CORVALLIS, Ore. – The war on poverty of the 1960s turned into the war on welfare in the 1990s, and the result, according to a new book by an Oregon State University historian, is that record numbers of women and children have joined the ranks of the working poor.
In her new book just out through University of Pennsylvania Press, “The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America,” OSU’s Marisa Chappell traces what President Bill Clinton famously called “the end of welfare as we know it” to the grassroots of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty 30 years earlier.
Chappell, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of History, provides a new perspective on the national debate about poverty, welfare, and economic justice from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, tracing the positions and policy proposals of a broad range of Americans, including social and economic conservatives, liberal antipoverty experts, national liberal organizations, organized labor, government officials, feminists of various persuasions, and poor women themselves.
According to Chappell, some of the same groups – including labor unions, liberal reformers, and social activists – that championed the war on poverty helped pave the way for programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to end. AFDC, which had provided some cash aid to children of poor single mothers since the 1930s, had become increasingly controversial in the postwar era, she pointed out, as more African American women and never-married mothers accessed benefits. But in the 1960s, liberals and leftists built a case against the program.
Chappell’s research shows that civil rights activists and liberal reformers pushed for federal efforts to help male breadwinners, sure that economic security for male-headed families would ease social disorder like urban rioting and promote racial equality.
“Even as social and economic changes eroded the male-breadwinner ideal, the liberal civil rights coalition fought to extend the backward-looking promise of the family wage through massive federal investment in full employment and income support for male breadwinners,” Chappell said.
In doing so, however, these activists, organizations, and policymakers condemned Aid to Families with Dependent Children for supposedly discouraging marriage and breaking up families, particularly among urban African Americans.
About 90 percent of those using AFDC before it was eliminated in 1996 were single-mother families. Chappell said these women were of all ethnic backgrounds, unlike the stereotype of a single, poor black mother. In fact, she says, few of the myths about the program – that it encouraged births out of wedlock or fostered intergenerational dependency, for example – are accurate.
“The attacks from conservatives largely focused on cultural reasoning,” Chappell said. “The rhetoric was that somehow the black community was deficient and that there were cultural choices that put them in poverty. But those on the left increasingly echoed conservative arguments. By the 1980s, most discussions of welfare focused on race and “values” and ignored structural factors in society such as growing income inequality, loss of industrial jobs, and the decline of inner cities that shaped women’s life chances.”
Chappell’s research shows that the elimination of AFDC in 1996 may have done more harm to women and children living in poverty.
The program that replaced AFDC, called Temporary Aid to Needy Families, is issued to states as a block grant and has much stricter requirements for qualification, requiring mothers of even infants to complete 40 hours of “work activity” per week. Chappell’s research found that states have a financial interest in keeping the rolls down, as there are few restrictions on how they can spend any unused funds.
“The new order fosters a system of diversions and sanctions to either discourage people from applying for funds by making it difficult, or sanctioning people, cutting off their funds for a variety of reasons, such as not filling out the paperwork properly or being late to an appointment,” she said.
The result is what welfare reformers wanted: More than 50 percent of women left welfare after 1996, and three out four women found work for a period in the first year after leaving welfare. However, those who found work averaged $7 an hour at about 35 hours a week, keeping them at the poverty line for a household with children. The large majority left welfare for low-paying, unstable jobs, and only a third kept the jobs for an entire year.
All of this data is why poverty rights activists and some feminists condemn the 1996 reform as detrimental to poor and working class women and children. Reforming welfare did not, as its critics decreed, eliminate divorce or non-marital births or bring back the nuclear family with one male wage earner. Nor did it solve the problem of poverty. Chappell argues that instead, it eliminated a flawed but important safety net for women and children, and pushed more single mothers into the ranks of the working poor, reliant on insecure low-wage employment and with little support caring for their children.
Chappell said some feminist activists and single mothers have renewed calls for a new system that values child caring as a legitimate labor; however, she is skeptical such reforms will happen. She has a bit more hope for current campaigns, like unionization and “living wage” ordinances, that aim to improve economic security for the “working poor.”
At the same time, “American workers, single mothers in particular, are unlikely to achieve real economic security until society provides greater support for parenting,” Chappell writes in her book. “We must articulate an agenda for economic justice that links family well-being to labor market conditions but that also asserts broad, social responsibility for supporting parents of all races and classes in the essential job of raising the next generation.”
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