The Meaning of Welfare

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Camille Colatosti

Regulating the Lives of Women:
Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present
Boston: South End Press, 406 pages, $15.

“TO BE EFFECTIVE,” argues Mimi Abramovitz in her informative and well-written study, Regulating the Lives of Women, “welfare reform must look past the current AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children] program to the entire social welfare system and the wider political economy and must reframe the issue from one focused on welfare dependency to the true underlying problem – female poverty.”

Most liberal social theorists view welfare policy as a balance between society’s moral need to “care for” the poor and government’s responsibility not to over-burden citizens with large taxes. Abramovitz refreshingly sees welfare not as a &gift from the wealthy to the impoverished but as a right to which all members of society are entitled.

She persuasively contends that state welfare programs have grown up not so much to meet the real needs of poor women but to mediate the contradictory desires of patriarchy and capital for women’s unpaid work as wives and mothers in the home and paid work as a cheap labor reserve. No state offers grants sufficient to raise welfare families above the poverty level From the Colonial period to the present, keeping benefits below the minimum wage “assure(d] that public aid d(id] not become more attractive than the lowest paying job, and for women, more attractive than marriage and family life.”

Although she emphasizes that welfare programs function to control poor women, Abramovitz argues that they are plagued by contradictions that may work to poor women’s advantage. Even the most inadequate and biased policies provide women protection against the worst abuses they face in their world.

A Small Safety Net

Welfare gives certain single mothers a degree of choice, a small safety net to help them through a transitional period, such as the loss of a job or a divorce. Welfare may enable women to avoid super-exploitative jobs and bad relationships, as well as to live outside marriage.

The “feminization of poverty” and welfare programs that force poor women into low-paid jobs are nothing new, according to Abramovitz. Today women head 51 percent of U.S. families living in poverty, but even in the early 1700s, women were one-third to one-half of the poor in many towns. Discussions about welfare (“poor relief’), then as now, focused upon conflicting needs: for poor women to fulfill their “natural” mother role while periodically satisfying the demand for inexpensive and readily available labor.

In the colonies, many women, especially young women, were excluded from poor relief, helping to ease a labor shortage for wool and doth manufacturers. “The emerging merchant class hoped that ‘hiring’ poverty-stricken women and children would improve profits, lower the local poor law taxes, and in so doing also reduce the landed gentry’s strong opposition to the development of commercial manufacturing.”

Throughout the post-slavery South, Black women were routinely disqualified from relief. According to a public assistance supervisor in the late 1930s, Southern “communities … see no reason why the employable Negro mother should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.”

Benefits have also been subject to the needs of local employers. In 1966, for example, New Jersey-sent a letter to AFDC recipients explaining that grants would cease while seasonal farm work was available. Once the need for agricultural workers ended, benefits resumed.

Welfare systems have always distinguished the 11deserving” from the “undeserving” poor, providing assistance to women who followed the dominant family ethic – were widowed or caring for injured or sick husbands – while excluding women who appeared to “choose” single motherhood.

Racism has also led to Blacks and immigrants being categorized as undeserving. “From colonial poor relief through the early twentieth century mothers’ pensions programs, native-born white women who bore children outside of marriage, women who left their husbands, and Black or immigrant women received little or no aid. In 1931, 96% percent of the families receiving mothers’ pensions were headed by women who were widowed, native born and white.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, strict eligibility rules and limited funding had managed to maintain the regulatory functions of welfare programs serving single mothers. However, increased funding and liberalized eligibility rules at the federal level, combined with population growth, increasing rates of divorce, desertion, fertility and births outside marriage, expanded the numbers and changed the character of the welfare caseload. Once women of color and unwed mothers became one-half of the recipients, racism and sexism made it difficult to distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”

Governmental attacks against AFDC accompanied this shift in caseload from widowed white women to unwed or divorced mothers of color. For Abramovitz, this assault against welfare reflects “the program’s declining ability to discipline work and family life according to traditional rules, that is, to mediate the conflicting demand for women’s home and market labor, to assure the reproduction and maintenance of the labor force, and to sustain patriarchal relations under new and more complex conditions.”

In the 1950s many states enacted “suitable home”’ and “substitute father” rules to disqualify large numbers of women. Assuming that all male lovers provide financial support, many states denied aid to women who had overnight male guests or even men’s clothing in their closets. Social workers spied on recipients and conducted midnight raids to discover the “man-of-the-house.”

