Reinventing the Welfare State
Welfare is not just for policy wonks.
It's about the world of work and family we will pass on to the next generation.
Nancy Fraser, President Clinton says that we need to "end welfare as we
know it." The current welfare system is such a mess that it is hard to disagree.
The difficult question is: What should take its place?
Though reform is not likely this year, there are already as many
answers to that question as there are experts on training, drop-out rates,
teen pregnancy, community development, and persistent poverty. But welfare
reform is not simply a matter for policy experts. It raises fundamental issues
about jobs, about families, and about what a decent society owes its members.
To address those issues, we need something the policy analysts will not provide:
an ideal picture of the kind of society we hope to live in and to leave to
the next generation.
I want to present such a picture, a vision of a just and humane social-welfare
system, rooted in the insights of feminism, and based on a recognition that
dependency is a normal part of life and that caring for others is socially
valuable work. This vision, to be sure, will not be realized in the immediate
future. Still, by setting out long-term aspirations, it can serve now as an
organizing tool and a critical yardstick for evaluating the policy proposals
that are beginning to make the rounds.
What, then, would an ideal system look like? I will contrast two attractive
answers, either of which would be an enormous advance over current US arrangements.
Then I will offer a third alternative that brings out the best in both. Before
getting to the proposals, though, we need to get straight about what is really
wrong with welfare as we know it.
Beyond the World of the Family Wage
In the United States, "welfare" typically means Aid to Families with Dependent
Children (AFDC). But AFDC is really only one part of a broader social-welfare
terrain that -- in the United States and other western countries -- descends
from the industrial era of capitalism. A guiding assumption in that era was
that people were organized into male-headed households, living principally from
the man's wages. According to the ideal image, the male head of the household
would be paid a "family wage" sufficient to support a wife-and-mother -- who
performed domestic labor without pay -- and children. Of course countless lives
never fit this pattern. Still, it provided an important social paradigm underlying
the structure of most industrial-era welfare states.
Those states had three tiers, with social-insurance programs occupying the
first rank. Designed to protect people from the vagaries of the labor market
(and to protect the economy from shortages of demand), these programs replaced
the breadwinner's wage in case of sickness, disability, unemployment, or old
age. Many countries also featured a second layer of programs, providing direct
support for full-time female homemaking and mothering. A third level served
what was called the "residuum." Largely a holdover from traditional pre-industrial
poor relief, these programs provided paltry, stigmatized, means-tested aid
to needy people who had no claim to honorable support because they did not
fit the family-wage mold.
Despite endless variations in organizational detail and generosity of support,
welfare states in all western democracies fit this broad pattern. But two
exceptional features of the US system merit brief notice.
First, social insurance was (and continues to be) provided through a "private
welfare state." A wide range of benefits -- from pensions to health plans
-- are paid by firms as part of market compensation; they do not come from
the government as basic entitlements for all citizens. In addition, the second
and third tiers have been merged. AFDC is both the principal support for women's
childrearing and the principal program of poor relief. This merger explains
the term "welfare mother," and the associated images that circumscribe American
debate about the welfare state.
Reform proposals must, of course, take these distinctive features of the
American welfare system into account. But troubles in the welfare state are
not peculiar to the United States, and no amount of tinkering with AFDC can
resolve them. Serious ideas about reform must address the problems faced by
welfare states quite generally. And the roots of those more general troubles
lie in the collapse of the world of the family wage, and its central assumptions
about labor markets and families.
In the labor markets of postindustrial capitalism, it is hard to find jobs
that pay enough to support a family. Women's employment is increasingly common,
though it continues to be much less well paid than men's. Moreover, many jobs
are temporary or part-time and do not carry standard benefits. This growth
of low-wage, temporary, and unstable employment generates deep fears about
personal and family security. And because so many benefits in the United States
are tied to employment, those fears are particularly deep here.
