Sexual Politics of Welfare: The Racialization of Poverty

By Wilkerson, Margaret B.; Gresham, Jewell Handy | The Nation, July 24, 1989 | Go to article overview

Sexual Politics of Welfare: The Racialization of Poverty


Wilkerson, Margaret B., Gresham, Jewell Handy, The Nation


American policymakers have an uncanny ability to obfuscate and compartmentalize social problems-to recognize on the one hand that the United States has an unacceptably high level of unemployment, particularly among specific groups, and to recognize that we also have an incredibly high number of female-headed families, particularly within the same groups, but to avoid the cause-and-effect relationship between the two phenomena

-Ruth Sidel

Women and Children Last

The term "feminization of poverty," which was devised to describe the significant numbers of women and children living in poverty, is a distortion that negates the role played by racial barriers to black employment, particularly among males. The feminization of poverty is real, but the racialization of poverty is at its heart. To discuss one without the other is to play a mirror game with reality.

In Women and Children Last The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America, sociologist Ruth Sidel observes that in contemporary America, "welfare' has become a euphefflism for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (A.ED.C.). More, the term is now used to mask, barely, negative images of teeming black female fecundity-particularly among teen-agers-and of feckless black males who abandon their children. The fact that it is specifically black unwed mothers who evoke this atavistic response shows that race, not gender, is the source of revulsion.

Currently, the most critical problem relating to the plight of black unwed mothers is the massive unemployment of the males who would otherwise be potential mates for them. Sidel ties her discussion of black male unemployment to a survey of black versus white incomes. In 1981, for example, 47 percent of black college graduates earned $20,000 to $40,000 a year, the income spread for the majority of white high school graduates. This is only one of many facts evidencing the degree of discrimination against blacks in the workplace.

Although the number of black men holding professional, technical, managerial and sales jobs has increased significantly, the number who are unemployed is "astronomical:' Sidel observed "It is estimated that approximately 45 percent of black men do not have jobs, including not only those officially classified by the Census Bureau but also those who are counted as 'discouraged and no longer looking for work.' " In addition, she wrote, forty could not be found by the Bureau in 1980. They are presumed to have neither permanent residences nor jobs. If they are added to the number of unemployed, the number of black men without jobs can be estimated to be well over 50 percent. (Emphasis added.)

This level of unemployment is more than double the figure for all workers at the height of the Great Depression. William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged, states that in one of the Chicago ghetto neighborhoods he studied, the ratio of employed black males to their impoverished female counterparts was 18 to 100.

Such "shockingly high rate of male unemployment;' Sidel points out, "has had a direct bearing on the dramatic rise in black female-headed families." Yet we still look for "the 'causes' of the rise in black-female families, debate whether the welfare system encourages their proliferation, blame the mothers for having babies outside of marriagebut largely ignore the impact of male unemployment on family life."

One of the most pernicious aspects of the white patriarchal definition of an acceptable household (one headed by a male who is able to provide for his family) is that the masses of black youth and men who are excluded from the opportunities and rewards of the economic system cannot possibly meet this requirement. Then both males and females of the subjugated class are castigated as being morally unfit because they have not held their reproductive functions in abeyance.

At the same time, there is the insidious notion that households headed by black women are destined for poverty, not because of the absence of economic means but because of the absence of the male. …

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