What Welfare “Reform” Really Meant

February 14, 2017

It has been a little over 20 years since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was passed into law and since similar “reforms” were carried out at the state level across the country under the banner of “welfare reform.”

One consequence of welfare “reform” was that millions of people were arbitrarily cutoff of welfare assistance. While government officials boasted of the decline in the number of welfare recipients as a result of new “welfare to work” rules, most people were thrown off for “administrative reasons” – that is, for minor infractions of arbitrary rules.

So too, new welfare laws summarily deprived hundreds of thousands of immigrants of such entitlements as food stamps, cash assistance, supplemental security income (for the disabled and elderly), Medicaid, etc., simply because of their country of origin.

Also, since the new laws limited welfare assistance to a maximum of 5 years (many states have imposed even shorter time limits,) every year millions of unemployed and poverty-stricken are left without any means of subsistence. As for those welfare recipients who do find jobs, many are forced into government-paid “workfare” programs where they replace unionized workers.

These facts alone are enough to indict welfare “reform” and its agenda of punishing the poor and most vulnerable members of society and denying them even the most elemental means of subsistence. What could more indict the inhumanity of the present-day monopoly capitalist system than such willful punishment and inhumanity to the poor and most vulnerable?

What is more, the attacks on welfare and other entitlements were part of an all-sided program of eliminating any and all guarantees of even a minimal level of subsistence. In stripping away this standard of rights, the government was assisting the monopoly capitalist class to increase the exploitation of all the workers. By taking aim at any and all entitlement programs, the government was insisting that the workers and people had no rights which society must guarantee.

And indeed, as soon as the attack on welfare was carried through, the capitalists stepped up their campaign against Social Security, again trying to marginalize retired workers by pitting them in opposition to younger workers – to their own daughters and sons.

In order to defeat further attacks against entitlement programs, the workers and people must come into the social front in opposition to and struggle against the political economy of capitalism.

In politicizing ourselves and mobilizing people around independent working class politics, it is important to recognize that whether the question is the so-called “budget deficit” or the alleged “bankruptcy of the Social Security Trust Fund” or the “high cost of health insurance,” the agenda will always be presented by the capitalist politicians on the basis of assuming that the profits of the capitalists must be protected. It will always be presented on the basis of assuming that the capitalist relations of exploitation are unchangeable and hence that the workers can only “choose” which way they prefer to be exploited and robbed.

However, the idea that this is the only “choice” is not the lesson of our experience.

From the very emergence of capitalism, the workers and people fought against the political economy of capitalist exploitation. At the point of production, workers banded together in unions and fought to lessen the degree of exploitation and raise their standard of wages. Such movements as the struggle for the eight-hour day, and trade union rights, the struggles for Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare and Medicaid, for public housing etc., made inroads against the “rights” of private property in the means of production.

By fighting and winning these political struggles, the workers not only created barriers against their unbridled exploitation, but asserted their economic and human rights – asserted that they are more than beasts of burden to be exploited by the capitalists. These experiences and victories helped to create the consciousness of the workers that an injury to one is an injury to all, and that rights and emancipation can only be won through collective struggle.

So too, by losing the battle against welfare “reform,” the workers were confronted with lessons about the need to be political. They lost a floor they had once created to help raise the general price of labor power. In stripping away those income support programs, the capitalist state not only imposed utter destitution on many of the poor and most vulnerable, but also cheapened the price of labor-power and increased competition amongst the workers in order to assist the capitalists in forcing down the general level of wages of the working class as a whole.

As long as capitalism exists, there will always be attempts by the capitalists to shift the burden of their economic crisis onto the backs of the working people just as there will always be spontaneous struggles of the workers in opposition to attacks on all sections of the people. What is most needed is to give conscious and political expression to the many economic and partial struggles of the people with the aim of merging these struggles into a generalized political movement.

The workers and people can only defend and assert their inalienable rights by coming out as an independent force to challenge the political power and prerogatives of capital and win victories for the political economy of the working class. To guarantee such rights as the right to a livelihood and other economic rights, it is necessary to develop the social sector of the economy. An element of planning must be introduced into the economy and society must devote a portion of its productive capacity to creating the necessary means to guarantee the rights of the people. The infrastructure and annual investments required to guarantee the people’s economic rights must be kept in the public sector.