Welfare reform lies

Affluent people have a moral responsibility to work to raise wages and end poverty. So said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and lecturer Barbara Ehrenreich before a rapt College Hall audience Sept. 21.

Based on that premise Ehren-reich issued a clarion call to action in her talk “Down and Out in Post-Welfare America” — this year’s Judith Roth Berkowitz Endowed Lectureship in Women’s Studies.

But first, she examined the moral messages behind welfare reform.

The assumption behind welfare reform, Ehrenrich said, is that welfare traps recipients in an immoral state of dependence so appalling that the most compassionate thing to do for the poor is to kick them off welfare.

Ehrenreich questioned the compassion of post-welfare low-wage life, offering stories of her undercover careers as waitress, housekeeper, nursing home aide and Wal-Mart “associate.” At these jobs, which she took in order to write about how poor people are getting by, she averaged about $7 an hour.

“I could not make it. I always came up short, except when I worked two jobs. I could have gotten by then, but only if I had never gotten sick and didn’t mind working every day for the rest of my life.”

Many of her co-workers fared worse, suffering homelessness, severe hunger, or two full-time jobs with little to no sleep in between — often while raising children.

To build her moral case against welfare reform, she turned the idea of dependency around, pointing out that the current economic boom is a result of the labor of former welfare recipients and other low-wage workers. This, she said, amounts to a dependency of the wealthy on other people’s underpaid labor.

If dependency is as shameful as welfare reform advocates claim, she argued, then “it is the affluent who should feel ashamed.”

“But there is a way out of this,” she said. “You can become an activist for social and economic justice.”

After her speech, Ehrenreich was asked what gives her hope. She thought a moment before answering, “People coming into motion for change.” She said that at the Wal-Mart where she’d worked, people had seemed dazed, beaten down. But when a group of hotel workers in town went on strike, “even the Wal-Martians I worked with were getting excited. Defiance is contagious.”


Originally published on October 12, 2000