"Marriage" Cannot Rescue Welfare Reform

Julie Torrant


As part of the recently announced proposals for welfare reform, the Bush administration has included a plan for "marriage promotion", allotting $300 million for its implementation.  Such a proposal has raised many eyebrows in Congress and in the media, not the least because Bush's welfare proposal has also called for increases in welfare recipients' work requirements, while refusing to provide any additional funds for childcare or transportation or any of the other things needed to actually meet these increased work requirements. It also refuses to reinstate benefits for legal immigrants, and it denies the extension of time-limits for receipt of public assistance—despite the recent economic recession (something even Democrats say is unprecedented).

In other words, on the one hand Bush's plan opts for actually cutting social resources available to welfare recipients in order to "balance the budget"—and on the other hand, Bush has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to "promoting" marriage and "family values" (euphemisms for propaganda encouraging poor people, and particularly poor women, to look to marriage as a solution to poverty).

The question is: why is Bush unwilling to increase funds for the families he purports to "value" so much? What is at stake in the Bush proposal's reinvigoration of "family values" policies and rhetoric, which emphasize "love" and "cooperation", alongside its denial of the resources families actually need to survive, much less prosper?

The logic of "marriage promotion" as part of "welfare reform", according to its advocates, is that marriage provides the economic basis for providing for the costs of raising children, and lifting single-parent families out of poverty. However, in capitalism what enables those who do not own capital to have economic security is not access to "marriage", but rather access to a sufficient wage. Thus, to suggest, in effect, that all single mothers living in poverty can escape poverty by marrying the father of their children (or someone else) is to take as an assumption the (inaccurate) presupposition that all men earn a family-wage, or a wage sufficient to meet the basic needs of a spouse and one or more children. But real wages in recent decades have in fact drastically decreased for the majority of working people, resulting in such responses as the "living wage" movement to raise wages. Yet at the same time, corporate profits have soared.

The increasing inability of workers to meet their basic needs and the exponential increase in corporate profits represents a fundamental economic contradiction, which cannot be solved by such topical remedies as "marriage" for the poor.

Many have suggested that the problem is that "marriage promotion" distracts attention (and resources) from attempts to help poor families and reduce poverty. "Marriage promotion", they argue, does not have the economic benefits that its proponents say it does. What these critics miss, however, are the ways in which "marriage" and "family values" have increasingly become important in expanding corporate profits.

Corporations accumulate profit by extracting from the working class the most amount of labor possible for the lowest wages and production costs possible. In the more recent past, and in particular in the post-war era of what is called the "welfare state", wages were generally able to support a worker and his family (with men usually in the position of sole "breadwinner"). Moreover, for many poor and working class families and individuals whose wages were insufficient to meet subsistence needs, or who were unemployed, the state provided federal assistance programs to help with covering the costs of food, housing, education and healthcare—federal assistance which helped supplement low wages and was largely financed through corporate taxes.

However, since the 70s and 80s this situation has changed dramatically. As a result of capitalists' need to accumulate ever larger shares of profit, there has been, on the one hand, a massive corporate attack on federal assistance programs, and the U.S. government has in response systematically cut taxes for corporations (not working people), leading to the privatization of social services. On the other hand, workers' real wages have actually been cut (as reports show, wages are actually no higher today than they were in the 1970s), requiring families to increase the number of breadwinners in order to meet the needs of the family, a trend that has radically changed the shape of the family in recent decades. This transfer of funds from public to private hands has had devastating results for working people, since without federal assistance, people must rely only on their wages, which, once again, are not increasing, but radically decreasing, like the ability of workers and their families to meet their basic needs.

At one level "marriage promotion" is a gesture aimed at acknowledging the deteriorating conditions faced by families, and particularly single-parent families. However, this is a rhetorical gesture only which conceals the real significance of "marriage". The "family" and "marriage" are important—not because they lift workers out of poverty—but because family labor is one of the crucial means by which corporations keep wages down (and profits up). This is because the wages that would need to be paid to workers would greatly increase if all the cooking, cleaning, sick care and (round the clock) child care, etc., had to be paid at the market rate. Instead, this work is done within the family, and usually the bulk of this unpaid labor is performed by women.

It is women's role in performing most of this unpaid "family labor" which explains why they are at greater risk of being in poverty. This is because devoting much of their time and energy (their labor-power) to unpaid domestic labor restricts women's opportunities within the wage labor force—a restriction which in turn reinforces the cultural assumptions about women's "specialization" in family labor. The exploitative nature of this (unpaid) labor is covered over by a discourse of (natural motherly) "love" and "nurturing". Of course, this is not to say that women do not have strong feelings, including feelings of love, for their children, but rather that these feelings are naturalized and ultimately used to justify a system where the owners of the means of production, and not working class families, materially benefit from their labor.

