Toward a Socialist-Feminist Strategy

Johanna Brenner

IN 1988 CONGRESS passed the Family Support Act, the most recent of many schemes to “reform welfare” by forcing recipients—in this case single mothers with young children—to work. The act’s passage reflects a significant shift in the liberal position on welfare policy, since conservatives have always favored programs in which single mothers are required either to find work or work in exchange for welfare benefits. In the past, liberals opposed compulsory work programs, while supporting voluntary training and work experience programs that would help mothers become self-supporting once their children reached school-age.

Since 1971, Congress has required the states to register women with school-age children in training- work experience, or job search programs. But until now, women with children under six have generally been exempt from these requirements. The new law requires states to enroll mothers with children over three years old in training, work experience, and job search programs and allows states to make participation in such programs mandatory for mothers of children as young as one-year old.

Advocates of the Family Support Act argue that it will cut the welfare rolls and end poverty by making single mothers “self- sufficient” But the Family Support Act is no more likely to cure poverty than previous welfare reforms. Welfare families’ conditions of life will continue to deteriorate, since cash benefits are very low and not indexed for inflation (unlike, for instance, social security). Benefit levels in most states are, and will no doubt remain, well below the poverty line, because the Family Support Act does not set a federal minimum benefit standard.

Indeed, a federal minimum benefit was never seriously considered in the discussion of welfare reform. Few welfare recipients remain on welfare for long periods and many already leave welfare for paid work. However, they remain poor, because their low-paid jobs don’t cover their job-related expenses (e.g., transportation, childcare) or health-care needs. And fully 40% of all women who leave welfare with an earnings increase eventually return. To really end poverty for single mothers requires decently paid jobs, affordable quality health care and childcare.

Many critics of the Family Support Act argue that its major thrust is not to improve the lives of poor women but to reduce welfare expenses and welfare rolls by making welfare increasingly less attractive as an alternative to low-paid work and by making fewer people eligible for assistance. Promises that single mothers will get real skills or training will not be fulfilled. Instead, states will offer only minimal services to welfare recipients, who will be forced to work at minimum-wage service sector and manufacturing jobs, filling the labor needs of local employers. The critics have a point All previous experience with “welfare to work” programs demonstrates that high-quality programs are very expensive and reduce costs only over the long term. Whatever the reform promises, programs are likely tube underfunded and in practice end up doing little to reduce the case load or increase the skills and education of recipients.

Feminists have been divided over the issues raised by the Family Support Act In the debates leading up to passage of the act, most agreed with the critics, but disagreed about the alternatives feminists ought to support.

Some argued against the goal of making single mothers economically “self-sufficient” The proposed reforms, they argued, would leave single mothers even worse off Floor women would be forced to put their children in inadequate day care while they work at dead-end, low-paid jobs. These feminists assert the value of women’s work as mothers and defend their entitlement to state support. They consider it a mistake for women to embrace male-defined notions of “independence.” Men, they point out, are not really “independent,” for they “depend” on women’s unpaid labor in the home to care for them and for their children. Moreover, they note that while poor women on welfare are stigmatized for failing to be “self-sufficient,” it is perfectly acceptable for married women to “choose” lull-time motherhood and dependence on their husbands over wage work.

Other feminists, who recognized the limitations of the reforms being debated, nonetheless argued for proposed legislation providing the most benefits, protection, and services (education, job training, childcare) to help women on welfare enter paid work. “Marriage to the state,” they assert, is no better than dependence on husbands for economic support. The “motherhood mystique” (“children need mother’s care” or “women are natural caregivers’) can be used to legitimate single mothers’ claim to income from the state. But by defining women as primarily caregivers, the “motherhood mystique” also perpetuates the gender division of labor in the family, encourages women’s reliance on men for economic support and justifies discrimination against women in paid employment.

Feminist differences on welfare policy reflect a real, sometimes seemingly intractable, difficulty that characterizes many feminist reform efforts: the conflict between a “politics of equality” and “a politics of difference.” I’ll argue that this counterposition is not inevitable—it’s possible to craft a strategy combining both.