Fighting Back

During the 1960s and ‘70s, poor women responded to these abuses. In Los Angeles in 1963, for example, the first welfare-rights group to protest midnight raids developed into an organization that promoted the right of AFDC mothers to adequate benefits and fair treatment. The Aid to Needy Children Mothers’ Organization (ANCMO) and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) formed soon thereafter. When New York’s Committee on Welfare Families held its first meeting with city welfare officials in 1967, protesters won winter clothing and a grievance procedure.

A ten-day march on the Ohio State capital for increased benefits in June1966 was the first major welfare action to receive national attention On the day the marchers reached the Ohio capital, 2,000 sympathizers demonstrated outside New York’s City Hall along with 2,500 more in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

NWRO adopted this strategy: to force change in welfare policy by “breaking the system” through a dramatic increase in applications from the pool of potential recipients. NWRO militantly opposed inequities in the welfare system until the mid-1970s when the strength of the national, but not necessarily all local groups, declined.

Government’s continued inability to regulate women who receive benefits ­ and to confine grants only to women who adhere to patriarchal mores – has fueled public opinion against welfare.

Poor mothers are painted as lazy and pampered rather than as women who sensibly refuse subsistence wages and inadequate childcare. This backlash partly reflects a misperception about the level of payments and the length of time that most people collect them.

Many critics imply that luxurious benefits discourage women from seeking employment. The facts, however, tell a different story. From 1970 to 1985 the real value of AFDC plunged 31 percent. In thirty-nine states, AFDC and food stamp benefits combined bring welfare families up to only 75 percent of the poverty threshold. On average, welfare recipients employed in states with workfare earn less than $4.14 an hour, or $4,000 below the poverty level for a family of four.

ontrary to rhetoric about the poor’s welfare dependence, the majority of AFDC recipients remain on the rolls for only two years, usually leaving for a new job or marriage.

Abramovitz’s straightforward ac­ count of these facts-as well as her argument that union-stigmatized government allowances” should be provided to all families as a right-needs reiteration in a society where 71percentof all citizens imagine that people collecting welfare are dishonest about their need and should be working.

Workfare Exploitation

Currently there is bipartisan support for welfare programs that force recipients into low-paying jobs. Because she examines welfare legislation from a socialist, feminist and antiracist perspective, Abramovitz rightly rejects workfare as exploitative and unjust She dismisses conservative and liberal theorists who claim that poor women working at menial labor for low wages will gain a greater sense of independence than those who collect non-service benefits.

Welfare grants, she argues, cause neither dependence nor family break-ups. Rather, poverty leads women to AFDC. And the state’s reluctance to fund two-parent families leads to the separation of many poor couples.

Liberals who support the new welfare program argue that workfare will enable poor women to learn valuable skills. But in current workfare programs, half the women placed in jobs received no training at all. Though welfare mothers who refuse jobs face reduction or loss of benefits, governments that do not provide adequate job training receive no punishments. Rather than the more expensive skill building and education, states are required to supply only basic unskilled work for welfare recipients. Most of these low-paying jobs are located in service industries that lack childcare and health benefits.

In addition, contrary to their rhetorical promise, most workfare programs have little to no effect on the number of AFDC recipients who find employment. In San Diego, for example, during a fifteen-month workfare program, 61 percent of the women who received employment services found work as did 55 percent of poor women who did not participate in workfare programs. Work programs function not to increase poor women’s self-sufficiency but to disabuse welfare recipients of the idea that they, like middle-class mothers, are entitled to remain home with their children.

Emphasizing the regulatory functions of welfare, Abramovitz only rarely shifts her subject from “woman as victim” to “woman as survivor and fighter.” One wishes she did this more often, showing how AFDC benefits, by providing women a cushion, enable recipients to see themselves as independent agents who can exercise personal choice and make demands upon society.

Only in a few isolated pages, when she discusses poor women’s political self-organization, does Abramovitz emphasize what remains one of the most important messages of her book: how poor women can take charge of the legislation designed to regulate their lives. In these brief moments Abramovitz makes clear her belief that profound social changes, ensuring economic security to all citizens, “are not handed down from above.” They “emerge from the organization and mobilization of women and men seeking to improve their lives.”

Certainly this is a message every socialist will applaud and one rarely found in studies concerning social welfare. For its commitment to socialism and feminism, and its attention to the role poor women can play in progressive movements, Abramovitz’s work should be read by both activists and scholars struggling to effect social change today.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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