What Is Welfare For?
Writing over at The New Inquiry, Ned Resnikoff asks the Left to think a little more concretely about what it means to fetishize, as most have during the Great Recession, jobs qua jobs. Using a Florida example highlighted recently by Mike Konczal — which, in a nutshell, found that (not incidentally disproportionately African-American) welfare recipients in the state are routinely forced into low-wage, seasonal jobs, before being let go once tourism dries up and placed back onto the dole — Resnikoff warns,
This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months.
He takes us a step further, though, near the end of the article, putting forth a vision of what the purpose of welfare should be:
Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.
Now, I happen to agree with Resnikoff.
It strikes me as not only morally distasteful but downright illogical for our welfare programs to be as little-concerned with developing real, significant experience and skills in their beneficiaries as they are.
If you’re unmoved by pleas to recognize the welfare recipient’s inherent right to autonomy, or you doubt that these rights demand a far more robust type of safety net, simply think of the current status quo as a bad investment; although the amount of money put into the welfare system is often vastly overestimated, it’s nonetheless a significant investment in “human capital” that few would consider put to best use. If these programs served as anything more than a half-assed gesture toward compassion, they would help those using them work their way to true jobs rather than today’s McJobs. If the real goal is to aid and invest in those who have fallen, rather than simply assuring ourselves that our society is Good, we should do more.
But wouldn’t you know it, I came across something else in my reading today, and it’s a pretty stark reminder that we’re not all on the same page as to what welfare should be. Not even close.
I refer to the latest entrant in a category that is shaping-up to be remarkably competitive: Most Consummately Lizard-Brained Article in The Daily Caller of the Year. The former front-runner was probably James Puolos’s misguided attempt to intellectualize a hoary cliché of patriarchy (more on this here). But yesterday’s entrant, from one Brion McClanahan, is now the clear favorite.
Titled, “Damn, I just want some jam,” McClanahan’s piece isn’t just the most racist thing I’ve read in an ostensibly mainstream publication all year. It’s also proof that some people think the main problem with the welfare system today isn’t its measly paternalism but its consummate lack of disproportionate sadism. McClanahan’s got a four-point plan, you see, to change welfare in America. Newt Gingrich wants to transform the safety net into a trampoline; McClanahan would prefer a torture chamber:
First, the federal government would create a government “brand” of essential food items such as milk, cheese, meat, cereal, vegetables, bread, peanut butter, beans, juice, soup, baby formula, diapers, etc., and would package the items with simple black-and-white labels and basic descriptions. The word “Government” would be stamped across the top in bold letters so everyone would know it was a welfare item. These items could be manufactured by major companies through government contracts, thus not creating a net loss to private industry. Because competition is not an issue, taste and quality, with the exception of the baby formula and baby food, would not be a top priority. Snacks, soda, cigarettes and beer would not be available through the program.
Second, the government would lease existing store fronts and set up “government stores.” There are typically several grocery store locations that have gone out of business in any given area; these would make ideal settings for the new government stores. The number of store locations would be chosen based on the size of the area and its number of food stamp recipients. The stores would be placed on public transportation routes for convenience.
Third, and most importantly, all food stamp recipients would be required to spend their government dollars at these stores. Private grocery stores and chains, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, would no longer be allowed to accept EBT cards, and the money loaded on the cards could not be withdrawn and used for any other purpose. Each card would have a set dollar amount sizable enough to purchase essential items from the government store. For example, a family of four could expect to receive enough government-brand beans, rice, bread, milk, cheese, meat, cereal and vegetables to last a month with careful planning. In other words, they must be ready to stretch a food budget. Families with babies would get a month supply of formula, baby food and diapers.
Fourth, anyone who accepts government aid would have to submit to a monthly tobacco and drug test. Food stamp recipients are, after all, wards of the state. They are slaves to the government and should be reminded of that fact. If a recipient is found to have tobacco or drugs in his system, he would be dropped from the program. People on government aid would also lose the privilege of voting. That way they couldn’t vote for greater benefits or easier terms (most of them don’t vote, but now they couldn’t).
It’s a tour de force of racial resentment, dehumanization, and petty fantasies of inflicting pain and humiliation on perfect strangers. It’s foul and should thoroughly discredit any publication frivolous enough — or desperate enough for clicks — to publish it. But it’s also reason to keep in mind how tough a sell is Resnikoff’s preferred safety net. Sure, McClanahan is braying jackass, far worse than most. But even if most Americans aren’t nearly as cruel and bigoted as he may be, the country’s history is replete with ugly moments when such demagoguery was a decisive political force.
Clearly, we’ve not yet rid ourselves of Reagan’s Welfare Queen. We’re likely farther away from doing so than we’d like to admit.