matter the reality. Another is that poverty worsens, appearing to lend credibility to the charge that welfare destroys those it is intended to help. And perhaps there is an undercurrent of racism in our failure to respond, since so many recipients are black (although a bare majority are in fact white).
But none of these is the main reason for the bewilderment of the left. The main reason is the failure first to see the connection between the attack on welfare and the attack on the public programs which provide income security for working class people, and second, the failure to see the connection between the attack on income security programs and the war on labor. In other words, the main reason for the paralysis of the left is the failure to apply a class analysis to welfare.
That the political developments of the past two decades represent a "new class war" by business against labor has been obvious enough. Corporate leaders mobilized to smash organized labor and drive wages down, and they more or less succeeded. Unions now represent only 12 percent of the nongovernmental workforce, the hourly earnings of non-supervisory workers are at their lowest level since the 1960s, and wealth as well as income inequalities have sharpened. All this has been clear enough. What has not been clear is the connection between this broad reordering of the American class structure and the attack on welfare and, relatedly, other income programs.
To see the connection, it is useful to remember an old Marxist idea, that the unemployed constitute a "reserve army of labor" used by capitalists to weaken and divide the proletariat. Desperation pits the unemployed against the still-employed, thus weakening labor's bargaining power. But income security programs reduce unemployment and temper desperation. They remove millions of people from the labor market, and protect millions of others from the ravages of unemployment. The consequence is to tighten labor markets and reduce fear among those still in the market, and thus to strengthen workers in bargaining with employers over wages and working conditions.
Not surprisingly, programs with such potentially large effects generate conflict. They also, from time to time, spur a good deal of highblown and usually unilluminating commentary by the experts of the day. …