The War on Welfare

Welfare has always been a hotly debated topic. However, lately the discourse on “welfare” has taken an especially nasty turn and can be considered a full out attack on “bijstandsmoeders,” i.e. welfare mothers. Academic Zihni Özdil has written a critical piece on the “war on welfare mothers,”  in which he highlights the invalidity of the arguments being made.

In this piece I argue that the current mode of attack trades on racist stereotypes of Black women. Racist ideas about black sexuality are regularly being deployed to organize society and used to lubricate the cutting of public spending, or in pleas for tighter immigration control. What is often buried in public discussions, whether on welfare or immigration, is race. Race is often what gets buried.

In Postcolonial Migration: Stop Antilleans Piet Emmer baldly posits that colonialism could be used, as the point par excellence, to argue for closing the borders. Emmer states that the unencumbered migration of Antilleans has become a “national trauma.” He then asks with sufficient dramatic flair, “Which family member is actually responsible for the countless immigrant minors and why don’t so many Antillean fathers want anything to do with their children?” To drive his point further he hails the high number of young single mothers of Antillean (Caribbean) decent, and underscores that these families are often economically and “socially weak” and the children in these families are “more at risk” to end up as criminals.

Emmer is not the first one, nor the last, to circulate these narratives. Racial discourse has been a staple of Dutch politics for a very long time indeed. State racism is, as Ann Laura Stoler contends, designed to shape how people affectively distinguish themselves from others in the world. Emmer’s overture and the recent call of the VVD for a clamp down on what it terms “welfare tourism” of Eastern Europeans, for instance, force us to consider how attention to national sentiment might help us rethink the “political” in political economy.

The “welfare mother,” like its US equivalent the “welfare queen,” is a dog whistle message which conveys cultural assumptions about family, women’s work, race, and the poor. Dog Whistle politics pits people of different classes (irrespective of colour) against a pathologized black underclass, and it does so by using “coded words and themes that appeal to conscious or subconscious racist concepts and frames.”

The image of the “welfare mother” announces and recirculates the myth of the fecund, hyper-sexual, poor, and lazy woman of colour, specifically Antillean women—even though Surinamese and Antillean women have the fewest children compared to other women of colour in the Netherlands. In Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, Robert Young shows how “racial difference became identified with other forms of sexual and social perversity as degeneracy, deformation or arrested embryological development”—ideas which have deeply shaped the Dutch welfare state.

There is a long history of regarding Black people as deviants and damaged people: blackness as disabling. Even though, we are not “‘technically’ ill or disabled,” we are disabled as subjects in a culture that posits that our race and sexuality is pathological. Black sexuality is perceived as a sprawling sexuality which violates “the heteronormative demands that underlie liberal values.” The heteronormative family is one of the three important social institutions of a nation’s welfare system, the other two being the state, and the market. How does the “war on welfare mothers” in its current incarnation serves to prop up a normative heterosexual national politics?

The Dutch state has always had a singular focus on so-called “anti-social families.” There were a slew of concerns about ne’er-do-well Whites who economically, socially and morally did not meet the standards. The emergence of the Dutch welfare state signalled more a commitment to making working-class, “anti-social” White Dutch people “fit for society” (read bourgeois society) than to improving the living standards of the poor. The moral improvement of these working-class White heteronormative families took the form of a “civilizing offensive” (beschavingsoffensief) based on such themes as order, neatness, industriousness, thrift, and devotion to duty.

In his article The Netherlands: A Dutch Treat For Anti-Social Families And Immigrant Ethnic Minorities Jan Rath notes that, “[F]or at least a century there have been intensive efforts in the Netherlands to absorb families into the life of the nation or at least to discipline them.” He further notes that, “[T]he state and a great many private social institutions have tried in many ways to intervene in the life of [these] families.” The idea of what constitutes a “healthy, proper family” emerged against the Netherlands’s interior and exterior Others.

