The land of the hungry

October 24, 2001


Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women And Welfare in the United States
By Mimi Abramovitz
Monthly Review Press

The words, "Welfare is like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody", were uttered by Johnnie Tilman, an African-American woman who in the 1960s and '70s helped to win welfare rights, not only for poor black women, but for women as a whole.

Under Attack, Fighting Back is an inspiring and informative book. Mimi Abramovitz, a welfare worker and socialist activist since the 1960s, explains government policies and attitudes and provides a broader analysis of society in a way that readers can relate to.

Despite dealing with the changing US welfare system, the book is very useful for social activists in Australia, as many parallels can be made between the policies of past and present Australian governments and their US equivalents.

Early gains in establishing the US welfare system were made through the activism of women from the evangelist movement of the early 19th century. Despite the gains, its benefits were not spread evenly. Black women's access to welfare was extremely limited.

Abramovitz links differing welfare policies to the success of various welfare campaigns, and to the US class struggle. Events and movements in US history — the Civil War, the "great migration" of African Americans from the south to the north, the growth of trade unions, wars and depressions — challenged US society's ideas of gender and the role of the family and placed pressure on the state to meet basic human needs.

The book focuses on the period after the Great Depression, and it is this analysis that activists in Australia can learn most from.

The modern US welfare state, born of the ruling class's efforts to boost public purchasing power and quell social unrest, began to be dismantled following the end of the post-WWII "long boom" in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, US conservatives had launched a fierce ideological attack on women's right to work and make choices regarding childbearing in order to justify cuts to federal funding for welfare programs.

The implementation of tightened eligibility guidelines, reduced benefit payments, the elimination of welfare programs and mandatory "work for welfare", with its detrimental effects on the poor, reactivated the welfare rights movement. The efforts of these activists blocked some of the government attacks of the 1980s and early 1990s, however regressive legislation was passed.

Poor women have been hit the hardest by the dismantling of the US welfare system. Millions have been forced into low paid jobs, unsafe relationships and, in many cases, onto the streets.

It is estimated that more than 13.5 million US children live in poverty, with many low-income workers being forced to work 90 hours per week.

US politicians have turned to reactionary social science theories that blame poverty on the behaviour of the poor to justify the attacks. US President Bill Clinton, whose election campaign relied heavily on "ending welfare as we know it", claimed that "while material poverty was conquered, behaviour poverty continued to grow" caused by an "eroding work ethic, lack of educational aspirations, an inability to control one's children, as well as increases in single parenthood".

The targets of US welfare "reform" were not only women and the poor, but also popular social movements of the oppressed. African Americans, other racially oppressed groups and lesbians and gays were derided as greedy "special interest [groups] that want too much democracy". Civil rights gains were condemned as "reverse discrimination". Victories by the women's and gay and lesbian rights movements were attacked as a threat to family values.

In an effort to survive, many welfare rights groups in the 1990s increased their political campaigning and networking.

Today, the US welfare system is in disarray. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act converted welfare from a federal entitlement program into a block grant administered by the states. The states have cancelled programs, privatised services, tightened accessibility, implemented a lifetime limit of no more then five years (just 2 years in some states), denied aid to children borne by mothers on welfare and stiffened work requirements.

States are encouraged to reduce "non-marital birthrates". The private lives of women, especially black women, are being increasingly scrutinised by government departments.

Nonetheless, welfare rights activism has continued to expand. One of the great things about Under Attack, Fighting Back is that it reminds readers that the rights that women have today are the results of the struggles of generations of women. Contemporary society has been moulded by their victories and defeats. Women have built and led social welfare and civic organisations. They have been at the forefront of boycotts, strikes and rent struggles.

In Australia, if a movement isn't built to defend all against the bipartisan austerity drive of Australian governments, then our future will be like that of the USA today, the land of the hungry.

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