Theoretical Perspectives

Socialist feminists have argued that the welfare state mediates between the needs of capital—for women’s low waged labor on the one hand and for women’s unpaid domestic labor on the other—and the interests of men. Too little provision for single mothers threatens to undermine the reproduction of wage labor Too much would offer them an alternative to dependence on a male breadwinner and limit their availability to work at low wages. Welfare programs have resolved this dilemma by distinguishing between “deserving and undeserving women”—allowing some to support themselves outside the labor market and the male breadwinner family, while forcing many others into wage work in the lowest paid and least secure jobs, and therefore back into marriage.

Racism has also structured welfare policy, particularly in the ways it differentiates among women—women of color are more likely than white women to be defined as “undeserving.” Writing within this framework, Mimi Abramovitz argues that the Family Support Act was passed in order to restore the regulatory functions of the welfare system.(1) Expansion during the ’60s and ’70s had allowed “too many women” access to welfare, undermining their dependence on male breadwinners and reducing the supply of low-waged labor demanded by the expanding service industries.

While capturing much of the history of welfare policy, an analysis based on the functions of welfare for capitalism and patriarchy doesn’t sufficiently recognize that women have been agents as well as victims in the creation and implementation of welfare state policy. The establishment and expansion of state support to single mothers reflected the political organization of women, not only the actions and interests of men or capitalist employers. Improvement in the provisions for single mothers did not always occur in periods where poverty was most widespread and reproduction of the labor force threatened (as in the 1960s), while increases in work requirements for single mothers have been introduced in times when unskilled labor is not in short supply and wages are declining (again, as in the 1980s). The Family Support Act was passed after the numbers on welfare had stabilized (from the mid-1970s) and the real value of benefits drastically cut, undermining welfare as an alternative to economic dependence on men.

Federal government policy toward single mothers reflects diverse pressures: middle-class reformers (church-affiliated activists, volunteers in charitable organizations, political party activists) and growing numbers of service professionals who argue the need to provide for the poor in order to prevent class polarization and unrest and to ensure the reproduction of skilled and socialized worker/citizens; federal government administrators interested in maintaining social order, economic prosperity and the legitimacy of the party in  power  Looking for re-election; political organizations representing workers and subordinated groups such as trade unions, civil rights organizations and women’s organizations; sometimes explosive political and social movements of the poor, special interest business groups; state and local governments anxious to reduce their own costs by transferring them to the federal level or resisting federally mandated expansions. The history of welfare policy since World War II reflects this diversity of interests and the shifting political coalitions among them.

These political conflicts over welfare policy take place, however, within a context of class and gender power which sets limits to and creates opportunities for the groups in play. The process of setting limits and creating opportunities occurs both outside and inside the political process itself. Sometimes employers are organized to intervene directly in the political process—but this has been rare in the case of welfare policy.

However, capitalist class interests are imbedded in the imperatives of the capitalist economy. These imperatives set the context within which decisions about taxation and spending must be made, and they operate regardless of who holds office or directly controls government decision-making. Further, interest groups contesting state policies seek political goals and rhetoric that are realistic and will tend to limit themselves to policies compatible with a “positive business climate.”

The post-war era of prosperity and growth did not create the expansion of the welfare state but made it possible. The qualitative changes in the scope and level Of government spending reflected the political organization of different interest groups and most spectacularly the mobilization of the Black community. Correlatively, economic decline did not create the conservative backlash against welfare benefits. But increasing conflicts over shrinking political and economic resources drove a broad wedge through the coalition of interests that had constituted the base of post-war liberalism.

Women advocating for women have played a part in the evolution of state policy. But women’s participation in the political process has been historically constrained—not only or even primarily by their exclusion from formal politics but also by the gender division of labor within the household and the economy. Women have had less of the resources crucial to self-organization than men—less money, less time, less access to public space—and women of color and working class women have had less than white, middle class women. These constraints have shaped not only when women mobilized, but also which women mobilized, for what ends and with what strategies and political rhetoric.

In turn, the presence and absence of women has effected welfare policy: white, middle-class women’s organizations played a crucial role in the passage of Mothers’ Pensions in the early twentieth century—but the voices, interests and strategies of working-class women were by and large absent While working-class women and women of color were active in the mass movements of the 1930s, there was no significant self-organization of women in that period, and thus no challenge to the assumptions about men’s status as family breadwinners which so fundamentally shaped New Deal legislation and programs. Not until the 1960s did poor women, particularly African-American women, organize themselves to contest welfare policy with the state, expanding eligibility and rights to benefits while demanding access to programs providing education and training.

