Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, 1935-1996

By Premilla Nadasen; Jennifer Mittelstadt et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
THE END OF WELFARE AS WE KNEW IT
The 1980s and 1990s

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 heralded a new era in welfare politics. As the nation’s political climate grew more conservative in the 1980s and 1990s, longstanding attacks on AFDC increasingly bore fruit. While the Democratic Party had been criticizing AFDC since the 1960s, liberals had nonetheless pursued a variety of antipoverty policies during the 1970s. Liberal poverty analysts in the federal government tried to convince legislators to adopt a Negative Income Tax (see Chapter 3), and a broad liberal coalition pursued full employment legislation and resisted Republican President Gerald Ford’s efforts to severely restrict welfare. As social and fiscal conservatives gained power in Washington, DC in the 1980s, the Democratic Party largely abandoned this commitment to antipoverty policies, however. By 1996, a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed a bill that eliminated AFDC altogether, and with it the nation’s sixty-one-year commitment to aiding poor single mothers and their children.

A number of developments during the 1970s laid the groundwork for Reagan’s election and contributed to the increasingly conservative welfare reforms that followed. Seismic national and global shifts shook the American economy in the 1970s and revitalized conservative resistance to progressive taxation, domestic spending, and social welfare programs. Changing expectations about women and work undermined support for a program designed to allow low-income single mothers to care for their children at home. The continued growth of single-parent households and unwed teen motherhood stoked fears about family decline. And deepening poverty among urban minorities fueled attacks on a so-called underclass.

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