Jan Rath’s article is insightful as it sheds a light on the repressive strategies the Netherlands developed to “better” its interior Others. However, it doesn’t take into account the structuring force of a globalized anti-blackness, which has given rise to “strategies to keep black persons out of First World nations, except as temporary labour.” Dienke Hondius asserts that the small presence of Black people in the Netherlands has been “the result of a highly selective process of enabling and restricting access.”

Eventually, the interior Others of the Netherlands could be assimilated, by way of Whiteness, into the whole. Class differences can be transcended; race, however, tends to fix one in a certain subject position in relation to White Autochtoon Dutchness. The economic and social mobility—that is, the patterns of social advantage and disadvantage reproduced within families across generations—of non-Western Allochtoon folks is contingent on our closeness to White Autochtoon Dutchness, meaning our willingness to recognize and uphold the social privileges associated with White Autochtoon Dutchness. Economic analyses of the “war on welfare mothers,” therefore, require attention to how White Autochtoon Dutchness maintains a “welfare” system that thrives on gender and race inequality.

Currently, in several major municipalities “welfare mothers” are being put under pressure to name the begetter (in Dutch “verwekker”) of their unacknowledged child(ren), so municipalities can collect child support from the man in question. This move places the public discourse on welfare, which is already invariably tied to “the family,” firmly in the “private” sphere. The articulation of race through a discourse on sexuality and sexuality through a discourse on race work in tandem to manufacture the pathological “black subject.”

In The Politics of Passion Gloria Wekker noted that, “[S]tudies of black working class life [in the hemisphere] have overwhelmingly targeted the family system, notably the ‘oddness’ and undesirability of matrifocality, and have thus focused on the trials and tribulations in the relationships between men and women.” Riffing off  Gloria Wekker and Roderick A. Ferguson I argue that Antillean familial forms and gender relations are viewed as aberrations of the Dutch family ideal.

Ferguson, harking back to Cathy Cohen’s excellent essay Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens—The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?, asserts that, “[A]s figures of nonheteronormative perversions, straight African Americans were reproductive but never productive, heterosexual but never heteronormative.” [his italics] The vilification of black families— specifically black motherhood—in politics as well as the hypersexualization of Black women and men in media serve a socioeconomic purpose: it helps bolster patriarchy and capitalism.

Racism is, after all, in the words of Gloria Joseph, “the incestuous child of patriarchy and capitalism.” Through the attempted control of black motherhood (if not the wombs of Black women) the Dutch government aims to control not only criminality, which has been discursively constructed as one of the problems caused by and directly linked to Black single-mother families, but also the allocation of resources. The fact that there has been a renewed interest in (redressing) relations of racialized kinship during this prolonged economic crisis should make our Spider senses tingle. The image of the stable family, or a system of kinship, as the panacea for all social and economic ills is never out of view.

Unlike the leader of the Christian Democrats Sybrand Buma who plainly stated he wants to restore the family as the foundation of society (claiming in all earnest that it’s “about society, not the government”), junior health minister Martin van Rijn of the Labour party has taken a more surreptitious approach by forcing long-term care recipients to “negotiate support from their family and friends.” Government, it seems, is only willing to pay for care when family and friends can’t help.

Roel Jennissen put forward, in the same “family as panacea” vein, that a family man of colour is more  likely to stay out of trouble than a single man of colour. The family, he argues, serves as a stronger deterrent than the threat of imprisonment. However, due to the matrifocal nature of Caribbean families, which renders them irredeemable, Jennissen argues, without a trace of irony,  that it’s better to focus on offering “alternative forms of social embedding,” such as a job—despite the fact that non-Western immigrants face job market discrimination. Last year a study showed that Antillean men are the least likely to get offered a job by temp agencies.

Initiatives like “D.A.D.,” which summon Black men to be dedicated active dads, or exhortations in which it’s argued that fathers need to be fathers and not a second mother to their children, though well-intended, strengthen the misconception that heteronormativity guarantees not only good parenting, but also offers, apparently, protection against racial profiling and a racist justice system.

