by Sheldon William Myrie Political Actions Chairperson, MIT Black Student Union
Welfare reform is one of the most controversial issues in today's society. Welfare was instituted as a relief mechanism to try to alleviate the unrest caused by unemployment and poverty. The first time the U.S. implemented welfare programs on a major scale was during the Great Depression. The economy was plummeting, wages were dropping, inflation was prevailing, and the basic social morale of the people was declining. President Hoover recognized that this was occurring but refused to act, contending that the economy was just going through a normal sloping period and would recover by itself. For many years, people suffered silently through massive unemployment and poverty until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 sent the economy to its lowest point. Civil unrest followed due to built-up economic frustrations. Many people joined communist factions and socialist-based groups in an effort to express their disgust with the capitalist system. During his Presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a solution to the depression. After his election to office, Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. Through the New Deal programs, the government attempted to solve the problems of joblessness and poverty by creating jobs, insuring banks, and creating a system which ensured financial security for families. Federal jobs programs met with significant corporate resistance; however, the programs like AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security met little to no resistance from the business community. After the civil unrest had subsided, Roosevelt felt that he had to appease the corporations because of their role in fueling the growth of the U.S. economy. He also felt he needed to prevent the U.S. citizen from becoming dependent. Finally, the government wanted to prevent the economy from transforming from capitalist to socialist in nature. As a result, many of the federal jobs programs were eliminated, and funding was reduced for the programs that kept the family secure, namely AFDC, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The second time the U.S. implemented welfare programs was during the 1960's. Although the overall economy was not headed toward devastation, the migration of African-Americans from the south and rural areas to urban centers brought a certain uneasiness to American society. It was a time where the traditional perceptions of people of color as inferior were being challenged by various African-American leaders. This period of history was also marked by African-American civil unrest in the urban centers in which they resided. The unrest was not only caused by the rampant racism that existed at that time, but also by the economic frustration of the African-American. Many of the African-Americans that migrated to urban centers were so-called unskilled laborers; namely, the skills that many of those African-Americans possessed were that of an agricultural nature. As a result, we could not compete in the booming financial and industrial markets. The Democratic party, who prior to the 1960s were predominantly neo-fascist "Dixiecrats," began to realize that their future political success lay in attracting the "Black Vote." Therefore, Democratic campaigns of that era focused on eradicating the societal encroachment on the civil rights of people of color, although the focus was on African-Americans for their potential voting power. Also, the Democrats realized that the civil unrest of the African-American was caused in part by lack of employment and financial security. Thus, in an effort to gain and keep the "Black Vote" and to eradicate the civil unrest of the period, the Democrats not only instituted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they also increased the amount of welfare funding to urban centers. This display of legislative, and if I may go as far as saying humanitarian, concern did help alleviate some of the social unrest that occurred during that time, and gave people of color hope that with government assistance they might one day get back on their feet and get a piece of the "American Dream." If the government did intend to get African-Americans back on their feet with welfare programs, in the same way that it planned to get the U.S. back on its feet with the New Deal programs, then retracting welfare is part of the process of instituting relief. If one can agree that the implementation of relief programs during the Great Depression was a near-ideal model, then one can agree that there is merit in the current move to decrease funding for welfare programs. If decreasing welfare is the goal, then there is a need for welfare reform. There are oft heard two points of contention on the subject of welfare reform: (1) welfare needs to be reformed because "the Blacks" have become complacent and dependent on a system that owes them nothing despite their trials and tribulations; (2) welfare needs to be reformed because its punitive measures insult the integrity of the people who are on the dole, and welfare does not provide incentive for the people to get back on their feet. Before we expound on these points, let us look at some statistics that will shed light on the subject of welfare reform. Welfare, as originally designed by the U.S. during the Great Depression, is not just AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid. Welfare relief is an amalgamation of programs used to secure the members of a society from the ravages of poverty. The U.S. government has named this amalgamation of programs "Entitlement Programs." Entitlement programs, in addition to AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid, include Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Worker's Compensation, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans' Benefits, Earned