|Number 156||May 17, 2002|
Well, I just took two weeks off and I didn't go anywhere at all. The Travel Fates were apparently against it. So, Nygaard Notes will be taking another week or two off during the summer as I continue my attempts to clear my head and heart after a very difficult year. All upcoming interruptions in the weekly routine will be announced in this space, as always.
This week I focus on the welfare system in the United States, and the current attempts to make it even worse than it is. Although I focus on the national scene, many of the important struggles are happening on the state level. I'll try to learn a little bit about that and pass it on one of the next installments (of which I think there will be three, but one never knows.)
One thing I definitely missed during my pseudo-vacation was your emails and letters. I really like getting them and responding to them! So, feel free to get in touch with questions or comments about the Notes you see or the Notes you'd like to see. A hearty welcome to the new readers this week. I'd particularly like to hear from you.
Glad to be back,
In the last issue of Nygaard Notes, ‘way back on April 26th, I quoted the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. The quotation ("A word means what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.") was not in fact uttered by the Red Queen, nor was it from Alice in Wonderland. The words are to be found instead in "Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There," and they were uttered by Humpty Dumpty. Alice's exchange with Mr. Dumpty illustrates the point I was trying to make in the last issue even better than the original "Quote", so I shall reproduce it here:
Substitute any high-ranking Bush administration official for Humpty Dumpty in the above exchange, and it may be said that you have before you Chapter One of the book "Inside The Beltway and What The American Public Found There."
Note to aspiring journalists: I had seen the Red Queen quotation cited by some sociologist or somebody in my recent wanderings, and it seemed so appropriate to the quotations at hand that I went ahead and published it as I found it. Taking a shortcut of this type was such a departure from my usual rigorous practice that I was led to go back and re-read both "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," and "Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (an endeavor I heartily recommend!) which led me to discover the error. There are two distinct lessons here for all you young journalists:
(For more thoughts on the publishing of "Corrections" in the media, see NN #37, "Correct Me If I'm Wrong.")
The individualist ideology that is dominant in the United States right now tells us that our ongoing environmental crisis has a market-based solution (That being: Just "Buy Green" and everything will be fine!). The real solutions will have to be social and political ones, involving democratic decisions to change the production and consumption patterns of the society as a whole. Whether we can actually make these decisions—in the face of the furious resistance of the corporations and utility monopolies that have created and perpetuate the problems—will be one of the most profound tests that our democracy has ever faced. That's why we all have to go far beyond simply recycling our beer bottles, and start to become politically active. Many of us will have to change the way we live our day-to-day lives. Yikes!
Fortunately, here in Minnesota we have an organization called Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ME3). They have an unbelievable website at http://www.me3.org which should be checked out by all in the Upper Midwest who say they are concerned about the well-being of future generations. (It's a project of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the website of which — http://www.ilsr.org/ —is also a thing of beauty, but no time for that now.)
The ME3 site is where you can find information on activism, legislative activities, technology, and research on the state of the state. Do you know about the POWER Campaign ("People Organizing for Workers, the Environment and Ratepayers")? You can find out about this activist coalition of labor, environmental, and citizen groups on the ME3 site. Are you concerned about so-called "environmental racism?" (I say so-called because racism affects every realm of public life, so I don't think we need a label when talking about one particular manifestation.) If you are, then go to ME3 and find out about the "Just Energy: Protecting People and the Environment" project, which focuses on the devastation wrought upon the Cree people in Manitoba by the dams constructed to provide electricity for Minnesota consumers.
For those who like to know what our elected officials are doing about climate change, mercury poisoning, urban sprawl, renewable energy, and any other environmental issue you can think of, the ME3 site is the place to go. You will find not only all the contact information you need to enable you to give your senator, representative, or governor the what-for, but also the tools to do it intelligently and effectively. Here you will find the actual text and status of many bills under consideration, along with numerous timely reports and news items. You can check out the news archives on the site, or sign up to receive regular policy updates by e-mail from ME3 Net.
For those who wish to make a personal effort to tread lightly on the earth, there are numerous sections about the latest renewable energy technologies and where to get them, plus government and non-profit resources to help you navigate the confusing mass of possibilities you will discover.
The only complaint about this site might be that there is TOO MUCH information, so it might overwhelm some people. That's a pretty minor complaint, especially since the site is quite easy to navigate and successfully locate the particular piece or pieces that are of interest to you. I recommend that all Minnesotans who are concerned about "the environment" check out this site. You'll find much of what you need here.
One of the great delusions—perhaps THE great delusion—concerning federal welfare programs in the United States is that they are aimed at keeping people out of poverty. They are not. In fact, no one ever said they were, at least not in the last six years.
