Nancy Fraser wants to enlist us in thinking about political possibilities that leap beyond the current debate about welfare reform (Boston Review, February/March 1994). She considers alternatives for the sweeping reconstruction of the welfare state, and concludes with a synthesis that she thinks would be just, humane, and feminist. I am for it. But visionary reforms alone do not arm us to do battle in the actual and nasty politics of welfare reform. We need not only ideals, but a sense of strategy, of how to take steps through the quagmire in the right direction. Otherwise, discussions of ideal welfare systems can entice us away from the muck of real world welfare politics.

I want therefore to make three points, to suggest bridges between the real and the impossibly ideal. The first is that while Fraser is right to say that all rich nations are in the throes of postindustrial changes in labor markets and families, the consequences for welfare programs have been quite different. In fact, only in the United States has there been a sustained assault on these programs, and particularly on means-tested and unemployment-tested programs. This point is crucial because it argues that politics matters. Welfare policies are formed as much by the variable politics of different countries as they are by largely similar postindustrial structural conditions.

My second, related point is that, flawed though they are, the welfare programs inherited from the era of industrial capitalism have made a large difference in postindustrial social patterns. In countries where the programs are more comprehensive and more generous, wages at the lower end of the market are not plummeting, poverty is not deepening, income polarization is not spinning out of sight, unions still matter, and so on. In other words, flawed programs can be better or worse. In the United States, they are worse, and getting still worse, with dramatic consequences for economic and political inequality. If the ultimate goal is a just, humane, and feminist welfare system, the immediate and emergency issues are program coverage and benefit levels.

My third point, and I think Fraser would agree, is that the current furor about welfare reform in the United States is moving us further and further from her ideal models. All sorts of archaic schemes to harass welfare mothers are being devised by state politicians, from learnfare to healthfare to wedfare to workfare. There is ample experience which proves that this sort of “reform” results mainly in the harassment of welfare recipients. The larger effect is to create a political spectacle in which poor black women are the central players, the new Willie Horton of state politics. The Clinton Administration’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” is more of the same, a policy promise invented on the campaign trail, and handy whenever the President needs to feint to the right, but certainly irrational in a labor market with too few jobs, and in any case far too costly ever to emerge from Congress except as a miniature demonstration project.

In sum, big visions are certainly interesting, and may be useful, if we can hinge them to the difficult and small steps made possible by actual politics.