We all know about the changes in families: people are marrying less and
later, and divorcing more and sooner. Growing numbers of women, both divorced
and never married, struggle to support themselves and their families without
access to a male breadwinner's wage. And gender norms are highly contested:
thanks in part to the feminist and gay-and-lesbian liberation movements, growing
numbers are rejecting the male breadwinner/female homemaker model.
In short, a new world of economic production and social reproduction is
emerging -- a world of less stable jobs and more diverse families. No one
can be certain about its ultimate shape, but this much is clear: the emerging
world, like the world of the family wage, will require a welfare state that
effectively insures people against uncertainty. In fact, the new forms of
labor market and family increase the importance of such protection. It is
clear, too, that the traditional welfare state is no longer suited to providing
this insurance. We need something new, a postindustrial welfare state suited
to radically new conditions of employment and reproduction. What should it
To answer that question, let's consider some of the values, ideals, and principles
that ought to guide reform efforts. Here, then, are five objectives for refashioning
the welfare state: 1. Anti-Poverty: The first objective of social-welfare
provision is to prevent poverty. Because of the decline of the family wage,
the special disadvantages of women in the labor market, and the growing numbers
of single-mother families, this objective is now particularly pressing.
2. Anti-Exploitation: Social welfare should aim to protect vulnerable
people from exploitation. And needy women with no other way to feed themselves
and their children are especially vulnerable -- to abusive husbands, sweatshop
foremen, and pimps. Welfare policy should help prevent such exploitation by
enabling subordinates to leave destructive relationships through provision
of alternative sources of income. The point of increasing "exit options" is
not necessarily to break up relationships, but, where possible, to improve
them: a wife who knows she could support herself and her children outside
her marriage has more leverage within it (the same is true for the low-paid
nursing-home attendant in relation to her boss).
3. Equality: A welfare system that prevents women's poverty and exploitation
might still tolerate severe inequality between men and women. A further aim,
then, is to reduce such inequality.
This is in part a matter of reducing income inequality: women's earnings
are less than 70% of men's, much of women's labor is not compensated at all,
and many women suffer from "hidden poverty" because of inequality within families.
Income equality does not mean identical incomes for all. But it rules out
unequal pay for equal work, the wholesale undervaluation of women's labor
and skills, and vast differences in post-divorce income.
Social policy should also promote a more equal distribution of leisure
time. Many women, but only a few men, do both paid work and the unpaid
labor of caring for children, parents, and other relatives; and women suffer
disproportionately from "time poverty." So we want to avoid welfare arrangements
that equalize incomes while requiring women to work an extra shift.
4. Anti-Marginalization: A welfare system could meet all the preceding
objectives and still push women to the margins of society. By limiting support
to generous "mothers' pensions," for example, it could render women independent,
well-provided for, and respected, but isolated in a separate domestic sphere,
cut off from the larger society. Social policy should combat such marginalization.
It should promote women's full participation on a par with men in employment,
politics, and the associational life of civil society.
5. Anti-Androcentrism: To enjoy levels of well-being comparable to
men's, women should not have to live traditionally male lives, or fit into
institutions designed for men. Policy should aim to ensure that human beings
who can give birth and often care for relatives and friends are not treated
as departures from a norm, but as equal participants. And that means changes
for men as well as for women.
Not everyone would endorse all five objectives, and people are certain to
disagree about their relative importance. Still, each has considerable force,
and they all should be accorded some weight. To arrive at a maximal vision,
then, we need to imagine a postindustrial welfare system that promises to
address all of them.
One vision of welfare reform proposes a path from the world of the Family Wage
to the world of the Universal Breadwinner. This project, whose guiding assumptions
are implicit in the political practice of most American feminists and liberals,
aims to ensure labor market equality for women -- to ensure that women can support
themselves and their families through their own wage earning. The idea is to
get everyone into breadwinner role, so that women can take their place alongside
men as citizen-workers. Universal Breadwinner offers an ambitious vision. It
would require extensive day care and elder care to free women from their current,
unpaid domestic responsibilities; workplace reforms to remove sex discrimination,
sexual harassment, and other obstacles to equal opportunity; public efforts
to break the cultural association of breadwinning with masculinity; and new
policies to help change socialization, reorienting women's aspirations from
domesticity to employment, and men's expectations toward acceptance of women's
new role. None of this would work, however, without macroeconomic policies to
create permanent, full-time, high-paying jobs for women, and (re)training programs
to ensure the skill required for those jobs. With such jobs, women would have
full access to both the private welfare state of firm-based benefits and the
public system of social-insurance entitlements.
