Welfare: Reclaim the Word

by Johanna Brenner

November 2, 2011

A picture in the New York Times of a family sleep-over night at Occupy Wall Street has got me going. A white family—mom, dad, three little kids—had driven in from Exeter, PA to join the protest. In the picture they had two signs. One, partially hidden, seems to be saying something negative about corporate personhood and money in politics. The other, fully visible, says, ”My momma ain’t on welfare but your bank is.” So what’s wrong with this picture? And what can the Occupy Together movements do about it?

Source: New York Times, October 26, 2011

Activists for immigrant rights have rejected the word “illegal” and educated activists in other movements about why they need to stop using “illegal” to refer to people without papers. We need to do the same work around “welfare.” Welfare is not a dirty word. Welfare is about faring well, about being well, and about our collective responsibility to care for and about everyone. Years of racist and sexist attacks on “welfare queens” and talk about the “culture of poverty” where poor people supposedly choose not to work because they can get welfare, live off of “our” taxes and be dependent instead of independent and “self-sufficient”, have completely extinguished the original meaning of welfare. This is not so surprising, because the United States was founded on the distinction between the “free” man and the “slave” where the slave is dependent on the master but the free man survives (sometimes!) by his own work. “Independence” is also of course coded masculine; dependent men are unmanly and not worthy of our respect. Like any powerful ideology, this fear of dependence and glorification of “self-sufficiency” reflects the material realities of capitalism, and especially the terrible things that happen to people who can’t survive by the “sweat of their brow.”

The couple who drove a long way to bring their kids to Occupy Wall Street are to be respected and appreciated. I am not talking about shaming or blaming anyone. But I think it would be good for the Occupy Movement to do some workshops on the history of welfare and why we should be FOR welfare and for more of it, not against it. We could encourage people to think about how in its essence–however crappy, however demeaning and however controlling of single mothers–the welfare system at least recognized that caring for children is an important contribution to society and one that we, as a collective, should support. In fact, once you think about it, it is pretty obvious that no one is “self-sufficient.” Over our lifetimes, not only as kids but also as adults, sometimes as disabled people, sometimes as aging people, sometimes because we are ill, at some time or another we almost all need to be cared for by others. Dependence is part of the human condition. And we could remind ourselves that men depend on women’s often hidden work of care—-whether it is in the family, the workplace, in the neighborhood and community—-propping up egos, maintaining social relationships, managing conflict, and healing hurt feelings.

We should discuss the vicious assumptions that are often made in distinguishing between “deserving” and “undeserving” people. I wonder why their sign said “my momma ain’t”—-could it be an unconscious identification of Black women with “welfare”?—-it’s rather ambiguous but something is going on there. What is clear is that the mother who doesn’t take welfare is good and the bank who does take it is bad. The problem isn’t that the bank is on welfare. The problem is that the bank is a predator sucking up the wealth we produce and doing so with the consent of the government.

The whole “I played by the rules and I got screwed” discourse also needs to be questioned. It expresses the sense of injustice felt by white, middle-class and stable working-class people who have, until recently, done okay financially. And that sense of injustice is bringing them into the movement. But let’s unpack that sense of injustice and take a good hard look at the assumptions from which it flows. I liked a sign I saw in one of the occupy marches that said “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” The rules are stacked against people and the sooner we move away from believing in the rules and living by the rules of the competitive capitalist game, the better off we will all be.


6 responses to “Welfare: Reclaim the Word”

  1. Chloe Avatar

    Johanna & commenters: thanks for this provocative and thoughtful conversation.

    It made me think about how community groups sometimes appropriate “welfare queen” language and redirect it against corporations by calling them “welfare kings.”

    On the one hand, I think this is a powerful way of highlighting the point that K Mann made — namely, that the government spends on all sorts of things, from tax breaks for the rich to cash payments for the unemployed, so how come we call one “welfare” and the other something else?

