The Myth of Welfare Dependency
Caught between Welfare and Work
The president keeps repeating the “dignity of work” idea. What
dignity? Wages are the measure of dignity that society puts on a
job. Wages. Nothing else. There is no dignity in starvation.
—Johnnie Tillmon, chair of the National
Welfare Rights Organization, 1972
While CalWORKs administrators, politicians, journalists, and public policy analysts construct “welfare” and “work” as two opposing lifestyles and choices, the Mexican immigrant women who appear in this book use their own experiences as the grounds to challenge the false opposition between welfare and work. They assert that neither provides them with sufficient material and social resources to raise their children with dignity. Work dominates these women's oral histories, their memories of grandparents and parents with bodies scarred from physical labor, of adolescent years spent scrubbing floors and hunched over sewing machines, of fathers, boyfriends, and husbands forced to travel north in search of work, and of women left behind and just as often leaving home to harvest crops, take in laundry, clean houses, peddle tamales, and solder computer chips in maquiladora plants. Women like Norma Gonzalez and Maria Sanchez described wage work with a mix of pride, anger, and defeat, peppered with stories of friendships and alliances on the shop floor, of verbal and sexual abuse from male supervisors and coworkers, of promotions and lay-offs, of days so long they couldn't see straight and paychecks that fall short of paying the rent. Others like Margarita Gonzalez and Delia Villanueva spoke of “women's work,” the sweeping, washing, cooking, and singing lullabies that punctuate their days, refusing to distinguish between the work that welfare allows them to do for