Class and Gender and Welfare Policy

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was common for children of poor single women to be removed from their mother’s care. Between 1911 and 1921, forty states enacted legislation which allowed local authorities to award grants to those destitute single mothers who were considered to be “proper guardians,” so that the family could stay together. Many women reformers rationalized the idea of mothers’ pensions in terms of children’s need for their mothers’ care: state support would make it possible for poor women without husbands to live like women with husbands.

Mother’s pensions established the principle of government’s responsibility for single mothers (or more accurately, perhaps, for the children of single mothers). However, narrow eligibility requirements, and accompanying distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving low funding and successful political resistance at the local level excluded many women from benefits. Most programs did not constitute a real alternative to dependence on male support By the early 1930s, widows constituted 82% of recipients, 96% of all families served were white, and less than 3% of all female-headed families received aid.

In 1935 the federal government entered the picture with the creation of Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which for the first time offered federal funds to states to establish financial assistance programs for needy children. Women reformers, well-placed in the Roosevelt administration, were key players in crafting the legislation and ensuring its inclusion in the Social Security Act of 1935. However, although personally influential, they had no political base. There was no “women’s movement,” no feminist organization among the organizations and grassroots forces that formed the New Deal coalition. It is not surprising, then, that New Deal policies incorporated the assumptions of the male breadwinner family ideal: mothers ought to depend on male wages, the cure for poverty was male employment, men should have priority in training and work programs.

In 1939, amendments to the Social Security Act effectively separated widows from other single mothers by establishing benefits for widows and their children until the child reached age sixteen. Social security benefits to widows were set by the federal government But in ADC the level of benefits and determinations of eligibility for widows of uncovered male workers (including the majority of African-American men), deserted, divorced or unmarried mothers remained in the hands of local authorities. The superiority of Social Security benefits to those in ADC reflected differences in political influence by race and gender. Widows’ pensions rewarded wives as part of a benefits system to white men.

This situation changed dramatically in the 1960s. (ADC became AFDC in 1962.) In alliance with professionals and middle-class reformers, especially those from the federal poverty program, and within the context of the civil rights movement, grassroots groups of welfare mothers, organized in the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), won a major expansion Of AFDC. the NWRO organized to demand expanded benefits, to inform more poor women about their eligibility for benefits, and to extend the rights of women recipients in relation to state bureaucracies. Between 1950 and 1965, the number of AFDC recipients had increased approximately 6% ayeat But between 1965 and 1970 the annual rate of growth jumped to 18%. By 1975, the number of recipients had reached 11 million, compared to only 3 million in 1960.

Community legal service lawyers from the poverty program were especially important allies for NWRO activists. Between 1967 and 1971,368,000 families headed by unwed mothers became eligible for welfare due to court rulings that overturned home eligibility checks, man-in-the house rule, and midnight raids. In 1967 the Supreme Court declared residency requirements illegal, adding 800,000 to the AFDC rolls by 1970. In addition to using the courts to expand poor women’s access to support, the welfare rights movement forced welfare departments to establish formal grievance procedures. These made arbitrary terminations more difficult, informed poor women of their eligibility for assistance and produced welfare rights handbooks for recipients, and helped to eliminate some of the more intrusive and demeaning aspects of the welfare system.

By the end of the 1960s, poor women had won rights and protection that gave them a more secure claim to state support. Between 1965 and 1970 states increased AFDC benefit levels by 36%. The proportion of eligible families headed by women who actually received benefits increased from 60% in 1967 to nearly 90% in 1971. Real expenditures for public benefits increased by 69% between 1965 and 1970. By 1970 welfare costs were expected to “exceed the budgeted amount by $1 billion.”

The welfare rights movement not only increased the level of benefits but helped to reduce the stigma of welfare and to secure women’s entitlement to state sup.-port Almost from the first, however, this right was under attack from conservatives and in 1967 Congress began to consider programs for forcing recipients off the rolls and into paid work This conservative backlash was fairly well countered by opposition from social service professionals, civil rights and welfare rights organizations. In the legislation finally passed, the Work Incentive Program (WIN), most of the provisions aimed at punishing welfare mothers were removed.