    On the other hand, I wonder if it perpetuates the larger problem that Johanna names– that we need to give up the fantasy that some people live purely off the sweat of their own brows while others are weak and dependent. And relatedly, we have to start calling massive CEO salaries, tax breaks for the rich and other wealth transfers to corporations what they are: theft.

  2. Dianne Feeley Avatar
    Dianne Feeley

    Thoughtful discussion! Here in Michigan the state has passed a draconian 4-year limit on welfare assistance, for which only women with children are eligible to begin with. So Occupy Detroit has marched with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Rainbow Push in opposition to this ruling. We also try to link the cutoff of welfare to the state’s lowering of weeks eligible for unemployment benefits (from 26 weeks to 20). That is, the governor and state legislative are saying that these folks need a push to get a job (including children!!). But the recession in Michigan is a decade long and there is something like one job for every six or seven applicants.

    Of course welfare and unemployment benefits are not adequate to sustain a family. In one of the educational discussions Occupy Detroit organized, different ideas came up about the society we’d like to live and work in. These included opening up the abandoned plants and producing for mass transit and developing non-fossil energy, cutting the work week to 30 or 32 hours so there would be more jobs, and more workers could “have a life.”

    Another problem we discussed is how many laid-off workers went back to college, got training, but can’t find a job.

    I think these discussions are important as we march against the cuts in welfare. That is, we fight against the state’s cutting social spending even while we realize it’s far from adequate.

  3. Alex F Avatar
    Alex F


    You make very good points about the history of welfare and its use by those with power as a tool to control labor. I also agree with you that fighting for a living wage should be more of a priority, and my own position within organizations that I work with here in Tennessee is that we should move away from the defensive anti-budget cut work that has dominated political work in Knoxville and instead move toward a more positive living wage framework (which is where we were 5-10 years ago).

    That said, I’m not sure I agree that we shouldn’t be actively fighting for, or at least speaking out in support of, welfare as such. The conclusion I draw from the history you illustrate is that we ought to be very careful about HOW we defend welfare, not that we ought not be defending it. Meaning that rather than repeating the standard liberal story about how welfare is fair because it helps folks out or helps bridge inequality, we should talk about how everyone deserves a good job with a living wage, about how, unfortunately, the structure of capitalism makes that impossible and how, therefore, we need extensive welfare programs until if and when we can replace capitalism with a better system.

    More importantly, and more along the lines of what Johanna says in her article, we should be sharing a conception of welfare that is not just a system of payments from the government to folks who don’t make enough on their own. Welfare is about organizing our society in such a way that all people are able to live well. Public healthcare, for example, is part of welfare, and a part that would exist under socialism just as it should exist under capitalism. Welfare isn’t a good thing just because we feel sorry for poor people–it’s a good thing because it just makes sense for us to organize our society in whatever way is most beneficial to all people.


  4. k mann Avatar
    k mann

    Joanna Brenner’s recent article on Welfare makes several important points that socialists and all fighters for social justice will want to work into our discussions with coworkers and those we encounter in the OWS and other mass movements. Brenner’s article captures the classicist and racist dimensions about the so-called “culture of poverty” theory which has been repeatedly shown by social scientists to be without merit as an explanation of why people find themselves in poverty.

    But what is welfare? In a narrow sense it means government subsidies to people or corporations. In this sense, the banks that received bailout money, corporations that receive generous tax breaks (including GE which pays NO taxes) are as much on welfare as the poor. When government budget makers calculate in flows and out flows, tax write-offs for large corporations, welfare payments to the poor, and tax breaks for interest on home mortgages for the “middle class”, are all expenditures, that is ,they are all forms of welfare. In 1994, two years before the Clinton assault on welfare for the poor, the federal government distributed $333 billion in welfare payments for the poor. Sounds like a lot? That same year, the government distributed $999 billion in welfare payments to . . . the rich and corporations. So the bumper stickers we see reading “End Corporate Welfare” are absolutely accurate and right on, and should be one of our slogans.

