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.