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

By Marisa Chappell | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Relinquishing Responsibility for Poor
Families: Reagan’s Family Wage for the
Wealthy

The old policy of excluding mothers of young children from registration
in employment programs should be reconsidered in light of women’s liber-
ation and their strong role in the labor force.

—Preston Kayanagh, Chicago businessman, 1980

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan regaled a corporate audience with a tale from his welfare-reforming days as governor of California. “After we undertook our welfare reforms” in the early 1970s, Reagan had received a letter from a former AFDC recipient who thanked him for cutting the state’s welfare rolls. “She wrote that she had become so dependent on the welfare check that she even turned down offers of marriage,” Reagan recounted; “she just could not give up that security blanket that [welfare] represented.” Reagan’s cuts allowed her to break free from welfare dependence. The woman’s conversion narrative ended with employment; she moved to Alaska to be with relatives, found a “good job” and a “great deal of self-respect,” and realized, finally, that a job “sure beats daytime television.”1

Reagan did not mention whether the woman had escaped poverty, nor did he reveal her marital status. This morality tale reveals the fundamental priorities of Reagan’s welfare politics. Antiwelfare conservatives like Reagan certainly denounced AFDC and “welfare” more generally for contributing to family breakdown and its supposed consequences, from gang violence and drug use to declining SAT scores and teen pregnancies. Drawing on the antipoverty coalition’s 1960s critique, antiwelfare conservatives in the 1980s blamed poverty itself on an overly generous welfare system that destroyed self-reliant, two-parent, heterosexual families. However, for Reagan, family

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