But we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam. "Uncle Sam will take care of it all. The race question, the labor question, the unemployment question." We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole, and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic. "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?" How many poor Catholic mothers heard that during those grim years before the war! -- Dorothy Day, 1945, "More About Holy Poverty which is Voluntary Poverty"Note the rhetorical question, "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?"
Today we hear of a bill introduced into the Pennsylvania State Legislature designed to ask this very question. The question is answered that they have no right, and it removes benefits for children in households where the child was conceived during a time when the household was on certain public assistance programs. One exception is made for women who can file a letter saying that they were raped and reported it to the police. Not surprisingly the bill has been introduced by Republicans and has been greatly criticized by some forces on the liberal left.
Worse of course is the fact that it isn't clear how much those benefits actually only apply to the unemployed. Given the increasing use of public assistance to the working poor it seems quite possible that many people receiving benefits may have one or two wage earners in the family, so it is no longer "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?" but rather "What right have people who have no well-paying work to have a baby?"
Surely the liberal left must be standing up for reproductive rights, right? I mean, that's a central plank of the liberal left's rhetoric, right? Well, not really. Apparently unable to muster much objection to curtailing the right to have children, ThinkProgress and Huffington Post both turn the issue into one about rape victims. Evidently unable to muster much outrage for the reproductive rights aspects of the issue, the fact that benefits can be restored if a woman had reported rape to the police and asserted that that's how the child was conceived is what is outrageous, not that poor people have no right to a family (which has been reduced to a mere agglomeration of individuals).
To my mind this misses the whole issue. If it was an issue of asking rape victims to show that they reported it to the police, the issue could be quickly solved by simply removing that way to get benefits restored. The real issue is that the problem with the bill is the reproductive rights issue, but few people actually attack the bill by saying "if you want to have children you have a right to do so." Thus Dorothy Day's argument against public assistance to the poor, that it it would lead to intrusions on this matter, has been proven exactly true sixty-seven years after she wrote it. If Dorothy Day can seem borderline prophetic on this issue, Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State is no less so, as it argues that class warfare victories for the poor end up inevitably being tools of the enslavement of the lower classes, something which has been fully brought to bear with the passage of the Affordable Care Act into law.
This debate shows the extent to which both parties have accepted and endorsed the servile state. The way this works generally is that the state steps in and offers help to the poor, displacing other support networks which are deemed inadequate (and which often are inadequate because of the hegemony of the oligopolies on the market), and then as those same hegemonies which made previous networks of support inadequate exert themselves, these are turned into tools which reduce the options for the poor and eventually force the poor to work for someone else's private benefit or face legal sanction.
However beyond this dynamic, discussed by Belloc, I think there is another one, which is that, as Day pointed out elsewhere in the same essay, when you receive money from the state, the state ends up being able to have a great deal of control over your life, to the extent that the pensioner may be considered to be a slave of the state (she quotes Samuel Johnson's dictionary for that one). Thus I think the welfare state creates servitude of the poor both in commandeering the poor, particularly the working poor, for private benefit, and also for perceived public benefit.
Here the State of Pennsylvania has offered temporary assistance to families who need help financially to avoid collapse and the first step of course is to make them prove that they need it. This has the effect of heavily discouraging proper self-employment as a way to better one's lot because this makes it a lot harder to qualify. Thus now the worker is trapped in the low-wage corporate job line with subsidized compensation and is denied any opportunity to better his or her lot through his or her own initiative aside from accepting piecemeal work under the table (which many do, and good for them).
Now they believe on top of that they have a right to control personal and family decisions which impact other aid down the road. Therefore the individual on public assistance has no rights, and neither does the household. The individual becomes a slave of the state (although Belloc accepted no such definition that allowed for slaves of the government, I think it is fair to say that he is wrong. Surely mere temporary conscription, representative of the population is not slavery, but surely the creation of a class of people to whom the government can dictate the very conditions of life, work, and family, when those cannot be applicable elsewhere, must qualify.
Of course this is not the only policy of the servile state. Obamacare, the war on drugs, forced prison labor etc. are all a part of it, but this particular proposal and the flack it is getting is noteworthy because it shows that:
- While Democrats talk about the right to choose, they don't consider the right to choose to have a child to be equal to the right to choose not to have one, and
- Republican family values are shallow. As characterized by John Medialle, "Children are just another consumer choice, to be played off against a summer vacation or a big-screen TV." (The Music of the Spheres and the Terminally Tonedeaf).