Dear State Senator John Bonacic (New York):
Thank you for your reply on October 8th to my letter regarding the distribution of a bit of extra to welfare recipients this summer. In response, I begin by drawing your attention to the opinion of prominent economists working at the international and national levels who are far more likely to convince you than a simple social worker like myself.
If the production boundary were extended to include the production of personal and domestic services by members of households for their own final consumption, all persons engaged in such services would become self employed, making unemployment virtually impossible by definition.
— United Nations System of National Accounts
The majority of people on welfare are children and their mothers. For sure we are in agreement that children are work. Taking care of them is productive activity without which we would have no world, no economy. The fact that caring for children is work has been endorsed by the state’s compulsory work programs themselves, since they count “providing child care for another welfare recipient” as one of their 12 acceptable work activities (see the TANF regulations in Committee on Ways and Means Green Book). They are not unemployed.
Marilyn Waring, an economist, author and former member of the New Zealand Parliament, has written that the economic value of all the unpaid labor done in Australia is four times the value of the country’s GDP. While the U.S. has not sat down to measure ours yet, if anyone in either political camp cared to look we would find the same. The dollar value of all the unpaid caregiving of U.S. seniors by their families is $350 billion a year, far more than the economic value of paid nursing care of seniors.
That you feel that a mother caring for her own children in Delaware County is not working, but that one who works for a wage caring for other children is, is troublesome from a humane and from a policy standpoint. After all, don’t we also criticize parents for not being there in teaching moments for their children? And, if you indeed believe that all mothers should work in paid jobs, then the next policy step would be to require recipients of Social Security Survivors Benefits to be forced to take paid work too in exchange for their checks. Or to get upset when survivors get a COLA raise. Yet that is not what current policy dictates. It would be helpful to reflect on why.
You are right that our state spends a lot on assistance programs. Frankly, we spend too much on all these services for poor people, which only provide patchwork assistance, less and less in the form of simple, transparent cash aid. We continue to spend more on bureaucracy and “programs” while actual economic help shrinks: For example, decades ago, 60 percent of public assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families “TANF”) funding was spent on cash benefits. Today, we spend more than ever ($25 billion annually on “TANF” but fewer than 11 percent of that is cash to families. Instead, it is spent on dubious “job training” programs, which force my clients (many mothers needing economic help) to whittle away hours in some office in “job search activities” better done from their home or not at all (after all they are taking care of their children). Milton Friedman, the respected conservative economist said we should eliminate all welfare programs and distribute a simple cash grant via the income tax system, which would be more dignified for Americans, better for the economy, better for workers’ bargaining power, and would save untold tax dollars over time. I agree with him. So did Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in economics for proving this.
You may not be aware of the report Carl McCall did on New York State’s welfare programs while he was Comptroller. I’ve enclosed it in case you want to read it. In summary, he came out very critical of Bill Clinton’s welfare to work and found that our state’s programs spend large amounts of money for virtually no return. They do not find welfare recipients even sporadic paid employment, and despite the miserable performance, they continue to take both federal and state money. McCall also found that the state tried to make its dismal numbers look better by including people who had gotten paid employment for only one day every quarter as having been successfully trained and employed by state welfare to work programs (they called it finding “continuous paid employment.”) Republicans welcomed the report (those who knew about it). Democrats criticized McCall privately, insisting he cease being critical of a Democratic social program (so much about them being the Party that looks out for the people). To McCall’s credit, he didn’t stop talking about how awful welfare to work is, but the Democrats managed to keep the report out of the media until McCall moved on to another position.
I know a mother of two, Naiema, whose “job training” specialist made her come one day in business attire and do sit ups. Since Naiema had borrowed the suit from her sister, she had to pay to dry clean it by the end of the day. The trainings not only have no paid employment at the end, but have no real curriculum. The job opportunity “specialists” have no more access to a good job than a stranger on the street, especially in the current recession economy.
Given that parenting is work; given that our welfare to work programs are wasteful bureaucratic endeavors; given that they disrespect the work of parenting in the name of paid work; given that they force mothers to stop breastfeeding before the recommended 12 months; I say we cut at least 50% of the welfare to work programs in New York state, take the half the cash saved and put it toward child and maternal health, and take the other half and give mothers on welfare a bit more in their checks, so that they can live at least a bit more decently, instead of at 40% of the federal poverty line, which is where they and their children are living now.
Pediatric Social worker