Tracing A Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State
Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon*
DEPENDENCY HAS BECOME A KEYWORD OF U.S. POLITICS. Politicians of diverse views regularly criticize what they term welfare dependency. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke for many conservatives in 1980 when he vilified his sister:
She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That's how dependent she is. What's worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation (quoted in Tumulty 1991).
Liberals usually blame the victim less, but they, too, decry welfare dependency. Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan prefigured today's discourse when he began his 1973 book by claiming that
the issue of welfare is the issue of dependency. It is different from poverty. To be poor is an objective condition; to be dependent, a subjective one as well . . . Being poor is often associated with considerable personal qualities; being dependent rarely so. [Dependency] is an incomplete state in life: normal in the child, abnormal in the adult. In a world where completed men and women stand on their own feet, persons who are dependent -- as the buried imagery of the word denotes -- hang ( Moynihan 1973, 17).
Today, "policy experts" from both major parties agree:
that [welfare] dependency is bad for people, that it undermines their motivation to support themselves, and isolates and stigmatizes welfare recipients in a way that over a long period feeds into and accentuates the underclass mindset and condition ( Nathan 1986, 248).