Since 1967, welfare policy has been a patchwork of rules and regulations reflecting political compromises over the terms and conditions under which women on welfare will be required to work In 1971, Congress broke with the principle of supporting single mothers to stay home with their children, requiring states to in-dude single mothers with children six or older in the WIN program. On the other hand, the welfare advocates lobby succeeded in also requiring states to provide childcare to mothers participating in WIN. Since states did not want to spend money on childcare programs, they registered the women but never required them to participate. Through 1970s conservatives and the welfare lobby (organizations such as the American Public Welfare Association, National Council of Local Public Welfare Administrators, the National Association of Social Workers, the Children’s Defense Fund, National Child Support Enforcement Association, Coalition for Human Needs, and the Child Welfare League in alliance with civil rights organizations and trade unions) essentially forced a stalemate around welfare policy (although the value of benefits rapidly declined).

From the early 1970s, economic pressure on corporate profits led to an increasingly well-organized employers offensive against working-class standards of living. Over the 1970s median real family income declined by 16%, while regressive taxes were rising. Existing social and economic divisions—between the unemployed and the employed, between public and private workers, between whites and people of color—were aggravated, as groups scrambled to improve their incomes, generally at the expense of one another. This was the economic context within which liberalism and political support for the welfare state unraveled. The Reagan landslide and Republican control of the Congress in 1980 opened the way for a successful conservative offensive against social expenditures and forced welfare advocates to design a new strategy.

In passing the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1981 Congress launched an assault on AFDC which managed to cut the rolls by 8% in one year Ironically, whereas Reagan’s rhetoric emphasized putting recipients to work, in fact the vast majority who had their benefits cut or were declared non-eligible were the working poor: In designing programs for welfare reform, welfare professionals conceded the ground on single mothers’ employment in order to craft, within that framework, a program that they hoped would increase federal funding for state programs and benefits for women on welfare.

The political conjuncture that created the Family Support Act was shaped by related changes in the economy and in gender relations. Declining male wages and increased demand for women workers, especially in low-paid clerical and service jobs, sent increasing numbers of women into wage work. In a period where the vast majority of women with young children work for wages, a welfare policy that pays women to stay home appears anachronistic.

Most single mothers, including those with children under six, are in full-time paid work But many married mothers are also in the labor force. Almost 33% of married mothers with children under three and 40% of married mothers with children between three and five work full-time. Well over half of all married mothers of children under six are employed either full or part-time. Full-time motherhood appears to be a privilege of affluence rather than a biological necessity.

If economic restructuring has worsened in some ways the conditions of life of many working-class women (and especially women of color), opportunities for paid work, however unequal they are in comparison to those for men, have underwritten a feminist challenge to traditional gender ideology. Feminism has not only significantly changed attitudes but liberal feminists have established a “women’s policy network” that can craft and lobby for legislation. Their efforts were important in making women’s impoverishment a political issue and in shaping solutions.

Emergence of Welfare Reform Consensus

By shifting costs for welfare onto the states and at the same time subsidizing welfare-to-work demonstration programs, OBRA provided much of the impetus behind welfare reform. Governors and their welfare administrators responded to the increasing burden by utilizing welfare reform to re-federalize welfare costs. Within an ideology of promoting “independence,” governors and state welfare administrators, lobbied Congress intensively for increased funding of work incentive programs as a vehicle for getting money back into the states. Perhaps it is not surprising that state managers accepted a trade-off in which increasing funds were purchased at the cost of further undermining single mothers’ entitlement to state support. But most significant in the emerging welfare reform consensus was that groups and organizations which had for a long time fought to defend this right now gave it up.

During the 1980s the discourse around welfare shifted as the social welfare lobby attempted to adapt to the prevailing political climate. In the 1950s and 1960s, social workers and policy planners used a culture of poverty analysis to justify increased spending on benefits and services to poor families—to intervene in the intergenerational transmission of poverty by rehabilitating mothers and providing children more security and opportunity.

Welfare rights and civil rights organizations contested the culture of poverty and claimed benefits as a right that women had as mothers and as human beings. Although service professionals and welfare rights activists did not speak in the same language, they served one another in so far as both were arguing for increasing benefits to welfare mothers. In the context of the civil rights and Black power movements, the organization of the urban poor in welfare rights and other community organizations, and the consequent threat of political and social disruption, social work professionals provided the legitimating arguments for a policy of increasing benefits that was being forced on the legislature.

