The State of Well-Being: Welfare Fights in CT
I hate authority. Whenever I'm in front of someone with power, and if I feel alone, I get awkward and silly. No wonder I hate the Connecticut State House, all opulent and aristocratic, with the lobbyists gathered like sharks in the stairwell, and under a very, very high ceiling state legislatures trade in their personal oddities for their considerable power. Committees deign to hear certain bills and fast track others, as the mentality of a clique keeps outsiders apprehensive.
So here I am, waiting in the hallway to meet the political aide to one of the House of Representatives' leading Democrats. Thanks to the political muscle of the CT. Teachers' Union, representatives of Vecinos Unidos (our local welfare rights group) and the Communist Party get to spend half an hour trying to convince some Democrats to support the Campaign to End Child Poverty in Connecticut's Bill 5461 (End Child Poverty Social Investment Fund). Eventually we get into a conference room, six of us, and three of them. We make our pitch: Connecticut currently has the highest disparity in income and wealth of all states in the USA. Currently a tenth of all children (and a third of urban youth) live below the official poverty line (by all accounts this is a deflated figure). Unimaginable grief comes from a lack of resources. How can a relatively deprived child be expected to have the same opportunities as those who are privileged? Our popular prejudice in favor of equal opportunity is mocked by our social conditions. We find this unconscionable and urge you to join in support of the Social Investment Fund. Smiles all around.
Then, two of the women from Vecinos Unidos testify to the harshness of life without social assistance. Bear in mind that these women live in a city named by the Urban Institute as one of the five kindest to people on public assistance. And yet, even here the conditions are atrocious. The women mention the renewed, anti-feminist glamorization of domesticity for elite white women, just as women of color are being treated as criminals for tending to their children. It is powerful stuff. The legislators interrupt periodically to say that this problem or that problem can be dealt with by this piece of an extant law or by that social agency. To them the problems are one of access and not of disenfranchisement: if only the women knew of the support structure that the good government of CT. has already given its people! But the women are adamant: yes, we've tried to get the child care benefits, but I've been told I don't qualify because of this that and the other thing. And the legislator says, call my office I'll sort it out. Another woman says she can call your office, but what about the thousands of other women who don't know they can do that. We need civics classes and better trained state workers, says the legislator. The conversation is frustration incarnate
Eventually little came of these Democrats, who are certainly miles better than the Republicans (during the current 1199 struggles the Republican governor and his minions called out the National Guard and threatened punitive action, even as the conservative Democrats came out in support of the workers -- and forestalled the carnage). The House reps said that they supported the spirit of the bill but they could not see what the specifics might be. How do you want to spend the money, they asked? The Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut has worked for a few years now with several lawmakers to craft legislation that offers our children a healthy and just future. This will come from a 2% tax on the portion of income above $200,000/year (only the dollars above this amount will bear the tax). This tax (or social levy) will only affect 3% of our fellow residents and it will raise $600 million. The bill, at this preliminary stage, does not say how we want the money spent, but we have some ideas. The assault on welfare (AFDC, etc) left thousands of families in CT, as elsewhere, without the means to live with dignity. We want these families to receive a cash payment: we are averse to the dictatory ways in which such payments are given (as food stamps, etc), because we believe that human beings should be given the dignity to spend their money as they wish. Furthermore, we want some of the money to go toward the creation of certain social services that cannot receive funds because of a draconian "spending cap" passed by the generally conservative state legislature. I'm in favor of hiring a corps of neighborhood civic workers whose role it is to go door to door and check in with families to see if s/he can provide any social capital to help them engender change. Things like that. Basically the plan is to use the legislative and organizing process to craft the details of the bill: but the House Finance Committee won't let it have a hearing. Typical.
A few days before the visit to the State House a friend asks why the campaign is only interested in children. I tell him that it is a strategic decision to get around the stigmatization of poor women, in particular (often women of color) -- obviously any programs that come out of this bill will enable the destiny of all people, not just children. However, the status of CT children is stark and we feel like it is a good wedge to break open discussion on welfare by an appeal to a generally vacuous liberal moralism. The welfare struggle across the country is perhaps the most virtuoso attempt to jump start a left, political dynamic among the working-class and working-poor: if you have time, check out the work of Grassroots Organized for Welfare Leadership (www.ctwo.org/growl), a nation-wide left campaign on the welfare front. As more and more people are released from prisons (just as others move into them, or else those out will be recycled in) and with the absence of social assistance, the only way the state has to keep the reserve army of labor in check is by the lockdown conditions in our urban areas (for more on this, see Christian Parenti's useful Lockdown America, now out in paper from Verso). The anti-police brutality fight is part of the struggle, but in a defensive manner: the welfare fight gets at the same problem but (as we say in the US) in a "pro-active" way. The fight for welfare liberation is an offensive one.
As the meeting wore on, the legs turned to me and asked if I had anything to add. We had heard from many of the women and their children who would benefit directly from the bill. I said that I was not one of those who would have to pay the levy (being far under the 200,000 mark!), but that I do make a good salary and am happy to pay taxes if it went toward the creation of a civilization and not the barbarism we currently live under. A few days before this meeting "W" had announced his plan to increase funds toward faith-based groups, to enable these undemocratic organizations to run the social programs. The political aide looked at me and said that my tax dollars would be better spent at the Salvation Army because the government is a leaky bucket! I had no come back line, stunned by the callousness of authority. She gets a government salary to do its work and yet disdain's its ability to follows its own mandate. Sick.
CT. used to have one of the most generous, but yet paltry, social welfare programs. Before 1996, while a family of three in Mississippi earned $120 per month, the same family in CT took home a check for $600 or more. A friend says that the welfare fight is plain and simple reformism, that there is no place to find any radical politics around welfare. I disagree. <After Welfare> by Sanford Schram ends with Andre Gorz's distinction between "reformist reform" and "non-reformist reform." The former simply shores the system, allows capitalism, for instance, to function more and more effectively (such as reforms that enhance productivity -- ergonomic changes or childcare on the job, etc.). The latter in a cumulative fashion tends, in Gorz's view, to the transformation of the system. To modify his concept, and go back to Rosa Luxemburg's careful thoughts on the subject, I think of "non-reformist reform" as the social changes that not only produce new forms of social engagement but also that put the existing social structure into crisis: welfare, in the Piven-Cloward formula, has the tendency to call into question the liberal hypocrisy of the system, but it also provides the material basis for the further mobilization and organization of the working-poor toward fundamental social transformation. Too many on the Left abjure "reforms" and too many of those in the reform sector are uninterested in a Left agenda -- a dialectical unity of these two opposites is what is needed in our current conjuncture. But not any "reforms," but mainly "non-reformist reforms." Like welfare liberation.
Those in CT, contact the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut, 35 Marshall Rd, Rocky Hill CT 06067 (860) 257-9782. Those elsewhere around the US, contact GROWL at www.ctwo.org/growl.