The politics of respectability, which underpins these projects, work to rehabilitate blackness by conforming to the dominant perceptions of what’s considered respectable—thus reaffirming the authority of dominant norms. Queer theory has taught us that “in the advent of bourgeois society, what was “normal” was often dictated by what was economically viable.” What’s more, the “respectable” welfare state is centred on, as both Cohen, Ferguson and others have argued, the racial, gendered, and sexual exclusions of people of colour. Compulsive heteronormativity, as a technique of control, not only maintains state power and a “gender hierarchy that subordinates women to men,” but also, as queer of color critique explains, a racial hierarchy.

In all of this, the fact that families of colour have disproportionately experienced the impact of the financial crises (according to De Stem 5 times as hard) is conveniently soft-pedalled. The CBS reports that compared to native Dutch employees “relatively fewer people with a non-western foreign background have a permanent contract.” People with a temporary contract are often let go first in a business or economic downturn. Moreover, non-Western Allochtoon civil servants earn less than White Autochtoon Dutch civil servants (though it is unclear whether these civil servants are doing the same job, or not). These facts coupled with discrimination on the labour market make it extremely difficult for people of colour to make a living—let alone survive.

Our patriarchal society is not set up in such a way as to help women live independently. The general message to women is that they must either depend on a husband, or on a welfare system; the state will not offer assistance to help women become independent. Back in 2010 Frisian villages of Dongeradeel and Dantumadiel came up with a special way of cutting spending on welfare payments—encouraging jobless women to find a wealthy man. And until recently (1991) the Netherlands had joint taxation for married couples, which softly coerced the partner earning less—more often than not women—to reduce working hours or leave employment.

Along with Ireland and Sicily, the Netherlands has the lowest rate of working married women and economically independent women. And, it’s not out of the ordinary to find Dutch folks who (tacitly) support gender inequality and the divisions of social roles.

Malou van Hintum, too, argues in her article “Mogen we alsjeblieft de echte mannen terug?” (Will the real men please stand up?) for more traditional gender roles:

“Feminisering is leuk, maar je moet het niet overdrijven. Als jongetjes geen astronaut of brandweerman meer willen worden, zijn we verkeerd bezig.” [Feminization is fun, but let’s not overdo it. If little boys don’t want to be astronauts or firemen, then we’re doing something wrong.]

The structural bias against women and girls, in addition to these neoliberal austerity economic policies negatively impact the lives of women—and women of colour in particular. The conditions created by neoliberal political and economic policies, which are rooted in racism, are enforced by institutions controlled mostly by White Autochtoon Dutch men.

The wage gap between men and women makes it harder for single women to make ends meet. The fact that women often work part-time exacerbates the effects of the wage gap. On top of all this, women are financially worse off than men after a divorce—especially, divorced mothers, whose children continue to live at home, have it rough. According to CBS women, low-skilled workers, single households and non-Western immigrants are overrepresented among the poor. How are Black single mothers—the not so hidden targets of the war on welfare—who often live at the intersections of these categories meant to survive?

Well, in order to solve the problems of staffing in care homes, and under the guise of providing employment for immigrant women on welfare, the Ministry of Health funded eight pilot projects aimed at facilitating the influx of immigrant women in the health care sector.

As it stands, women are expected to move within the space that is afforded them by doctors, biologists, economists, marketing departments, capitalism, racism, media. I’m not arguing for more assistance. I’m simply arguing for such basic things as women’s access to employment and property, equal pay and equal representation, career trajectories that do not take White middle-class heterosexual cisgender able-bodied men as the default.

Greater access does not necessarily mean greater equality of opportunity. This latest war on welfare  scapegoats, however softly, Caribbean women more than ever to justify widespread cutbacks . And as Zihni Özdil has argued, it diverts public attention from the real causes of this country’s deepening economic malaise.

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2 thoughts on “The War on Welfare

  1. Reblogged this on Redmond Amsterdam and commented:
    Feminist writer and media critic, Egbert Alejandro Martina, exposes the racism and sexism inherent in Dutch discourse on single mothers on welfare in his latest piece. The already negative and stereotypical narratives and policies targeting specifically women of color are becoming increasingly hostile now that the Dutch government is cutting back on welfare.

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