Thus, family labor is, in effect, a corporate subsidy—in fact, it is, undoubtedly, the largest and certainly the least acknowledged form of corporate welfare. The marriage movement, in short, has very little to with "family values" and much to do with increasing corporate profits.

This becomes even clearer if we look at some of the other "changes" accompanying Bush's marriage program. The Bush proposal takes the 1996 legislation, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or what is commonly known as "welfare reform", as its basis but proposes some significant changes. The 1996 legislation itself was of great importance because it ended the existing "welfare program", Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federal entitlement program, and replaced it with block grants from the federal government which are given to states in order to provide a (set of) state-run program(s) called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This change has had devastating effects because it means that there is now NO guarantee in the United States for families in need, including children, of access to the resources necessary for even a minimal level of subsistence. The 1996 legislation replaced funding in the form of regularly available assistance in the form of cash for housing, food stamps and medicaid for the eligible for unlimited time periods (i.e., for as long as they were needed), with a form of assistance provided only for a 5-year lifetime maximum and on condition of fulfilling work requirements. Practically, this means that if the parent does not fulfill the work requirement because of a lack of childcare or reliable transportation or illness, then not only the parent but the children are without the basic necessities of housing, food and healthcare.

Thus, a key component of the weak form of "welfare state" (as compared to many of the European nations) that existed in the United States no longer exists. And this is called "success" by welfare reformers!  "Success", clearly, is about eliminating the government's responsibility to the people who need assistance most desperately.

But as devastating as the 1996 reform bill has been, Bush's plan actually "radicalizes" the principles behind it. On Bush's plan, not only are fewer people provided funding (the amount of which has not been increased), but recipients actually have to work more hours (40 hours a week as opposed to 30: an increase of 30% more time for the same amount of assistance).

In addition, in the Bush plan a much lower percentage of waivers of these work requirements is allowed to states for those recipients who cannot work or who are participating in alternative programs (from going to community college to attending job training programs to drug addiction rehabilitation). Thus, by increasing work requirements without providing the necessary supports such as childcare provisions, this round of welfare reform will add to the millions of individuals/families who have been "successfully" forced off of welfare and into extremely low-paying jobs or unemployment, and further prevent their ability to advance their education (which is the condition of better paying jobs and more secure family life).

While the rhetoric of the "new(est)" "family values" of "compassionate conservatism" is somewhat more subtle than the Gingrich version (which went to such extremes as to suggest that children of welfare recipients be placed in orphanages), they are both driven by the same brutal economic compulsion to increase profit at the expense of social need.

The new welfare reform is certainly not a program that promotes any viable sort of "self-sufficiency", as the advocacy of marriage promotion in fact confirms. And the limits of the "success" of "welfare reform" for those most in need of social services is exemplified, especially sharply, when one considers that this legislation will work to extend the system of indentured servitude euphemistically called "workfare". As one of the Democratic party's experts on welfare, Representative Cardin of Maryland points out, "the administration would force states to put people in unpaid workfare positions in order to satisfy the work requirement, rather than providing the skills necessary for a person to be successful in a wage-earning job".[1] While such policies cannot successfully enable women's economic independence or provide economic security for all children, they do quite successfully work to provide a permanent pool of no and low wage workers who will pay the most severe price for the sake of maintaining corporate profit-taking while reaping the least rewards in return.

The promulgation of "marriage" among the poor and working class is an attempt to keep corporate profits up by forcing more people to share minimal means of subsistence in order to enable ongoing, and intensified corporate profit-taking. While relatively privileged (middle and upper-middle strata workers) may think they benefit from the "privatized" family in/of capitalism wherein they have access to larger incomes, in actuality, the conditions of their "privilege" of a decent standard of living are increasingly undermined by the same dynamic which condemns the majority to constant struggle for survival.

The Bush welfare reform redux is symptomatic of the Big Business bias embedded in the so-called "small government", conservative agenda.  In other words, what "welfare reform" shows is that for "compassionate conservatives" such as Bush—even more so than Clinton republicrats—government is "small" only insofar as it enables the socially produced wealth to be used for the welfare of citizen and immigrant workers. On the other hand, the Bush administration is pro-Big Government insofar as government is an instrument for ensuring that the socially produced wealth is used, instead, for corporate welfare in the form of government subsidies, tax breaks and programs which force workers to engage in un- and under- paid "family" labor at the risk of their own welfare as well as forcing workers to engage in "workfare" and other enormously exploitative forms of labor.

It is time to end the corporate welfare state "as we know it", since it cannot meet the social needs of the vast majority of people. The solution to the current lack of social welfare is neither "marriage promotion" nor "welfare reform", but the transformation of the capitalist relations of exploitation.

[1] Toner, Robin and Robert Pear.  "Bush Urges Work and Marriage Programs in Welfare Plan."  New York Times on the Web 27 February 2002  

THE RED CRITIQUE 3  (March/April 2002)