Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

1 Welfare, work and social policy: an overview

On 29 February 2000, a 6-year-old boy in his first year at Buell School, Beecher, in the town of Flint, Michigan, in the USA, took a .32 calibre handgun to school and shot 6-year-old Michaela Roland dead with a single bullet. The boy had been staying with his uncle because his mother, Tamarla Owens, had been evicted from her home for lapsing on her rent payments, despite working up to 70 hours a week in two jobs to maintain her two children. Tamarla Owens was not there that morning to see her son find the gun and take it to school because she had already set out on her three-hour round-trip bus journey to Oakland County, where she worked as a waitress and as a bartender in Dick Clarke's American Grandstand Grill. She was required to make the journey as a condition of the State of Michigan's welfare-to-work programme.

Beecher is the one-time home of General Motors and a huge car production plant, long since derelict and surrounded by a community in which 87 per cent of children live below the official poverty line. With no work available nearby, Tamarla Owens joined the daily bus-full of workers who went to service the affluent residents of Oakland County in return for US$5.50 (about £3) an hour. Dick Clarke's restaurant chain sought special tax breaks for its service to the community in placing people on the programme.

In the County Sheriff's Office immediately after the shooting, Tamarla Owens's son was given crayons and paper. He drew a picture of a child, alone, beside a tiny house (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Tamarla Owens' son's drawing

Tamarla Owens is a black lone mother. Her story was made famous in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary film Bowling for Columbine (2002), about the mass school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999. In the film, the driver of Tamarla Owens' bus says that she went to work every day.

Her manager at the Grandstand Grill commends her as a good worker. And the Sheriff argues forcefully that the welfare-to-work programme should be closed down because it prevents parents with sole responsibility from caring for their children.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Tamarla Owens

The US ‘workfare’ programmes (as they are often known) of the 1990s have been celebrated as successes and taken-up as profitable private enterprises by firms as prestigious as Lockheed Martin, the giant armaments manufacturer, which runs many of them. The Temporary Aid for Needy Families Programme was established by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. These programmes have been venerated as having solved ‘the welfare problem’ (Rogers, 1999; Clark and Hein, 2000; Peck, 2001). And they have epitomised the ways in which welfare policies are developed around particular constructions of personal lives, and go on to shape those lives in profound ways.

Few will be as profound as the ways in which Michigan's programme shaped Tamarla Owens' life. But, despite the exceptional nature of the Buell School tragedy, Tamarla Owens' story carries within it many of the key narratives of the transformation of welfare policy through welfare to work. It is emblematic of them, in that Tamarla Owens is black, poor and a lone mother. But it is also typical since it highlights a range of issues concerning how personal lives and social policies intersect. It raises questions about the sources of her poverty in a town whose main economic base has collapsed. It challenges social priorities when financial self-sufficiency and parental responsibility are in conflict. And it opens debate about whether the purpose of workfare is to save the state money, to reduce labour costs, to train an unskilled workforce or to discipline a population. Cutting across all these questions, Tamarla Owens' story raises issues about how ‘race’, gender, sexuality and class shape the ways in which ‘the personal’ is interpreted in the development of social policies, and how these policies might work to ‘remake’ those facets of the personal lives of welfare subjects. Addressing these questions, the issues they raise, and the theoretical frameworks they invoke, are the central aims of this course.

Where the articulation of welfare with work is closest, in workfare regimes like those of the USA, the impact of policy on almost every aspect of ‘the personal’ is potentially profound. For Tamarla Owens, it is not just daily routines that are directly determined by policy, but it is also how her life is ordered, the way she experiences the community she lives in, how it regards her, and who she becomes, that are affected. These also affect the personal lives of those around her – tragically so if the Sheriff's interpretation of events holds. But, in less extreme forms, in more moderate regimes that connect welfare to work, ways of conceptualising rights and entitlements are shifting, ‘common-sense’ ideas about welfare are changing, and how welfare subjects are constituted is being reworked in ways which are built on, and have consequences for, how we understand personal lives. Understanding how welfare and work are connected in contemporary social policy does not just give us an insight into an important aspect of the workings of the welfare system. It also provides a significant way of understanding how individuals and groups become constituted as welfare subjects. The processes through which this takes place are the first and central theme of this course.

Though we know little of Tamarla Owens' personal history, it is likely that some aspects of her personal life resemble the stereotypical constructions and representations that underpin discourses which lead to workfare reforms. She will have been regarded as welfare-dependent, since she lacked work, perhaps because she had limited skills or qualifications, and, especially, as she was a lone parent. The so-called ‘trap’ of needing to work to maintain children, but being unavailable to work while caring for them, has been the most intractable welfare conundrum with which governments grappled during the 1990s in pursuit of their commitment to reducing welfare spending (see Thomson, 2004). Pathologising constructions of blackness, lone parenthood and welfare dependency became key discourses in the steady shift of welfare policies towards workfare. How welfare, in the form of income maintenance, touches the lives of different groups unequally is the second theme of this course.

The events in Flint, Michigan, raise critical questions about the social, political and economic purposes of workfare. Is it primarily helping to keep pay and taxes low and match people to jobs? Is it providing work experience that will help unemployed people into jobs? Or is it serving as a deterrent to Tamarla Owens and others having more children? The first of these questions imagines the purposes of workfare to be economic; the second views it as developmental; the third as disciplining personal conduct. Determining which of the three purposes of workfare is supportable and whether they are compatible or contradictory is the third theme of the course.

Assessing these explanations calls for evidence about the circumstances that give rise to workfare programmes. Most social scientists would also want to hear Tamarla Owens' own account of the programme and its impact on her personal life. But her account alone would not allow us to reach an informed view about the programme. If we are to understand the programme's impact on personal lives in the wider context of welfare provision, taxation and labour markets, for example, we would need some broader evidence about its costs and effects on employment. We would want other accounts that represented a diverse range of people and experiences. We might also want to consider categories of people and evidence of inequalities in the ways they are affected. So there is a wide range of evidence that would inform a debate about how workfare constructs the intersection of policies and ‘the personal’. Finding appropriate evidence and judging its value for assessing workfare is the fourth theme of the course.

Assessing and interpreting evidence cannot be undertaken without a theoretical framework within which disconnected facts can be formed into a reasoned argument. No amount of evidence about the circumstances of those who are assigned to workfare will produce an assessment of it unless it is woven into a coherent theorised narrative. Four very different theories provide the framework for the course:

  • Neo-Marxism focuses on the contradictory place of welfare in market-based societies committed to the maximisation of profits.

  • Post-structuralism looks at the networks of power that lie behind the relations of work and welfare, and aims to understand how the actions and conduct of unique, autonomous individuals are governed in them.

  • Feminism looks at the distinctive position of women and at the production of differences and inequalities of gender, through the power relations of welfare structures and personal interactions of individuals.

  • In addition, this course highlights key aspects of a neo-liberal approach, in particular neo-liberalism's concern with optimising economic rationality and minimising welfare to secure the unhampered working of markets.

Workfare is a particular way of remaking the relations between work and welfare, and it epitomises some of the ways in which policies and ‘the personal’ intersect. The forms taken by these relations often shift at critical transition points in personal lives: at retirement, for example, and, as this course will show, when people begin work or become parents. To pursue the themes we have set out, we need, first, to trace some of the ways in which the relations between welfare and work have been repeatedly remade historically. Embodied in every different version of these relations are distinctive constructions of how ‘the personal’ has shaped policies and how policies have shaped personal lives.


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