When Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, many hailed it as a necessary step toward ending the dependency of the poor. Dependence on the state, that is. Barack Obama praised the bill during his presidential campaign, and in fact made a point of noting that he had helped cut the welfare rolls when he was in the Illinois state legislature. Rick Santorum has said it gives the poor “something dependency doesn’t give: hope.”
But as Jason DeParle points out in this must-read piece, thanks to welfare reform and the terrible state of the economy, poor people are doing worse today than they have in years. Even in this recession, states like Arizona continue to cut the welfare rolls. So what do poor people do now that they can’t turn to the state?
The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.
Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.
The economic effects of welfare reform are obvious and catastrophic. But welfare reform has also decreased freedom. That lost government support doesn’t just increase poverty. It actually drives vulnerable people—almost always women—back into the repressive hold of coercive forms of power: in this case, the coercive power of abusive husbands and boyfriends. Welfare reform doesn’t decrease dependency; it increases coercion.
I’ve talked a lot on this blog and in my book about “the private life of power,” how conservatives seek to reinstate hierarchies of power in which men and employers are able to rule and ruin the lives of women and employees. That is, and remains, a fundamentally conservative project. But that doesn’t mean so-called liberals haven’t participated in it. They have—and in the case of Clinton, actually pioneered it.
I’ve also talked on this blog and elsewhere about how the left needs to reclaim the politics of freedom. Welfare is no picnic for poor people; caseworkers and bureaucrats can be—and often are—incredibly intrusive, meddling, paternalistic, patronizing, coercive. And many people on the left have long sought to address these problems, sometimes with success. But the critical point about state supports is that, whatever their limitations, they provide us with some measure of freedom and autonomy from the domination of our private superiors, whether they be violent spouses or pleasant bosses.
So when we talk about ending the dependency of the poor, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about emancipating the poor or any such thing. We’re talking about returning them to the repressive hold of their private governors.