How would Universal Breadwinner organize carework? The bulk of this work
would shift out of the family and into the market and the state, where employees
would perform it for pay (sufficient to support a family). Universal Breadwinner,
then, requires a policy of comparable worth to redress the current undervaluation
of skills and jobs currently coded as "feminine" and/or "non-white."
Many benefits would continue to be linked to employment and distributed
through social insurance; their levels would vary with earnings. In this respect,
the model resembles the industrial-era welfare state. It differs in that many
more women's careers would look like men's. Not all adults can be employed,
however. Some will be unable to work for medical reasons, and others will
be unable to get jobs. Some, too, will have responsibilities for other people
that they are unable or unwilling to shift elsewhere; and most of these will
be women. To provide for these people, Universal Breadwinner must preserve
a tier of social welfare that provides a need-based, means-tested alternative
Universal Breadwinner is far removed from present realities. And the idea
of creating massive numbers of jobs that pay enough to support a family single-handedly
runs precisely counter to current trends of increasingly unstable conditions
of employment. There may be no great gain in ensuring equal access of men
and women to a shrinking pool of jobs and the private welfare state benefits
that come with them. Assume, however, that a combination of tight labor markets
and new programs of training generated an expanded pool of well-paying jobs.
Let's now ask whether we would get what we want.
On the generous assumptions now in place, Universal Breadwinner would do
well at preventing poverty and exploitation. Secure breadwinner-quality jobs
for all employable women and men -- plus the services that would enable women
to take such jobs -- would keep most families out of poverty; and decent levels
of transfers would take care of the rest. Assured of decent incomes, moreover,
women would be able to leave unsatisfactory relationships, reducing their
vulnerability to exploitation.
Universal Breadwinner does much less well, by contrast, at ensuring equality
of leisure time. It makes the unrealistic assumption that virtually all the
work associated with childbearing, parenting, and other family responsibilities
can be shifted to the market and/or the state. But it cannot, short of universal
surrogacy and other presumably undesirable arrangements. Some housework, of
course, such as cooking and (some) cleaning, could -- if we are prepared to
live in collectives or eat out all the time. Even those tasks that are shifted,
however, do not disappear without a trace, but lead to burdensome new tasks
Women's chances for equal leisure, then, depend on whether men will do their
fair share of this work. But here the Universal Breadwinner model does not
inspire confidence. It offers no disincentives to male free-riding; moreover,
by celebrating paid work, it implicitly denigrates unpaid work and actually
fuels the motivation for men to shirk responsibilities. The increasing numbers
of women with children and without partners would in any case be on their
own. And those in lower-income households would be less able to pay for help
Universal Breadwinner also performs poorly in overcoming androcentrism.
Men provide the norm; women are expected to fit in. Traditionally female carework
is treated as second-rate -- what you must slough off to become a breadwinner.
The model citizen is the breadwinner, now nominally gender-neutral. But that
status is implicitly masculine; it is the male half of the old breadwinner/homemaker
couple, now required of everyone. The female half of the couple has simply
disappeared. Her distinctive virtues and capacities are not preserved for
women, let alone extended to men.
Universal Breadwinner's record on the remaining objectives is fair -- but
no better than that. Take, for example, income equality. Although it reduces
wage inequalities between men and women, it is not otherwise egalitarian.
It contains a basic social fault line dividing breadwinners from others, to
the considerable disadvantage of those others, most of whom are likely to
Universal Breadwinner, then, has its attractions. But they are greatest
for childless women and for those women whose domestic responsibilities can
easily be shifted to social service -- women whose lives most closely resemble
the male half of the old family-wage ideal couple.
