Has the 1996 welfare reform law helped poor people in America wean
themselves from cycles of dependency? President Bush thinks so.
The nation’s old welfare system was "an enemy of individual effort and
responsibility, with dependence passed from one generation to the next," the
president said Feb. 26.
A Feb. 27 New York Times article described Bush’s remarks partly as “vintage
compassionate conservatism.” Is this a little like the recent compassion of
the president and Congress towards corporate America, including the $15
billion bailout to big airlines?
By 2007 Bush wants to more than double the number of welfare recipients
mandated to work. The unexamined assumption is that earning wages helps
people to escape poverty.
Reality is somewhere else. Consider what the Economic Policy Institute
found in a 2001 study, Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working
EPI researchers discovered that the basic family budget levels of 29 percent
of U.S. families failed to cover their basic needs as set in their
communities. The basic needs were the costs of food, medical care and
shelter, etc., with no money budgeted for dining out, entertaining, savings
or vacationing (www.epi.org).
There's more. “The study showed that the number of poor people in this
country is actually two and-a-half-times as many as the official government
poverty line identifies,” noted economist John Rowntree. Recall that
America, the most militarily powerful nation now and in history, led the
developed world in rates of child poverty before welfare reform.
What’s the bottom line? The president’s free market solutions to poverty
are the problem because there are not jobs for all people that pay a livable
The free market is like no other. How, you ask?
People are free to enter into contracts to sell their labor-power to buyers.
The same sellers have also been freed from the ability to provide for
Labor-buyers are free to keep the value they gain from purchasing
labor-power. The more people selling their labor-power the better for those
who purchase it, since the sellers have no choice if they want to continue
The starvation factor is a weapon against workers. People don’t willingly
Forcing more welfare recipients into the market for labor-power increases
the number of people competing for jobs. This is supposed to promote
personal responsibility but actually boosts profitability for buyers of
labor-power who hold the upper hand when two people are competing for one
Freedom is illusory when people’s labor-power is a commodity. This
commodity is central to capitalism.
A long-term goal is abolishing labor-power as a commodity. This could place
people in control of work instead of work controlling them, the current
In the short-term, however, we must support progressive changes to welfare
reform, most of which ends this year and is set to be reauthorized and
rewritten. The first Congress of the U.S. Basic Income
Grant, to be held in New York, March 8-9, may be a step in that direction
Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramentos progressive newspaper firstname.lastname@example.org