Trump’s Bottling of Old Wine

Can we finally lose our bipartisan taste for workfare?

It is tempting to see President Trump’s executive order directing his agencies to find ways to require work as a condition for receiving means-tested benefits as another example of his outsized callousness. By casting all means-tested aid programs as “welfare,” Trump’s executive order supersizes “workfare” by linking benefits to work. There are many reasons, indeed, to be upset: workfare is racist and sexist in its conception, hurts people who need means-tested benefits the most, and undermines worker power more generally. It even fails to succeed on its own terms and is difficult to implement.

But before we consider this to be another of Trump’s outrages, we should be honest with ourselves. Work requirements for means-tested programs have been more the historical rule than the exception. Moreover, even if we want to oppose the resurrection of workfare in federal policy by linking it to Trump in all his hypocrisy, profligacy and worse, we should admit that workfare has been as popular among centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans as it has been among the Republican right.

The term “workfare,” which rhetorically blends “work” and “welfare” was coined by William Safire, a renowned wordsmith who also worked for the Nixon administration as a speechwriter. In the 1970s, Nixon was trying to figure out ways to roll back the more permissive welfare-state programs of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” Drawing on longstanding tropes of relief recipients’ laziness, Nixon — through Safire — contrasted welfare with workfare. Indeed, since the late 1960s, as political scientist Martin Gilens found, images of welfare in the mass media became “blacker” — at first in disproportion to the incidence of African Americans on the relief rolls. This enabled Nixon’s workfare — as a corrective for the laziness of relief recipients — to be of a piece with his “Southern Strategy” of using racism as a way of building an anti-federal, anti-welfare state coalition within the Republican party.

Nevertheless, workfare’s political success extended beyond the Republicans. The reinstatement of mandatory work- and work-search conditions on welfare in the wake of the welfare-rights movement, led by poor, mainly African American women in the early 1970s, was fundamental to Democratic efforts to reform welfare, as well. While some efforts were linked with New York senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — who had worked in the Nixon administration — others were typically rooted in southern states where pushing people off relief rolls was normal at harvest time, when farmers could demand that welfare recipients should rather accept the worst jobs at the lowest wages as a moral corrective for their dependency. Indeed, as sociologist Nancy Naples documented, during the 1987 hearings for Moynihan’s welfare-reforming Family Support Act — which ushered in a new era of workfare — Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, proposed that welfare mothers who refused work assignments might be threatened with losing custody of their kids. Of course, when in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed the same thing, liberals went ballistic. But this just illustrates the problem today: nothing Trump has proposed is all that different from what at least some Democrats, including Clinton, who signed the epochal 1996 welfare reform law that ended the federal entitlement to welfare benefits, have advocated for decades.

Neither is Trump’s executive order too different from current practice. Trump has targeted such benefits as Medicaid, public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers, along with a host of other federal benefits. But the 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act — also signed by Clinton — requires “volunteer” work from public housing residents who are not otherwise working. Several states have already gained waivers to experiment with Medicaid-related work requirements (such waivers were an innovation of Moynihan’s Family Support Act). In many respects, Trump’s executive order — while it might have some real, and deleterious effects on poor people — is posturing for his base. Reinforcing the idea that poor people are poor not because of structural features of capitalism, but because of their own moral failings that are encouraged and given succor by an overbearing state is, in many respects, is the “dramaturgy of workfare” (to use Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s phrase).

None of this is to say that Trump’s executive order isn’t a big deal. It is. And it is precisely because it resurrects in public discourse a set of ideas that had begun to be discredited. They had lost their sheen because of decades of organizing and advocacy work by poor people and their allies in policy and legal circles. Over the twenty-plus years since Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, poor people’s organizations and advocates have shown how workfare fails.

Work requirements do several things: First, they pose obstacles to staying on relief, increasing the opportunities for local authorities to “sanction” recipients for rules violations, missed work assignments, etc. As Richard Fording, Joe Soss, and Sanford Schram have shown, sanctions are applied according to the discretion of frontline staff. As is often the case where discretion is involved (think, e.g., of bank loans, arrests and police shootings), sanctions are applied in racially disparate ways. Second, work requirements suggest that the work of social reproduction — caring for kids, parents, infirm others, etc. — is not work when done in the home, and therefore create problems for meeting these critical needs when people who are barely making ends meet are forced to work outside of the home to maintain their bare subsistence. Third, and accordingly, local governments often find that they have to compensate for these problems. Work requirements, therefore, appear as significant cost-shifting for social needs from the federal government onto state and local balance sheets.

Work requirements for means-tested programs also threaten those workers to whom they direct their dramaturgy. Workers who are barely hanging on are encouraged by the language of workfare to resent those who are also barely hanging on, but who are not working, at least outside of the home. This is clearly Trump’s agenda here (and it was Bill Clinton’s too, lest we forget). But it is these same workers who are most threatened when more people are pushed into their segments of the labor market.

If there is a note of encouragement, it may be that after thirty years of modern, workfare-based reforms, we have acquired some collective wisdom. Now would be a good time to acknowledge it: Imagine the Walmart worker who is fighting for a decent wage against an employer whose wage levels mean that its regular workers need federal food assistance in order to make ends meet. That fight is going to be made more difficult if Walmart can contract with the local social services district for part-time workfare workers, or if the labor market is flooded with people needing to pick up some hours to continue to see the doctor. And the same is true for the lunchroom workers in West Virginia schools and for public employees, in general, who are also obliged to manage the chaotic supervision of workfare workers whose work require hours differ according to the level of their benefits.

Perhaps, in this moment of upheaval, and thanks to liberal distaste for anything Trump, we can finally see work requirements as a divisive fraud perpetrated by the rich on poor people kept poor by low wages and stingy social benefits. While history doesn’t encourage, this is our moment to make it.

John Krinsky is professor of political science at the City College of New York and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, with an interest in labor and community organizing in New York. His publications include Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), Who Cleans The Park? Public Work and Urban Governance in New York City co-authored with Maud Simonet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). 

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