How We Got "Welfare": A History of the Mistakes of the Past

Social Justice, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

How We Got "Welfare": A History of the Mistakes of the Past


I AM HONORED TO BE HERE, NOT SO MUCH BECAUSE I AM IN THE PRESENCE OF SUCH illustrious officials and such an illustrious group, which is for me an unfamiliar venue, but because I am speaking to a group that is so committed to women, to the poor, to minorities, and to a society of decency. Those who don't know our history are bound to repeat it. This is a bit of a cliche, but there i no other arena about which I feel it so deeply as I do about this one. So if you'll bear with me, I wish to briefly summarize a small part of this very important history.

Almost all of the welfare that we have today comes from the Social Security Act of 1935. That act did a great deal of good. It also did a great deal of harm. I think we need to learn from its mistakes. The Social Security Act set up a two-track system of citizenship in this country. I will give you several examples.

First, the act established first-class welfare programs, to the extent that the are not even called welfare, such as Old Age Insurance, or what people today call simply Social Security. This program systematically excluded the vast majority of minorities as well as most minority and white women. Second, the second-class track it created includes predominantly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The second track receives less money than other kind of public assistance and it was designed to be not only extremely stingy, but also personally invasive and highly stigmatized. Third, the Social Security Act and its amendments allowed some women to gain access to the entitlements of the first-track programs, but gave them those entitlements largely through their husbands, so that they continued to have their "in" to the system not as citizens, but as dependents. Fourth, some of you may remember that the Social Security Act was initially conceived to include public benefit insurance. That model in the original design has been a tremendous burden to the poor ever since. Fifth, and in some ways most important, the original conception of the Social Security Act was to include a program of public works, government-create public jobs that would automatically kick in when unemployment reached certain levels. Consequently, unemployment compensation was supposed to be only one-hal of the package.

This Social Security Act was not simply a kind of conspiracy of rich white men against the poor and women. Some very feminist women were extremely influential in designing parts of this act, particularly AFDC. This is important today because we need to understand that it is possible even for good feminists to make very serious mistakes. One way of viewing their mistakes is to observe tha they set up a series of alliances, but they were the wrong alliances. For example, they distanced themselves from the poor. They did not understand, as Marian Kramer was discussing, what it meant to set up a system in the 1930s based on the idea that women could depend on the wages of their husbands for support. This was mythical, except for a very small stratum; for most women at that time, getting welfare through dependence on a man was just not going to work.

Second, they distanced themselves from minority women. They did not listen to some very interesting and considerably different welfare ideas that were being articulated, even in the 1930s, particularly by African American women, who, ha they been in a position of influence then, might have created some substantiall different provisions.

Finally, the people who designed this act distanced themselves from the labor movement. They lacked an understanding that the minimum wage is intimately connected with a welfare program.

That is the story of 1935. The next history I wish to describe concerns what is sometimes called the collapse of the welfare system, but it could easily be described as its extremely rapid growth. Several factors contributed to that outcome. The beginning of the collapse of the labor market and the onset of wha today is described as deindustrialization were certainly important parts. …

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