The 1996 law that "ended welfare as we know it"—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA— had four official goals. In the words of the statute, the aims were to:
It's pretty hard not to notice the absence of the word "poverty" in that list of goals. If we understand the goals of the "reform"—to promote a certain kind of family structure and to reduce welfare caseloads—we can understand why Republican legislators and many voices in the media refer now to PRWORA as a "compassionate approach" that has been a "stunning success." Never mind that "welfare reform...has moved people into jobs since 1996, but it has not significantly improved their well-being," according to a February 19th report in the Hartford (CT) Courant. (They were referring to people in Connecticut, but the story is essentially the same around the country, as I will illustrate in next week's Nygaard Notes.)
The current resident of the White House agrees with the 1996 agenda for the most part, but his proposal for the "reauthorization" of the legislation that is due to expire this year has its own special character—in part more overt, in part more mysterious—that is worth taking a little time to understand.
Mr. Bush's four goals for welfare "reform" are (in his own words):
Let's take a look at each of these goals.
"An Important Restoration"
I'll mention the last goal first, since it won't take many words to explain this trivial public relations ploy. The official announcement of this goal reads: "Federal policy should strive to find a balance between the needs of destitute noncitizens and the need to ensure that welfare policy neither attracts noncitizens to the U.S. to take advantage of welfare programs nor induces welfare dependency among noncitizens who do receive welfare benefits." I know of no respectable research demonstrating that public benefits and services in the U.S. serve as a magnet for immigrants, and I doubt the "President" does, either. But in any case, under current law immigrants cannot receive Food Stamps or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for 10 years. Mr. Bush's "important restoration" would reduce the ban to 5 years. I'll say no more. Let's move on to the real goals.
There is no poor person who does not work, and the notion that a single parent, in particular, is not already "working" is so ridiculous that I feel somewhat foolish even repeating it. Yet the disdain for unpaid work that gives rise to this foolishness is fundamentally connected to the disdain for the people who traditionally perform it: women. One idea behind the goal of "promoting work" is the idea that human activity only qualifies as "work" if someone pays money to have it done. So, "promoting work" translates to "forcing people into the labor market." It has very little to do with work.
The second idea behind the "promotion of work" arises from the standard individualist ideology, which holds that each person's good fortune or bad fortune is due solely to their individual characteristics, and has nothing to do with institutional or systemic factors. The irrationality of this idea may be illustrated by considering a situation in which there are 1,000 job seekers and only 900 jobs. It doesn't matter in this situation how many "skills" or how much "motivation" any given person has: 100 people will still go jobless. Bizarre though it is, this idea must be grasped if one wants to understand why our "leaders" always speak of promoting "work" and not "jobs." After all, we can punish people for not "working," but who could we punish for not placing necessary jobs into the marketplace?
This goal no doubt harkens back to the 1950s, when Dad worked at a well-paying job and Mom stayed home (and did not "work!"). Even if this were desirable and possible at the dawn of the 21st century—which I doubt—there are two salient facts that need to be mentioned here. The first is that, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz puts it, "‘Leave it to Beaver' was not a documentary." While many privileged white people no doubt lived a June & Ward-style life in George Bush's formative years, the reality for many people in the 1950s and ‘60s was a reality of racist exclusion, of ideological blacklists, of massive expansion of U.S. global military might, and of all sorts of crimes and excesses associated with the early so-called Cold War. So we're not all nostalgic for the "good old days."
Secondly, even those families that did fit the Ozzie and Harriet stereotype were able to do so only with the help of massive government subsidies. Coontz calls these subsidies "active government assistance to families," and points out that the decade of the 1950s was a time when "Corporations and the wealthy were taxed at high rates to support high levels of spending on veterans benefits and public works. Government-backed home mortgages financed many of the new family homes, and the minimum wage was set high enough to support a family of three above the poverty level. Large numbers of workers joined unions, received pensions and health benefits, and worked a relatively short work week. Today's politicians are being inconsistent when they advocate a return to the 1950s family while opposing the kinds of social and political supports that helped make it possible."
The third point about "strengthening families" is highlighted in this week's "Quote" of the Week: People live, and have always lived, in a wide variety of arrangements and family situations. Even in my own circle, I know many people who were raised by extended families, single mothers, gay or lesbian couples, or some other person or people who did not fit the nuclear family description. Mr. Bush does not want to "strengthen families." He wants to strengthen particular kinds of families. The rest of us he wants to punish.
The final Bush administration goal for welfare reform—"acknowledging the immense capacity of states and localities to design and conduct effective social programs"—is a bit too complicated and important to try to squeeze in to the little space I have left this week. So tune in next week for Installment II.