Academic journal article Social Justice

Feminists, Welfare Reform, and Welfare Justice

Academic journal article Social Justice

Feminists, Welfare Reform, and Welfare Justice

Article excerpt

Over 95% of adult welfare recipients are women. This is not surprising, since women are usually the caregivers in their families. What is surprising is that during two years of formal legislative debate about ending welfare, the adverse consequences of such a decision for poor women were scarcely mentioned. Even in liberal circles, where tears flowed prodigiously for poor children, few rued the effects of punitive welfare provisions on poor women.

To be sure, the leaders of many women's and feminist organizations (ranging from the American Association for University Women to the National Organization for Women) did oppose punitive welfare reform - calling press conferences, holding vigils, and even engaging in dramatic acts of civil disobedience. Yet the millions of women who have made feminism a movement did not rally around their leaders' cause. The Personal Responsibility Act is the most aggressive invasion of women's rights in this century, and most feminists did little to resist it. Many feminists actually endorsed the new law's core principles - namely, that poor single mothers should move from welfare to work and into financial relationships with their children's fathers.

Such feminists collaborated with welfare reformers - either by their silence or in their deeds. Mainly middle class and white, many with ties to the organized women's movement, and some with high electoral positions, these feminists often speak for all of feminism. When mobilized, they can wield impressive political clout - enough to inspire an otherwise wishy-washy President Clinton to hang tough on such knotty issues as late-term abortion, for example. Resilient and resourceful, these feminists have campaigned vigorously over the years - for women candidates, against the Hyde Amendment, and for the Violence Against Women Act. They have worked aggressively for women's rights and gender justice, even when the odds for success have been poor. When it came to welfare, however, they sat on their hands. Ignoring appeals from sister feminists and welfare rights activists to defend "welfare as a women's issue" and to oppose "the war against poor women" as if it were "a war against all women," many even entered the war on the anti-welfare side.(2)

Some examples are: on Capitol Hill, all white women in the U.S. Senate including four Democratic women who call themselves feminists - voted for the new welfare law when it first came to the Senate floor in the summer of 1995. In the House of Representatives in 1996, 26 of 31 Democratic women, all of whom call themselves feminists, voted for a Democratic welfare bill that would have stripped recipients of their entitlement to welfare.(3) Meanwhile, across the country, a NOW-Legal Defense and Education Fund appeal for contributions to support an economic justice litigator aroused so much hate mail that NOW-LDEF stopped doing direct mail on the welfare issue (Kornbluh, 1996: 25).

Feminist members of Congress did not write the Personal Responsibility Act, of course. Neither did members of the National Organization for Women or contributors to Emily's List comprise the driving force behind the most brutal provisions of the new welfare law. My claim is not that feminists were uniquely responsible for how welfare has been reformed. My point is that they were uniquely positioned to make a difference. They have made a difference in many arenas across the years, even during inauspicious Republican presidencies overturning judicial evisceration of Title IX (in the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988), for example, and winning damage rights for women in discrimination claims under Title VII (in the Civil Rights Act of 1991). They certainly could have made a difference when a friendly Democratic president began casting about for ways to reform welfare in 1993; although they could not have changed Republican intentions in the 104th Congress, they surely could have pressured the Democrat they helped elect to the White House to veto the Republican bill. …

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