Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mothers' Pensions in Chicago, 1911-1929

By Joanne L. Goodwin | Go to book overview

FIVE

The Economies of Mothers' Pensions

The "social experiment" in public provision for poor, mother-only families presented a conundrum for women's rights supporters as well as social workers: how to foster the independence of women while acknowledging and protecting families with dependent children. Those proponents of mothers' pensions who wanted an endowment or a form of social insurance wanted to end requirements for mothers to earn, but they failed to shift the majority opinion to this form of entitlement. In the process of implementing mothers' pensions, other concerns about private responsibilities, public costs, and the role of the government entered the debate and reshaped the program's methods and goals. As this chapter will illustrate, the program evolved into one that insisted upon earning for the majority of pensioned women. Scholars have been slow to examine closely the relationship between wage-earning and mothers' pensions, or the growth of this policy in its local context. And yet in both language and practice, the relationship between families, markets, and social policy was being contested through this early welfare policy. In this phase of public support for impoverished families, the demands for individual self-support in a laissez-faire political economy took precedence.1

The evidence presented in this chapter demonstrates that women's potential to earn (and that of their older children) played a much greater role than historians have previously recognized in their explanations of the mothers' pension program. An analysis of the reasons for the initial denial of aid, as well as explanations for the cancellation of pensions, reveals the prominence of earning criteria.2 With few exceptions, those involved in planning and administration recognized the value of women's domestic work in child-rearing; but they balanced this against competing demands for self-support and fiscal responsibility. Furthermore, racial and moral systems became conflated with social workers' ideas about those mothers who had the "ability to earn"--a distinction that led to the exclusion of groups of mothers. African American women, deserted women, and mothers with one child were denied mothers' pensions and directed to other programs that relied heavily on earning. As Linda Gordon and Regina Kunzel have shown for other cases, the attitudes of social workers had an extraordinary impact on the treatment and services that families received.3

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