“Welfare!” a bricklayer snorts. “Those lazy sluts having kids like it was a factory…. You don’t work, you don’t live, right?” Yet later, talking about his oldest boy: “Why should he bust his balls to go to work, let him take it easy for a while—I’ve done some drifting of my own….”
This seeming contradiction comes from a strong and complicated belief in sacrifice which emerged from long interviews we held with people from 100 working-class families in Boston. The people came from five neighborhoods, all white, but with different mixtures of Irish and Italians and of working-class families and middle-class students. The interviews were conducted in 1970; for the most part, people were interviewed first in small groups and then singly. These people feel that the anxieties they experience in contemporary America, the tensions they have to bear, ought to give them the right to demand that society give something in return, that government and large institutions should not make their burdens any worse. But to them society seems to give back ingratitude. It refuses to acknowledge that their sacrifices give them a claim for respect from the outside world.
Government welfare payments to those who do not work is the most obvious violation of the sacrificial contract; and yet the feelings of white working-class adults are more complicated than current clichés of “backlash” or “working-class authoritarianism” make them seem.
People on welfare, the bricklayer feels, have given up trying to win respect in the social order and have “gotten away with it.” “I work for my money,” he says. “My job is to work for my family.” But hidden behind such familiar sentiments is a fascination with the thought of people on welfare: “They don’t wanna work, they live for nothing but kicks, nothing but good booze and good sex.” The image of the welfare “chiselers” draws him like a magnet; he returns to it again and again, fascinated by their refusal to make his sacrifices. “What kills me are these people that are on welfare and things like that—or like these colored people that’re always squawkin’. Yet they don’t wanta work. I go out, I work sometimes nine, ten days in a row, I got five children. That’s what burns me, when somebody else—like this woman on the street here that collects welfare. She’s a phony, but she can still collect it. She takes a cab back and forth to shop, and we pay for it.”
Yet when asked directly what it might be like to be on welfare, he answers quite differently. He knows very well that most people on welfare are unable to work, that the number of possible chiselers is in fact quite small. The wife of another laborer describes how he comes home drunk four or five times a year, arguing, “It’s not worth it. What’s it all about? Let’s go on welfare.” Although tempted at times by the …