In 1986, women headed 16 percent of the nation's 10.4 million families but 51 percent of the families living in poverty, a sharp increase from 1960 when 8.4 percent of the nation's families and 24 percent of those living in poverty were headed by a woman. The characterization of this change as the "feminization of poverty" implies that poverty has only recently become a women's issue. History, however, suggests otherwise. Indeed, women's impoverishment dates back to colonial America when from one-third to one-half of a town's poor were likely to be female. Despite the historic povertization of women and their ever-rising numbers among social welfare clients and workers, the relationship between American women and the welfare state remains relatively unexplored. The result is an understanding of the welfare state that is grounded in the experience of male recipients and generalized to women as if there were no differences between them; at best it is incomplete, at worst quite distorted.
The lack of attention to poor women in the social welfare literature reflects several things including a preoccupation with the work ethic, an acceptance of the nuclear family as the only viable family unit, and minimal research interest in the well-being of poor women. From the start, social welfare policy has been shaped by the work ethic and the belief that the provision of benefits to able-bodied persons will weaken their motivation to work. As a result, the cash assistance programs including Social Security benefits, Unemployment Insurance, and Aid To Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) enforce the work ethic either by rewarding higher paid workers over those who earn less or by encouraging able-bodied persons to choose paid labor (no matter what the wage levels or working conditions) over government aid. Such policies have kept the labor market supplied with men who are expected to work productively and provide for their families. This portrayal of social welfare policy highlights the problems of male recipients of aid, but it only partially explains, and in fact obscures, the