Don’t Throw the Welfare State Out with the Bath Water


On May 7, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told an assembled crowd of living wage activists and fast food workers that he wanted the state government to “get out of the hamburger business.” Cuomo was referring to the possible costs to New York state in the form of social welfare programs (such as food stamps),  which subsidizes the low wages paid by companies like McDonald’s and Burger King to their employees. This line of reasoning, namely that the low wages paid by large corporations result increased public expenditures on welfare programs, has been used to support the efforts of movements to raise the minimum wage across the United States.


This argument emerged in light of the results of a study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which found that between 2007 and 2011, families of fast food company employees received an average of $7,000,000,000 per year in public benefits. These figures put the percentage of fast food workers on one or more public assistance programs at more than double that of the rest of the workforce (52% vs. 25%). Some have even gone so far as to label such policies a form of “corporate welfare,” despite the fact that programs like food stamps and TANF distribute wealth downward (thus increasing equality) while other forms of corporate welfare (such as tax cuts for big companies) distribute wealth upward (thus increasing inequality). Nonetheless, the opposition between a vision of an economy with higher wages and a smaller welfare state and one with lower wages and a larger (if still inadequate) welfare state have become a common feature of current political debates.


While this maneuver can be rhetorically powerful, there are also (perhaps unintended) troubling implications. First, the logic that wages should be increased so that the welfare state can be shrunken or eliminated is antithetical to the project of creating an economy that truly values human health and wellbeing. In this model, the welfare state exists for when the market fails, rather than as a constant and necessary feature of the economy which ensures a basic measure of comfort and security for everyone. A robust welfare state can (and should) ensure the right to refuse work, both so that human life can center around creative and sustaining activities and so that those who do seek employment can always reasonably refuse to work under unjust or exploitative conditions.


Second, this logic also suggests that those who do not or cannot seek paid employment (for whatever reason) are less worthy or deserving that those who can and do. This rationalizes inequality and poverty. If the welfare state only exists for those who have been failed by the market, then paid employment becomes a compulsory norm. Those who rely on public benefits for sustenance are seen as “taking advantage of the system.” This is exactly the logic that the Welfare Rights movement sought to challenge. Johnnie Tillmon and other working class mothers of color sought to re-value care work and parenting as inherently valuable. Indeed, activities like caregiving, parenting, collective meal preparation, as well as other creative and artistic endeavors, become devalued under capitalism if they cannot be made to fit market-based models. Persons who, for reasons of choice or necessity, must forego wage labor are left at the mercy of a stigmatized, racist, sexist, and classist system of insufficient aid. No one should have to suffer, starve, or scrounge just because they cannot be an ideal employee for Wendy’s or KFC.


Both of these lines of argument fall squarely within what Wendy Brown has identified as the neoliberal threat to democracy in her book Undoing the Demos. Brown argues that neoliberalism, a set of economic policies and ideologies that value competition, individualism, and private enterprise above all else, poses a fundamental threat to the possibility of democratic politics or the notion of a “common good.” Through the “economization” of everyday life, neoliberal thought has become the dominant reasoning in a variety of spheres, from politics to one’s personal life. As such, all human endeavors can be thought of in economic terms. In other words, Brown argues that, instead of values like justice or equality, even progressive political goals must be rationalized in terms of increased competitiveness or the promotion of economic growth.


This is exactly the kind of thinking underlying Cuomo’s argument above. When progressive activists argue for a higher minimum wage, more job training, or universal childcare in terms of how such programs might lead to economic benefits or increased profits, they are engaging in the kind of neoliberal logic to which they should be opposed. To be fair, part of this is due to the limits of contemporary political discourse; indeed, if everyone is speaking in terms of GDP and profit margins, it may seem necessary to play the game to some extent in order to get a hearing. Nonetheless, as I have written previously, the promise of feminist economics lies in its ability to help us see beyond the present political moment.


If we truly want an economy that values human potential and possibility, we have to resist the dichotomizing political thinking that pits “workers” against “welfare recipients,” the “deserving” against the “undeserving,” and a living wage against a strong social safety net. Some proposals, such as a universal basic income, would seek to do just that. Although the basic income is not a new idea, it is the kind of divisive political thinking of the “low wages = corporate welfare” argument that prevents it from getting significant consideration. How we frame political issues, then, plays a key role in the kinds of futures we can imagine.


Categories: 9 to 5

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