Income Tax Credit, and Selected Tax Expenditure Items. In 1992, $807 billion was spent on these entitlement programs, and $162 billion was spent on AFDC ($22.2 billion), Food Stamps ($21.8 billion), and Medicaid ($118 billion) combined. The United States budget is $5 trillion. Approximately 9.4 million households are below the poverty level ($14,000/yr. for a family of three), and 4.1 million households are recipients of AFDC. Looking at the statistics we can see that the amount of money spent on AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid combined is 20% of the entitlement budget, Medicaid being the heaviest of the programs. AFDC is less than 3% of the entitlement programs and less than one-half percent of the national budget. The average AFDC dependency time is 2.3 years, 35.7% do not leave welfare entirely, and 7% of the recipients are on AFDC for more than 8 years. During the Reagan era there was an explosion of political attacks on the welfare recipient. Much like what happened early on in Nazi Germany, where propaganda campaigns scapegoated and persecuted Jews for the poor social, political, and economic conditions in Germany, the people of the U.S. began to feel that people on welfare usurped the system for hedonistic benefit rather than actual need. The negative sentiment of U.S. citizens, of all colors, was directed toward Reagan's larger-than-life portrayal of the "welfare queen," the African-American single mother with five to ten children (all by different fathers) who basked in the incandescence of dependency and complacency. With the publicity of this "welfare queen," the demonization of poor people resurged, and the social credibility of people of color deteriorated. Those who agree with these attacks feel that welfare needs to be reformed because "the Blacks" (conflated with the image of the "welfare queen") have become complacent and dependent on a system that owes them nothing. In retaliation to the explosion of social and political attacks on the poor and people of color, some activists and politicians proclaimed statistics which stated that AFDC is only 0.44% of the national budget and only 3% of the entitlement budget. They argued that cutting AFDC would have a devastating effect on the poor, and that would be so vicious it could be deemed a crime, done in the spirit of monetary greed, against all of humanity. Some of these activists have first-hand experience with the welfare system, and the abuse it can inflict on the people it is supposed to assist. Welfare officers invade the privacy of their clients by questioning mothers about their sexual activity, and leading children to make statements compromising their mothers' integrity. AFDC's unwavering policy of denying aid simply because the husband and/or father is earning above the $6,400/year income limit, even when he is physically abusive or fails to pay child support, further evidences the punitive nature of the welfare system. Those who advocate welfare expansion believe that welfare needs to be reformed because its punitive measures insult the integrity of the people who are on the dole and does not provide incentive for people to get back on their feet. Then you have the third type of person, much like myself, who sympathizes with each of the extremes. Like the people who accept the first point of contention, I believe that there are recipients who usurp the system for hedonistic benefit. There are also people who do not abuse the system but become dependent on it. However, there are more White recipients than there are African-American, and the less than 7% of the recipients that usurp the system are comprised of all races. To blame dependency on and abuse of a social program on one particular race, attribute that to an innate deficiency in the race, and use that assumption to persecute that entire race of people, is an example of the fascism that is deeply ingrained in United States democratic politics. This belief is not sonorous because Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, co-author of The Bell Curve, and in this sense, a fascist, is hailed, particularly by conservatives who want to cut welfare, as the foremost authority on issues of societal deficiencies. Like the people who believe the second point of contention I feel that there are people who are abused by the welfare system. My family was one that was abused by this system, and I was lucky enough to be put into one of the few caring foster-care homes that helped me to achieve. Since the allocation of welfare funds is only 0.44% of the national budget, it would be difficult for me to believe that the government is really interested in reforming welfare because they care about the burden of taxation on the people. If the government really cared about the burden of taxation on the U.S. middle class and working class people they would cut defense spending and increase taxation on the richer 2% of the 10% of the people that own 90% of the wealth. They would shift the emphasis of the Anti-Crime Bill from building more jails and putting more police on the street to effective educational and recreational programs for youth. To prevent teen-pregnancy they would employ those same educational and recreational programs instead of punitive measures that hurt and destroy the morale and self-esteem of those teen mothers. With all of this in mind, in the next issue of the Thistle I will take the liberty to outline and propose a welfare reform program that will attempt to solve the problems of dependency while creating a system to uplift the poor rather than demonize them. I encourage the reader to send me email, robocop@mit, or write the Thistle with any comments on this article. The discourse must begin now because anyone at any given time can have a turn of luck that will put them on the street and probably on welfare.