    But should we be as Joanna suggests, FOR welfare for the poor? I’m not so sure. Here’s why: Since poor relief was introduced in England in the 16th century its main function and purpose has been to regulate “free” labor. It has been used –quite consciously- as a social control mechanism to ensure adequate labor supplies for capital. This has certainly been the case throughout US history up to, and including our own times. Before the mechanization of southern agriculture in the early and mid twentieth century, welfare payments to poor southern agricultural workers, mostly black but white as well, were cut off during harvest times. These workers were forced to work for near famine wages for private farmers, compromising the free labor arrangements that the Civil war was fought to accomplish. Once the harvest was finished, welfare payments resumed.

    The labor market dimensions of welfare for the poor are even more obvious today as a result of the implementation of Clinton’s 1996 bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act (has a law ever expressed so well a social philosophy, in this case the Culture of Poverty thesis?) and the implementation of the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Those visiting a welfare office today are met by signs reading “Any job is a good job.” This is of course absolutely false. There are now millions of jobs in the US that do not pay a living wage. But in order to qualify for the paltry welfare payments that are offered to the poor, applicants must apply to and accept employment at these jobs-often fast food restaurants and retail outlets like Walmart. As annual income for full time work at these often minimum wage jobs is below the poverty line, welfare payments serve to make up the difference between those incomes and the federal poverty line (currently at around $20,000 for a family of four). So, in a very real sense, welfare is both a stick to force the poor into minimum or low wage work and a massive public subsidy to wealthy, powerful, anti-social corporations like McDonalds and Walmart. Adding insult to injury, some of the taxes that these workers pay out of their meager paychecks wind up in the pockets of these thieving corporations. The social control dimension of welfare today is reflected in the other signs and posters welfare applicants encounter in welfare bureaus, “How many months do have remaining”” This refers to the current five year life time limitations for welfare.

    Welfare for the poor has also been cynically used by the Democratic Party to shore up political support amongst the urban poor. This is exactly what happened in the 1960s when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations increased welfare payments to urban Blacks in exchange for political i.e. electoral support.

    For all of these reasons, we should be against welfare for the poor as it has been always practiced. So what about relief to poor people unable to feed, clothe, or house themselves? In place of welfare as it currently exists, we should demand, stimulate, and participate in the living wage movements that now seem to be somewhat dormant. We should demand a minimum wage that actually allows people to live on their wages. For those unable to work due to lack of work, disability, child or elder care obligations, why not mount campaigns to recognize -with incomes sufficient to live on-the contributions to society and human worth of those care givers and their families?

    Welfare is a quite gendered institution. Given the “feminization of poverty” that results among other things from gendered wage and income inequality (women earn on average 74-75% of what men earn), the devaluation of women’s work in a labor market still marked by profound gender segregation (most jobs today are still overwhelmingly female or male), the issue of welfare is very much a women’s issue. Propagandistically, such campaigns can use the dominant white, middle class, ideology in this country regarding the family to our advantage. If families are really important, if motherhood is really noble, why not a salary for those who choose to or are unable to participate in the paid labor market? Such a policy without obligations to work any job regardless of pay, would be a huge step forward in relation to the welfare system as it has always existed.


  5. Susan Avatar

    Thanks for writing this Johanna! We need to keep this conversation going and figure out how to challenge the negative assumptions about “welfare” that fill the OWS movement. The use of the term “corporate welfare” has become a key part of protest language and I’m not sure how to replace it.

    On a similar topic, during and after arrests at OccupyChi, comments of outrage like “I was treated like a criminal!” were made repeatedly to describe the experience of arrest. This implies that the human rights of occupiers should be protected, but “real criminals” deserve what they get. As a result, a group got together to hold a teach-in on the prison industrial complex and why prisoners are part of the 99%.

  6. R Avatar

    “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it” comes from George Carlin, in a monologue that many folks on OWS would love (aside from the homophobic remarks toward the end):