According to a second vision, reform should move us from the family wage to
Caregiver Parity. This is the picture suggested by the political practice of
most Western European feminists and social democrats. Rather than emphasizing
labor market equality, the idea is to support the work of caring for children,
parents, and other relatives in the household. The point is to enable women
with significant domestic responsibilities to support themselves and their families
either through carework alone or through carework plus part-time employment.
Instead of making women's lives the same as men's, it would put caregivers and
breadwinners on an equal footing: eliminating the penalties caregivers currently
incur and making the difference between the two kinds of lives costless. This
model, too, is ambitious. It assumes that many (though not all) women will follow
current US female practice -- alternating spells of full-time employment, full-time
carework, and mixtures of part-time carework and part-time employment. The role
of social policy will be to eliminate the considerable burdens now faced by
women who follow this life-course. This will require a program of caregiver
allowances to compensate childbearing, childraising, housework, and other forms
of domestic labor, with allowances sufficiently generous to support a family
-- equivalent to the wages of breadwinners. Workplace reforms are also needed
to make it easier to combine carework and part-time employment. The key here
is flexibility. That means a generous program of mandated pregnancy and family
leave so that caregivers can exit and enter employment without losing security
or seniority, and a program of retraining and job search for those not returning
to old jobs. Mandated flex-time is also essential to permit caregivers to shift
their hours to accommodate their responsibilities, including shifts between
full- and part-time employment. Finally, in the wake of all this flexibility,
there must be programs to ensure continuity of all the basic social-welfare
benefits, including health, unemployment, disability, and retirement insurance.
This model organizes carework very differently from Universal Breadwinner.
The bulk of such work would remain in the household, supported with public
funds. To assure continuous social-insurance coverage for people alternating
between carework and employment, benefits attached to both must be integrated
into a single system. In this system, part-time jobs and supported carework
must be covered on the same basis as full-time jobs. Thus, a woman finishing
a spell of supported carework -- taking care of an elderly parent, for example
-- would be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits on the same basis
as a recently laid off employee in the event she could not find a suitable
job. If she became disabled, she would receive disability payments on the
same basis as a disabled employee. In establishing eligibility for pensions,
years of supported carework would count on a par with years of employment.
Benefit levels would ensure equivalent treatment for carework and employment.
Caregiver Parity also requires a residual tier of social welfare. Some adults
will be unable to do either carework or waged work, including some without
prior work records of either type; most of these will probably be men. So
the model must offer means-tested wage-and-allowance replacements. Caregiver
Parity's residual tier should be smaller than Universal Breadwinner's, however,
because of the near-universal coverage by the integrated breadwinner-caregiver
system of social insurance.
Caregiver Parity, too, is far removed from current US arrangements. It requires
large outlays of public funds to pay caregiver allowances, hence major tax
reform and a sea-change in political culture. Assume though, for the sake
of argument, that it could be established under favorable conditions. Let's
consider whether we would get what we want.
We can stipulate quickly that Caregiver Parity would do a good job of preventing
poverty and exploitation, helping those who are now most vulnerable. It
would reduce non-employed wives' dependence on husbands by providing them
with a direct source of income. And it would keep the families of single mothers
out of poverty during spells of part-time employment or unemployment. Because
those spells would carry the basic social-insurance package, moreover, women
with "feminine" work patterns would have considerable security.
Caregiver Parity performs quite poorly, however, on income equality. Although
the system of allowances and wages provides the equivalent of minimum breadwinner
income, it also institutes a "mommy track" in employment. Most of the jobs
on this track will pay considerably less (even at the full-time rate) than
comparable breadwinner-track jobs. Two-adult families will have an economic
incentive to keep one partner on the breadwinner track rather than to share
spells of carework between them; and given current labor market inequalities,
heterosexual couples will generally "choose" a male breadwinner. Given current
culture, socialization, and reproductive biology, moreover, men are generally
unlikely to choose the mommy track in the same proportions as women. So the
two tracks will carry traditional gender associations. And those associations
are likely in turn to produce discrimination against women in the breadwinner
track. Caregiver Parity may make difference cost less, then, but it will not
make difference costless.