In the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, concerned to justify their programs and positions and freed from any pressure from below, social policy experts emphasized work incentives and the need to move individuals, including single mothers, out of “dependency.” Job training and placement is defended in terms of educating young mothers—who are the heart of the “hardcore” welfare population–so that they can become self-supporting. Welfare reform targets teenage parent families and families receiving AFDC for two or more years. Advocates argue that by spending more on these families, the intergenerational cycle of poverty can be broken and costs lowered as 15-25% of the welfare recipients requiring long-term support move into the workforce.

This political discourse revives the “culture of poverty” on a new basis: Teenage girls, or more specifically Black teenage girls, not adult women as in the 1960s, have been forced to shoulder the blame for poverty, If, at the turn of the century, the “backward” immigrant woman and her “drunkard” husband peopled the victim-blaming discourses on poverty, since World War II, African Americans have been the icons of the poor in the 1960s the “matriarchal” Black mother and her “shiftless street-corner” husband; today the” promiscuous” Black teenager and her “drug-gang” boyfriend.

This shift has spread far beyond the social layers in which it originated. In the 1960s, civil-rights organizations countered the Moynihan report by arguing that the end of institutionalized racism and the creation of decent and well-paid jobs for African-American people (or perhaps more accurately African-American men) were the solution to poverty.

But by 1984 the slack Family Summit, convened by the Urban League and the NAACP, were emphasizing strategies of “self-help.” John Jacobs, president of the Urban League, asserted that “In concentrating on the wrongs of discrimination and poverty we have neglected the fact that there is a lot we can do about our problems ourselves.” Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has written on the theme of restoring the traditional African-American family. “The family’s return to its historic strength,” she argues, “will require the overthrow of the complicated predatory ghetto subculture, a fact demanding not only new government approaches, but active Black leadership and community participation and commitment.”(2)

The demoralization and disorganization of urban Black ghettos cannot be denied. And it is not surprising that in the wake of the political defeat of full-employment programs (such as Humphrey-Hawkins) and dismantling of the legislative and judicial attack on institutionalized racism that Black organizations have adopted a rhetoric of self-help as a way to funnel money into services for the African-American community.

The new “culture of poverty” politics does acknowledge institutionalized racism in pointing out that declining job opportunities for working-class young men, and especially for young African-American men because of racism, are responsible for the rise in single-parent families. Young mothers are on welfare because they cannot be supported by the fathers of their children. This argument contains an important truth.

But it also draws on and promotes a male breadwinner ideal: the solution to women’s impoverishment is to recompose the nuclear family. Indeed, pro-family discourse permeates the advocacy of welfare reform, evident in arguments for requiring all states to fund the AFDC-UP program. It is clearly a step forward for unemployed fathers to be seen as legitimate recipients of support The difficulty lies in arguing for AFDC-UP as a “solution” to the rise of women-headed families which denies the reality that, as the Black feminist Barbara Omolade put it, single motherhood is “both a chosen and an imposed condition.”(3)

Mainstream feminist organizations (NWPC, NOW, Congressional Women’s Caucus, Women’s Equity Action League, etc.) have not made the welfare reform debate a priority In the year when welfare reform was a major initiative, the Congressional Women’s Caucus and other feminist organizations focused on a package of legislation primarily aimed at the problems of working parents, including parental leave and childcare legislation. Their major initiative against the impoverishment of single mothers has been child support enforcement legislation, not raising AFDC benefits or expanding eligibility.

The Family Support Act responded to their demands for automatic withholding of child support, higher monetary awards, and state help in tracking down delinquent fathers. The major beneficiaries of increased enforcement, however, are not AFDC mothers, because the fathers of children on AFDC are generally working in very low- paid jobs or unemployed. According to Federal Health and Human Services projections, higher child support payments would lift less than 10% of families off the welfare rolls.

A more positive effect of feminism on the welfare reform consensus is the agreement that moving women into paid work requires transitioning childcare and health benefits. In providing women who leave welfare for work with childcare and healthcare for one year, the Family Support Act recognizes that women workers have needs different from those of men, needs which the state has an obligation to meet. It is no accident that this recognition has occurred in a period when feminist groups have been targeting work/family issues for legislative action. Without the feminist challenge to traditional roles and their demands for social supports to working women, women’s increasing labor force participation alone would have produced a very different legislative climate, one in which the special needs of women workers were ignored.

While able to mobilize grassroots support around certain issues (e.g., legal abortion), most advocates for women are not connected to a radicalized grassroots constituency. Yet without such a constituency, it is easy enough for feminist organizations to ignore welfare reform’s threat to poor women and to accept the apparently narrow limits of what might be “winnable.”

