Welfare Reform in Historical Perspective

Social Justice, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform in Historical Perspective


Introduction(1)

THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY, THE POLITICS OF RACE, CULTURE, AND GENDER have run to the core of welfare policy and politics. Welfare began 80 years ago in state-level mothers' pension policies designed to mitigate the poverty of worth poor mothers without husbands upon whom to depend.(2) The New Deal nationalized the mothers' pension concept in the Aid to Dependent Children program, carrying into the modern welfare state its premises and prescriptions. Chief among these premises were:

1. That the health of the polity depended on the quality of its children;

2. That the preparation of the child for citizenship depended on the quality of home life;

3. That mother-care was the linchpin of the family;

4. That cultural and individual differences among mothers amounted to differences of quality and not of kind; and

5. That, therefore, the needs of poor mothers were not strictly economic, but were behavioral, moral, and cultural as well.

The policy innovations that charted poor women's path into the contemporary welfare state rewarded gender conformity and uplift to the norms of the dominan Anglo-American, middle-class culture. From these premises followed prescription for the supervision of "welfare mothers" to ensure their assimilation of proper family values. The welfare politics that surrounded these innovations radiated stigma, judgment, and anxiety over deviations from those values. Yet they simultaneously acknowledged the economic needs of poor, single mothers as legitimate and asserted confidence that diversely situated mothers could be led to a universal cultural and family ideal.(3)

The welfare politics that succeeded the New Deal reiterated the moral and cultural stigma, judgment, and anxiety from which early 20th-century women's social policies were spun. Whereas welfare politics initially assumed that single mothers could be made worthy through supervision and education, by the late 1960s it essentialized the choices and behaviors of welfare mothers and disputed their entitlement to social support. "Mothers' pensions" became discursively transformed into a "way of life" and the worth and rights of singl mothers were displaced by the icon of the Black welfare mother (Bray, 1992).

At least four policy decisions paved the way for these changes. First, the Social Security Act of 1935 created occupational and work history requirements that excluded many women from income protections like unemployment insurance. Second, in 1939, New Dealers adopted a two-tiered approach to mothers' pensions when they folded into the survivors' insurance system the widows and children o male workers insured under the Social Security Act. Much like social security benefits for the elderly, survivors' insurance offered widows of insured men an automatic and unsupervised income subsidy. With "the best" single mothers tracked separately into the social security system, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) became a program for the widows of uninsured men and for morally suspect mothers who were single because they were divorced or never married. Whereas widows accounted for 43% of the ADC caseload in 1937, they accounted for only 7.7% by 1961 (Davis, 1993).

A third policy decision came in 1950, when the ADC formula for children's benefits was amended to include a grant for mothers. A fourth policy change developed over the course of the 1960s, not only when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was expanded, but also when barriers to eligibility (e.g., employable mother rules, residency requirements) and moral supervision (e.g., "man in the house" rules, "suitable home" tests) were eased.(4) Commentators have pointed out that the relaxation of eligibility barriers coincided with an increase in the welfare "take-up" rate for women of color. It also coincided with a wildfire of popular perceptions that women on welfare don't deserve it.

If the swift adoption of mothers' pension proposals by states after 1911 and th relatively uncontested incorporation of the mothers' pension concept into the Social Security Act can be taken as gauges, the idea of welfare motherhood has not always been per se controversial.

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