Visions of Queens in Cadillacs: Myths and Realities of Welfare Reform

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
	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.

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