Attacking the Problem of Welfare
at its Root

by Tom Hopkins, in People's Weekly World,
18 February, 1995

"Attacking the problem [of welfare] nat its root would mean admitting it is rooted in the structure of American capitalism." I was astounded to read these words. I would not have been surprised if they were written by Gus Hall or another Communist leader in the pages of the World. But I read them recently in the New York Times, written by one of their regular columnists, Russell Baker.

Baker says of welfare: "It is the inescapable product of an economic system with which the powers that be are quite content." That is because the capitalist system insists upon a certain level of unemployment; welfare exists because the unemployed need some kind of relief to survive.

Baker goes on: "The health [should read 'profitability'] of the American economy obviously depends on keeping a percentage of the work force unemployed. The Federal Reserve Board sees to this by constantly raising interest rates to prevent the economy from 'overheating.' [This was written about a week before the Federal Reserve, on Feb. 1, raised interest rates for the seventh time in less than a year.] Among other things, 'overheating' means fewer out-of-work people looking for jobs." If significant numbers of people were suddenly able to find jobs, "the Federal Reserve Board would have to raise interest rates once more to prevent 'overheating' with a dose of unemployment."

The idea that unemployment is part and parcel of capitalism is not new. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were talking about it 150 years ago; Communists and others on the left have been saying it ever since. But it is extraordinary to see it plainly spelled out in the newspaper that you might call U.S. capitalism's "horse's mouth."

It is also rare to see the connection made so directly between unemployment and welfare. Yet, how can anyone talk about getting rid of welfare while the problem it was set up to address -- unemployment -- remains? Baker puts it like this: "Despite the need for a safe cushion of unemployed people ... what do our leaders propose? To make welfare recipients go to work." He then refers to "the absurdity of this work-or-do-without theory..."

Baker is a satirist -- perhaps when you work for a paper that tries to defend the indefensible, only a humorist can grasp reality. In any case, it's good to count Russell Baker among those willing to speak out against the capitalist system -- let's hope he keeps it up.

Nevertheless, Communists would want to add a few things to Baker's analysis. When you dig around the roots of the capitalist system, you will also find exploitation and racism. Exploitation serves to enrich the few off the labor and hardship of the many. Racism allows the super-exploitation of a section of the working class and keeps the class divided; that holds wages and conditions down for the whole working class.

Racism is the ideology developed to justify the slavery of people of African descent in our country. Now it is used to justify the fact that the victims of racism are forced into lower-paying jobs and suffer the highest rates of unemployment. Then, when a higher proportion of people of color have to resort to welfare, racism is trotted out to try and convince white workers that welfare is someone else's problem. To complete the vicious circle, this ruling class -- the originator and propagator of racism -- then deliberately keeps unemployment high and decides to try and destroy welfare.

Any idea that there is no way out of this situation is hogwash. It just requires a change in priorities and massive redistribution of wealth and power. In a society like ours, with such tremendous wealth, there is plenty to go around. And there is no shortage of work to be done: build housing, fix the infrastructure, develop transportation, clean up the environment, hire more teachers ... the list goes on.

As Communists see it, it is society's responsibility to solve these problem. What else is society for than to look after the needs of people -- all the people? What else is government for? Of course bringing about the solutions will take more than talk -- it will require militant, massive, united struggle of the working class and people. History is full of examples that such a mass people's movement not only can but will happen.

Communists would add one thing more. Since, as Russell Baker says, the problem is "rooted in the structure of American capitalism," the only permanent way of solving it is to replace that system with one that does not require unemployment, poverty, racism, exploitation and the ethic of dog-eat-dog. Such a system exists; it is relatively new on the stage of history, but it's the way of the future: socialism.

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