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

By Marisa Chappell | Go to book overview

Introduction

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.1 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.2 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.3

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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