Welfare and the Poorest of the Poor

Welfare and the Poorest of the Poor

Next year, welfare as we now know it is slated to come before Congress for reauthorization. By “welfare” I mean federally financed cash assistance to low-income mothers (and occasionally fathers) with children. Welfare as we used to know it was the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, in effect from 1935 to 1996. It was hardly generous (as well as being otherwise flawed), but it nonetheless succumbed in 1996 to three decades of conservative attack. The allegation was that it had created undue numbers of long-term recipients; it had fostered welfare dependency. The program was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which made it much harder to obtain assistance and imposed stringent time limits.

A Brief History

As a federal policy, welfare has gone through four stages, with some basic features remaining constant throughout. The level of benefits has always been left to the states, and in some states is barely more than 10 percent of poverty line income. Even in the most generous states, welfare (including food stamps, which became a significant factor in the 1970s) has never gotten people out of poverty. Everywhere, the adults in the program have been mainly women of working age and, disproportionately, women of color. These features of “welfare” have evoked a political and popular enmity that seems rooted in misogyny and racism—even though the official conservative critique (joined by some liberals) focuses on the importance of work and self-sufficiency.

During stage one, which lasted until the 1960s, the states had almost unfettered discretion to help people they found deserving and turn away those they thought undeserving. Especially in the South, racial discrimination was rampant, and in many states welfare workers based their decisions on facts they dug up about women’s sexual relationships.

Stage two saw the welfare rolls rise sharply and become blacker and browner. An active welfare rights movement interacted with a new cadre of federally financed legal services lawyers and newly receptive federal courts to force welfare officials in many (but not all) states to grant benefits (however minimal) to large numbers of people who had previously been turned away or discouraged from applying. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (in the first case it had ever taken on the subject) that the 1935 New Deal statute created a legal right to help—an “entitlement,” the word that became an epithet in the debates of the 1990s. The benefit level was still up to the states, but they could not turn away anyone whom the federal statute defined as eligible for assistance.

Not surprisingly, stage three was not long in coming. Beginning in the late 1960s, conservatives began a war against welfare that went on until the 1996 law was enacted. The underlying politics was largely racial, capped and epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal “welfare queen.” He...