The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America


Why did the War on Poverty give way to the war on welfare? Many in the United States saw the welfare reforms of 1996 as the inevitable result of twelve years of conservative retrenchment in American social policy, but there is evidence that the seeds of this change were sown long before the Reagan Revolution--and not necessarily by the Right.

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America traces what Bill Clinton famously called "the end of welfare as we know it" to the grassroots of the War on Poverty thirty years earlier. Marshaling a broad variety of sources, historian Marisa Chappell provides a fresh look at the national debate about poverty, welfare, and economic rights from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. In Chappell's telling, we experience the debate over welfare from multiple perspectives, including those of conservatives of several types, liberal antipoverty experts, national liberal organizations, labor, government officials, feminists of various persuasions, and poor women themselves.

During the Johnson and Nixon administrations, deindustrialization, stagnating wages, and widening economic inequality pushed growing numbers of wives and mothers into the workforce. Yet labor unions, antipoverty activists, and moderate liberal groups fought to extend the fading promise of the family wage to poor African Americans families through massive federal investment in full employment and income support for male breadwinners. In doing so, however, these organizations condemned programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) for supposedly discouraging marriage and breaking up families. Ironically their arguments paved the way for increasingly successful right-wing attacks on both "welfare" and the War on Poverty itself.


In 1996, President Bill Clinton fulfilled his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” After vetoing two similar bills, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which abolished the nation’s most controversial welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Since 1935, poor single mothers and their children had at least a statutory entitlement to cash aid through the AFDC program. The PRWORA explicitly ended that entitlement, froze federal welfare funding, denied benefits to legal immigrants, and mandated strict work requirements and time limits for welfare receipt. The bill’s principal goal was not to alleviate or eradicate poverty; its target was a supposedly failed federal program. To the nation’s political elites— from Democrat Bill Clinton to conservative Congressional Republicans to the plethora of scholars and pundits debating the country’s welfare “problem”—AFDC symbolized the failures of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. While AFDC originated in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, most Americans associate it with the 1960s, in part because that decade saw tremendous increases in AFDC caseloads and a number of new federal antipoverty programs. AFDC’s abolition was to put an end, once and for all, to the moribund policies of a discredited 1960s liberalism.

According to conventional wisdom, the policies of that discredited liberalism encouraged poor mothers to forgo both marriage and employment and to depend instead on government aid. With the PRWORA, Congress explicitly set out to “end the dependence of needy parents on government by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.” When the law came up for reauthorization in 2002, Republican President George W. Bush proposed stricter work requirements, while Congressional Democrats sought more funding for child care and job training, but both agreed that poor single mothers should support their children through wage labor rather than government aid. Both also agreed that single motherhood itself— along with teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births—represented a “crisis in our nation” for which AFDC had been largely responsible. The . . .

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