The Family Support Act of 1988

It is too early to assess the impact on welfare recipients of the Family Support Act of 1988. The act follows previous policy in allowing states a wide flexibility, and we can expect the usual pattern in which the more liberal and prosperous states will have programs that are less punitive and provide more services than those in the more conservative and poorer states.

The bill seems to be the usual mix of trade-offs and compromises. While there are some significant changes, neither side took a clear victory. For instance, conservatives maintained federal funding for “workfare” (CWEP), while liberals added education to the services that states must provide in the JOBS program (the WIN replacement). Participation in the JOBS program will be mandatory, not voluntary, for women with children over three, and states may make it mandatory for women with children as young as one (although women with children under six cannot be required to participate more than twenty hours per week, and first consideration for enrollment must be given to volunteers). Evidence from the demonstration programs on which JOBS is based indicate that there have generally been more volunteers than slots when appropriate services are provided, so the program might in fact be voluntary for quite some time.

Still, in the more punitive states, the work requirements could be enforced arbitrarily in order to push more mothers of children under six into paid work and off the rolls. For mothers of children six or over, who were already subject to a work requirement under the WIN programs, the JOBS program offers some improvements. Recipients have to have achieved a basic level of literacy before they can be forced into job search or job training. In California’s GAIN (the WIN Demonstration Program) over 55% of participants needed remedial education. Recipients can only be required to look for work for two to four months out of the year. And there are firm restrictions preventing the states from forcing recipients to take jobs lowering their standard of living.

The act provides childcare and health care subsidies for one year after an individual leaves the welfare rolls for employment, makes these benefits available to all recipients, and requires states to adequately inform individuals of their entitlement To this extent, the act substantially increases subsidies to poor working women. But allowable childcare subsidies, to be negotiated individually by the states and the federal government, may be set too low to provide quality care.

Defining a Feminist Stance

Disagreement about welfare reform is one instance of the tension in feminist politics between “different treatment” and “equal treatment” -strategies. Paying poor mothers to stay home with their children can only be justified as a necessity not a choice. In a society where life chances are expected to depend on how one fares in a competitive market, state support is legitimate only as providing bare necessities. But to claim a mother’s care is a necessity is to claim a natural and intense relationship between mothers and their children and between women and nurture. A politics of difference appears to reinforce traditional constructions of womanhood.

A politics of equality, which argues that women and mothers have a right to economic independence, to be “family breadwinners” just like men, appears to reinforce conservative attempts to force welfare mothers into work without childcare or other support Conservatives argue that women on welfare need to be “‘weaned” from dependence into independence. Welfare handout, they claim, breed psychological dependency, a lack of self-discipline, and promiscuous pleasure-seeking rather than responsible self-control.

Feminists who attack the reforms fear the more punitive proposals. They have accused supporters of adopting a “middle-class” and male- identified perspective which ignores the real needs and conditions of working-class and poor women, devalues motherhood as work, and cooperates in state schemes to cut the welfare rolls by producing a captive pool of low-waged female labor for the growing service industries.

Those feminists who have defended current proposals look to the more generous options. In response to the critics they argue that dependence on a male-controlled state represents no real improvement for women, that benefits will never be high enough to offer full-time mothers a reasonable standard of living, and that most working-class women in fact want to work and to be economically independent.

The feminist debate on welfare policy reflects the real difficulty in developing a strategy for reforms that are both achievable and emancipatory. The costs required to move women out of poverty—not only increased training and education, but also subsidized childcare, medical benefits, and decent jobs—are far beyond what can now be won. Neither poor people nor their potential allies are well-organized. Under these conditions, the achievable reform might leave poor women worse off—having lost their claim to income maintenance without having moved any closer to economic self-sufficiency.

Despite the dangers, I would argue for a strategy that builds alliances and consciousness centered on providing working mothers with support rather than demanding  payments to women to stay home with their children. There is much in the current legislation to oppose: requiring teenage mothers to live with their families in order to be eligible for state support, continuing federal subsidies to state workfare programs, too much local flexibility in implementing programs, inadequate grievance procedures and protection for recipients, and no national benefit standard which would insure income above the poverty line.

