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

By Marisa Chappell | Go to book overview

Conclusion: Beyond the Family Wage

The termination of AFDC in 1996, sixty-one years after its creation, was rightly described as marking the end of an era. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) not only ended a relatively small, perpetually besieged entitlement program. It also marked the conclusion of a political-economic order that stretched from the New Deal of the 1930s through the Great Society of the 1960s and came to an end in the 1980s and 1990s.

The social basis of that now defunct order was the male-breadwinner household. This family form encapsulated and prescribed a particular set of relationships between home and work, between individual wealth and social welfare, and between private enterprise and public regulation. It was materially sustained by a “family wage” nourished by private sector employment policies, collective bargaining, and public sector social welfare provision. It was culturally sustained by prevailing gender roles and marital norms which reinforced expectations about women’s economic dependence and men’s duty to provide economically for a wife and children. This model of the male-breadwinner nuclear household as both the bulwark and the beneficiary of American growth and prosperity framed the major political and economic conflicts of the mid-twentieth century, from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan; it set the stakes and parameters of social and economic struggle. From the furthest reaches of a social democratic vision to the fiercest commitment to “free enterprise,” discussions about the nation’s political-economic order occurred within the boundaries of the malebreadwinner family ideal. That ideal defined both the expansive possibilities and the inherent limits of the New Deal/Great Society order; it animated proposals to construct a more egalitarian economic structure as well as policies that reinforced class and race inequality.

AFDC engendered vehement political controversy because it represented the “other”—the negative image—against which the prosperous, self-supporting nuclear household was defined: the impoverished single mother visibly dependent on state support. The program represented the

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