Scapegoating Poor Women: An Analysis of Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed in August 1996, ushered in the most significant welfare reform in six decades. It ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and with it the federal entitlement to welfare implemented as part of the 1935 Social Security Act, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Its second anniversary was greeted by claims in the Department of Health and Human Services' Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program First Annual Report to Congress August 1998 (hereafter Report) that the reform had proven a resounding triumph. As President Clinton explained in a Rose Garden statement:

... on this important anniversary, I think it's important to recognize that this new strategy--this great new experiment that we launched two years ago--has already shown remarkable signs of success. Two years ago, we said welfare reform would spark a race to independence, not a race to the bottom, and this prediction is coming true ... [Center for Law and Social Policy 1998, 4].

Politicians across the spectrum reiterated the Report's data, which showed a 27 percent decline in welfare rolls between August 1996 and March 1998, an increase in the numbers of former recipients finding employment, and a slight decline in child poverty rates [DHS 1998; Sherman et al. 1998, 5].

In this paper, I explore welfare policy in the United States. There are four parts: (1) a discussion of the institutions, trends, and ideologies that have shaped welfare policies, historically and currently; (2) a description of the general contours of welfare reform from 1981 through 1996 to provide a context for the PRWORA; (3) an account of the provisions of the PRWORA and its subsequent implementation; and (4) an analysis of the problems with the 1996 welfare reform. Contrary to the glowing accounts of success, other data show increasing hardship for most former recipients. This alternative evaluation finds the reform extremely problematic, as it builds on deeply held enabling myths that perpetuate stereotypes of welfare recipients and results in mean-spirited policies that lead to deeper poverty for poor women and children.

The Institutional Basis of Welfare Policy

The 1996 welfare reform can be most clearly understood as the culmination of restrictive policies promulgated by the Reagan administration beginning in 1981. Ideology has had a role of pivotal importance, as it has helped to create and to maintain invidious distinctions between welfare recipients and other workers, thereby supporting seriously constrained policy. Many people have a distorted picture of the "typical welfare recipient": a woman of color, often African-American, with five or six children who spends her life of ease watching soap operas at the taxpayers' expense. The fact that this stereotype is both so strong and so far from the reality of the lives of most welfare recipients is a key to understanding the increasingly punitive nature of welfare policy since the early 1980s.

Historically, welfare (which was called relief until the 1950s) can be understood in terms of four primary components that are concerned with the functions of the poor in the economy and the maintenance of the "work ethic." The first directly involves the low-wage labor market and has entailed trying to keep relief payments below wages, thereby maintaining the economic rationale to choose wage-labor over relief. Second, welfare policy has been characterized by racism and nativism, reflected historically in the fact that little or no public aid was given to people of color or recent immigrants until the 1950s [Rose 1995, chap. 1]. Its continuing relevance is most clearly apparent in the racist component of the stereotype of welfare recipients, as well as in cuts in aid aimed specifically at immigrants. Third, welfare has been marked by an "ideology of the dole," stigmatizing and humiliating aid recipients and thereby discouraging others from seeking relief. …