Backlash against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present

Backlash against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present

Backlash against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present

Backlash against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present


Backlash against Welfare Mothers is a forceful examination of how and why a state-level revolt against welfare, begun in the late 1940s, was transformed into a national-level assault that destroyed a critical part of the nation's safety net, with tragic consequences for American society. With a wealth of original research, Ellen Reese puts recent debates about the contemporary welfare backlash into historical perspective. She provides a closer look at these early antiwelfare campaigns, showing why they were more successful in some states than others and how opponents of welfare sometimes targeted Puerto Ricans and Chicanos as well as blacks for cutbacks. Her research reveals both the continuities and changes in American welfare opposition from the late 1940s to the present.

Reese brings new evidence to light that reveals how large farmers and racist politicians, concerned about the supply of cheap labor, appealed to white voters' racial resentments and stereotypes about unwed mothers, blacks, and immigrants in the 1950s. She then examines congressional failure to replace the current welfare system with a more popular alternative in the 1960s and 1970s, which paved the way for national assaults on welfare. Taking a fresh look at recent debates on welfare reform, she explores how and why politicians competing for the white vote and right-wing think tanks promoting business interests appeased the Christian right and manufactured consent for cutbacks through a powerful, racially coded discourse. Finally, through firsthand testimonies, Reese vividly portrays the tragic consequences of current welfare policies and calls for a bold new agenda for working families.


1. Deferred Dreams, Broken Families,
and Hardship
The Impact of Welfare Reform

Welfare reform is supposed to help people, but instead it is causing
me hardship. … Welfare reform is nothing more than reducing
caseloads, cutting people off [of] welfare, pushing us into greater

Anonymous Welfare Mother

[Welfare reform] was portrayed initially as a program that would
result in people moving out of poverty … Let’s just say what it
actually is, which is a program that puts people to work and stops
public assistance, and it doesn’t matter what the work is.

Activist from 9TO5, an organization for working women

A lot of people are not able to attain their dreams and goals because
they’ve had to cut everything short to get a minimum wage job at
Wendy’s or McDonald’s. Working in those places, no one is going
to be able to become independent and support a family.

Anonymous welfare mother struggling to stay in college

Getting past the dogma

In 1996, following mounting attacks on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which significantly restricted poor families’ rights to income and social services. It ended their federal entitlements to welfare, froze welfare expenditures, and replaced afdc with a more decentralized and selective program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). a central aim of the new welfare law was to promote self-sufficiency, through work and marriage, among low-income mothers, who make up about 90 percent of adult tanf recipients. To do so, it imposed two-year consecutive and fiveyear lifetime limits on receiving welfare, significantly expanded welfare-towork programs, and provided funds for programs promoting marriage and sexual abstinence. prwora targeted legal immigrants for the most drastic cuts, denying most of them access to federal public assistance during their first . . .

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