Welfare Reform, Then and Now

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Amy Hanauer

Pitied But Not Entitled
by Linda Gordon
The Free Press, 1995, $15.95 paperback.

PITIED BUT NOT Entitled, Linda Gordon’s exhaustive history of the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act, is thoughtful, insightful and highly relevant. As governments slash poverty relief programs at all levels and as welfare-bashing reaches an all-time high, it is instructive to take a step back and look at how the current system developed.

Gordon argues that at a time when most Americans strongly supported spending on poverty programs, feminist women with both access to government and a strong desire to help poor women created a welfare system that is now stingy, unpopular, invasive and in many ways unsuccessful.

This does not bode well for those of us who are currently working to craft a more humane system, at a time when resentment toward poor mothers is at a high and feminists have little access.

Gordon describes a two-tier welfare system, with one tier created primarily for white working men and the second created primarily by mainly middle class white women for low-income women (white women, that is; the designers did not envisage the inclusion of Blacks).

The first tier, which includes Old Age Insurance (OAI), Unemployment Insurance, Medicare and other universal programs, is relatively generous, federally funded, rights-based, and serves more and better-off people. The second tier, which includes Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and other means-tested programs, is needs-based, state- or locally-run, stingy, invasive, and serves fewer and more vulnerable people.

Gordon’s most startling conclusion is both counter-intuitive and obvious: The more generous the program, the more we think it benefits us and the more we like its recipients. As Gordon writes, “The fact is that a puny welfare system gives no one what they want and thus makes itself universally unpopular.”

The second tier is Gordon’s main subject. Her fundamental question is: “How did feminists create a system that treated women so poorly?”

Among Gordon’s reasons, five seem primary. First, the advocates were elite women who had not themselves experienced poverty and did not acknowledge the structural forces leading to poverty. In fact, although Gordon calls them “brave, creative, smart and feminist women reformers” (287), she also adopts the useful term “maternalists”–used by feminist theorists and historians–to describe the reformers’ approach.

This included viewing themselves in a motherly role toward the poor and valuing women primarily as wives and mothers. They thus pushed programs that restricted outside wage-earning and emphasized casework and counseling, rather than simple provision of resources.

Second, these advocates simply failed to acknowledge the already high number of fatherless families and failed to predict how this number would grow. They thus accepted compromises that relied on a family wage system with men earning the wages.

Third, maternalists didn’t want to sabotage public support for their programs by focusing on unmarried women or other “unworthy poor.” They thus accepted “morals-testing” and other invasive procedures, which ironically only increased public suspicion about the morals of recipients.

Fourth, the fact that groups like retired elderly workers were in a different program from young single mothers led to competition with each other for resources and for public respect. This meant, for example, that OAI promoters pitted their constituency against AFDC recipients in order to strengthen support for OAI.

Finally, advocates compromised in ways that ended up dividing support. For example, they settled for a plan that lacked universal health care coverage, thinking they could push for that later. Instead middle-class families obtained private health care and lost the desire to make it universal.

Similarly, they allowed benefits for single mothers to be lower than those for temporarily unemployed workers, seeing this as a compromise. Instead, it made the two groups resentful of each other and again likely to compete for status and funding.

They also allowed domestic and agricultural work–fields employing predominantly women and people of color<197>to be excluded from the more generous first tier, as a concession to Southern legislators. Again, this created divisions between workers that later weakened support for universal programs.

In emphasizing the agency of elite feminist women, Gordon to a certain extent understates the role of collective action in the formation of our welfare system. Although Pitied But Not Entitled discusses bread riots, sit-ins, unemployed councils and other mass movements for poor support, the book reads quite differently from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements or Regulating the Poor, both of which argue that collective action played the principal role in forcing a welfare system.

However, Gordon certainly acknowledges public action. She describes in great depth the strong public support for welfare programs and the ways in which those in power exploited that support.

I can’t help but react with amazement when I read of Huey Long’s enormously popular Share our Wealth plan, which, at a time when the dollar was worth one-tenth of today’s value, called for a homestead allowance of $3-5,000, a minimum guaranteed annual family income of $2-3000, an upper income limit of $1.8 million, a thirty-hour workweek, a month’s vacation, pensions for all over 60, drastic taxation of income and inheritance, and possibly guaranteed jobs.

Long was a populist Louisiana governor, who led a movement that was neither leftist nor democratic, but he used mass discontent to power his popularity.

Share our Wealth and the other welfare plans being pushed by various organizations were all more radical than anything being discussed today. Nonetheless, Gordon’s description of the divisions between and weaknesses of the various proposals illustrates that something was missing then, as now–an organization that could unite constituencies and push a proposal that would universally benefit vulnerable groups.

As Gordon describes it, labor leaders supported unemployment compensation but opposed other government-provided welfare; socialists focussed on male welfare needs and a family wage for working men; liberal white feminist women ignored structural causes of poverty and issues related to race; liberal white men worried only about working men and ignored racism; liberal Black women ignored structural causes of poverty and didn’t question gender roles; and communists, although they addressed needs of Blacks, were not widely supported.

It is this description that makes today’s situation seem less hopeless. Today’s feminists are not maternalists and are, for the most part, aware of the need to involve women of all races and classes in the movement. Labor leaders to some extent acknowledge workers’ interest in poor support, as when the Wisconsin AFL-CIO voiced public opposition to a plan to cut AFDC. And links among constituencies on the left are being nurtured by such grassroots third party efforts as the New Party, Labor Party Advocates, and the Greens.

The left remains fragmented, but we recognize that we’re lost without each other. Herein lies the hope for future expansion of services that all workers and parents need–child care, health care, access to education, decent pay, time off.

I had two complaints about Gordon’s otherwise excellent book. The first is that, while the writing was clear and understandable, the arguments were at times difficult to follow. Activists and teachers who might want to synthesize her thesis would have trouble summarizing this long, detailed chronicle. Of course, history is not always simple, but the rest of us rely on historians to simplify it for us.

My second criticism is that Gordon is not always as careful as she could be about qualifying her critiques of the welfare system. Gordon admits that the Social Security Act was a major achievement and that AFDC accomplished its primary goal of reducing poverty. But she also writes, “. . . the welfare system worsened inequality. With a bit of deliberate exaggeration, one can argue that the Social Security Act helped create today’s ‘underclass’ of the hopelessly poor.” (301)

Although she goes on to explain her meaning–that by creating some generous and some stingy programs the act widened the rift between classes–her argument is difficult, and many readers will not bother to find it. Indeed, the subhead in the New York Times book review blared,”Welfare, the author says, tends to hurt those it was designed to help.”

This is not Gordon’s message, but it will be the message that many readers want to–and do–find. I nonetheless found Pitied But Not Entitled to be timely and insightful. Those of us fighting for a more humane system will find it sobering to see how good intentions can go awry. And all of us can benefit from a reminder of how much we once expected from government.

We can only hope that Gordon’s book helps us envision a system that unites rather than divides us, lets us be good parents and productive workers, and allows all of us to reach our potential.

ATC 61, March-April 1996