Tag Archives: Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act

When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

8 Oct

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

The War on Women of Color

17 Apr

The b.s. that passes for news is enough to give a person the information superhighway version of road rage.

Hardly a word of substance had been uttered about moms until  Hilary Rosen‘s statement that work-at-home mom of five Anne Romney never worked “a day in her life” became ammo in the war over women(s’ votes). Now one can barely turn on the TV without seeing the clip of Mitt Romney’s January 2012 quote about forcing women on welfare to work so they can experience “the dignity” of labor.

BTW: Earth to Romney! There’s no “dignity” in forced labor.

But what really frosts me is how a few words directed at a super rich, white work-at-homer with plenty of financial cushion to ease the pain could incite such furor, while downright mean, not to mention racist and untrue things are regularly said about poor women of color and nary a word is spoken in their defense.

Case in point: in order to justify cutting welfare and punishing low/no-income women in general for the “irresponsible” act of having children while poor, policy leaders exploit and amplify the societal stereotypes of poor women of color as lazy, sexually undisciplined layabouts making children to get benefits.

For instance, remember what was said about black women on welfare by Ronald Reagan?  He fabricated a story about a black welfare queen whose criminal gaming of the public benefits system was making her rich at our expense. This iconic image has survived for more than 30  years, delivering the message that “our hard-earned (therefore, deserved) money” is going to women of color who are either playing us or are just hopeless dependents with poor work ethics. And the assault didn’t end there.

In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton, ending welfare as we once knew it and replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a program with a 5 year lifetime limit and a work requirement.   So much coded and not so coded racism was drummed up between the Reagan and Clinton years in order to justify this eventual reform that by 1996, the public didn’t know fact from fiction.

Folks thought that the black teen pregnancy rate in the 80s and early 90s was skyrocketing out of control, and that black illegitimacy was a major problem, especially because they’d been convinced  that receiving public assistance was a disincentive to work.

In 2002, Francis Fox Piven addressed the racism that drove welfare reform by citing a 1995 National Center for Health Statistics report that challenges some of the arguments about black illegitimacy rates and teen pregnancies used to promote reform.

Here are a couple of highlights:

  • In 1993 the rate of non-marital births among white women over twenty was 42% versus a black non-marital birth rate in the same age group of 25%.
  • The non-marital birth rate of white women under twenty was 18% versus 11% for black women in the same age group.

And, by the way, then as now, the teen birth rate was dropping. The out-of-wedlock rate was increasing as a percentage of a smaller number of teen births in general, but they played us on that one, too in order to raise the specter of a potential welfare boom.

Still think we’re post-racial?  Maybe post-talking about race, but certainly not past creating public policy based on racism.

Oh, and note to leaders of both major parties:  women of all colors will have won the war against them when politicians stop treating their issues like ammunition and their bodies like battlefields, and political leaders start acting like women are people.

I don’t mean just folks, I mean the people who still carry the primary responsibility of raising children with limited services such as daycare, many of whom must also work outside the home where they make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.  A little respect is in order here.

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