Caregiver Parity also performs poorly in preventing women's marginalization.
By supporting women's informal carework, it reinforces the view of such work
as women's work and preserves the current division of domestic labor between
men and women. By consolidating separate labor markets for breadwinners and
caregivers, moreover, the model marginalizes women within the employment sector.
By reinforcing the association of caregiving with women, finally, it may also
impede women's participation in other spheres of life, such as politics and
On the remaining objectives, the performance of Caregiver Parity is fair.
It helps promote equality of leisure time by making it possible for all women
to avoid the double shift if they opt for full- or part-time supported carework
at various stages in their lives. (Currently, this choice is available only
to a small percentage of privileged American women.) This choice, however,
is not truly costless. Some women with families will not want to forego the
benefits of breadwinner-track employment and will try to combine it with carework.
Those without a partner on the caregiver track will suffer significant disadvantage
with respect to leisure time. Men, in contrast, will largely be insulated
from this dilemma.
Caregiver Parity is also only fair at combating androcentrism. It does treat
caregiving as intrinsically valuable, not as a mere obstacle to employment.
And it accommodates traditionally "feminine" life-patterns, thereby rejecting
the demand that women assimilate to "masculine" patterns. Still, it leaves
something to be desired. Caregiver Parity stops short of affirming the universal
value of activities and life-patterns associated with women. It does not even
ask men to pursue caregiving, much less provide incentives or encouragement
for them to do so.
Universal Breadwinner and Caregiver Parity are both extremely ambitious programs.
But neither one -- even in a highly idealized form -- gives us everything that
we want. If they were the only possibilities, we would face a hard set of tradeoffs.
Suppose, however, we reject this unhappy choice and try to develop a third --
equally ambitious -- alternative that combines the best of both, while jettisoning
the worst features of each. The nub of the third idea is to induce men to become
more like women are now. That one master stroke would do wonders for both projects:
If men were to do their fair share of informal carework, Universal Breadwinner
would come much closer to equalizing leisure time and eliminating androcentrism.
Similarly, if they were to do their fair share of supported carework, Caregiver
Parity would better approximate income equality and reduce women's marginalization.
In its ideal form, then, the postindustrial welfare state is a feminist
welfare state that integrates breadwinning and caregiving. Unlike Caregiver
Parity, this "Integration" model would not divide employment into two different
tracks; all jobs would assume workers who are caregivers, too; all would have
a shorter work week than full-time jobs have now; and all would have services
that make it easier to be both a worker and a family member. Unlike Universal
Breadwinner, however, employees would not be assumed to shift all carework
to social services; some informal carework would be publicly supported and
integrated on a par with paid work in a single social-welfare system. Some
but not all of this work would be performed in households by relatives and
friends. Other supported carework would be located in civil society. In state-funded
but locally organized institutions, childless adults, older people and others
without kin-based responsibilities would join parents and others in democratic,
self-managed carework activities. In this way, the Integration model would
not only promote women's equal participation in employment, it would also
promote women's and men's equal participation in civil society.
The key to integration is to develop policies that discourage free-riding.
Contra conservatives, the real free-riders in the current system are not poor
single mothers who shirk employment, but men of all classes who shirk carework
and domestic labor, and corporations who free-ride on the labor -- underpaid
and unpaid -- of working people.
The best statement of the ideal of Integration comes from the Swedish Ministry
of Labor: "To make it possible for both men and women to combine parenthood
and gainful employment, a new view of the male role and a radical change in
the organization of working life are required." The trick is to imagine a
social world in which the lives of citizens integrate wage-earning and caregiving
with community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational
life of civil society -- while also leaving time for some fun. This world
is not likely to issue from any of the reform proposals that will appear on
the table in the upcoming debate. But it would be a good world to live in,
and unless we are guided by this vision now, we will never get any closer
to achieving it.
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the Welfare State.