But the new legislation represents a substantial infusion of new federal money to poor families in some of its features, particularly the continuation of childcare and health benefits for a year after an individual leaves welfare for employment and the requirement that all states introduce AFDC-UP. One can support the act’s provision of training and education programs aimed to make welfare mothers employable and its targeting of services to teenage mothers without supporting the new “culture of poverty” politics.

It is true, as critics argue, that many poor single mothers in fact need nothing more than well-paying jobs—their poverty can be cured better through a jobs program than a social service program. An adequate jobs program is unlikely to happen. In the meantime there is no point in allowing states to fill their JOBS program with employable individuals who are likely to leave welfare for low-paid jobs anyway. It may be practical, under current circumstances, to require states to concentrate services on those most in need of them, primarily teenage mothers and long-term recipients. However, to promise that targeting teenage mothers in work education, and training programs will cure poverty, including that of women, is not only impractical, it is harmful. Such claims reinforce the victim-blaming discourses on poverty and undermine the arguments for full-employment programs.

In entering into the debate around welfare reform feminists must emphasize the need to go much further in terms of higher cash benefits and a guaranteed standard of living to all households. A program of jobs and support provides possibilities for movement building and alliances. Welfare families’ needs should be aligned to those of the working poor and non-poor by arguing for an increase in the range and quality of services provided to all families, including families with single mothers (e.g., nationalized medical care, quality parent/ teacher controlled daycare and after school programs as part of public education, and subsidies to all families to guarantee adequate housing). Ultimately an approach to supporting single mothers that emphasizes employment can arue for the provision of well paid, useful, and productive work, showing that the costs are affordable and the benefits enormous.

Poor and working women themselves would prefer to combine work and parenting.(4) Women leaders in the NWRO opposed categorizing single mothers along with the aged and disabled as “economically immobile,” i.e., unable to be self-supporting. While arguing for an adequate income for women who chose to work in the home, these women also argued for jobs, educational opportunity and childcare for single mothers and they often challenged male organizers who gave priority to jobs for unemployed men and tended to ignore the childcare issue.(5) A renewed poor women’s movement is much more likely to form around demands for jobs and service support than increased welfare alone.

The growing importance within the trade union movement of unions organizing women workers and the increasing organization of women within the trade unions make possible an alliance between employed and unemployed women and between better-off workers and the working poor Such an alliance, while not simple, will be easier to make today than in the past when men dominated trade union politics and the problems of combining work and family responsibilities were entirely marginal to trade union organizing. As union women mobilize around demands for federal ac tion to help both “intact” and single-parent families with childcare they have the potential to become allies for women on welfare who also need quality childcare so they can work.(6)

Indeed, the extension of subsidized childcare would solve the primary difficulties faced by single mothers—income from their low-paid jobs does not cover the costs of working, most especially childcare costs. Similarly, while the number of working women with health-care benefits has grown, many are without coverage. State legislation requiring employers to provide medical benefits for all workers (and/or subsidizing health insurance for all) would also make it much easier for women on welfare to move into paid work.

A politics that emphasizes combining work and parenting for all families can directly challenge the false distinction between “dependent” families (i.e., those that rely on the state) and “independent” families (i.e., those that rely on their own resources). This distinction has been the foundation of AFDC policy. While working parents have different needs, almost all working parents need help from the state. Because caregiving and parenting remain primarily a familial, private responsibility rather than a social and community responsibility and because men generally earn higher incomes than women, the traditional gender division of labor which assigns caregiving tasks to women continues, even where women work for wages. Single-earner families, especially those headed by a woman, are especially disadvantaged. At a minimum, good jobs at a living wage for women as well as for men, a shorter work day, and publicly-funded programs providing high-quality care meet pressing needs facing the majority of men and women.

The entry of women into the labor force and the increasing influence of women trade unionists, the impact of feminism on women’s family roles, the increasing organization of professionals and grass-roots constituencies around family/work issues, make it possible for the first time since the emergence of industrial capitalism to challenge women’s assignment to unpaid caring work. We can reasonably argue for the universal need of households for social provisions that will help them carry out their responsibilities for raising children and caring for adults.


  1. Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present (South End Press, 1988).
    back to text
  2. Eleanor Holmes Norton, “Restoring the Traditional Black Family,” New York Times Magazine, (June 2, 1985), For a critique of this approach see Angela Davis and Fania Davis, “The Black Family and the Crisis of Capitalism,” The Black Scholar (Sept./Oct. 1986), 33-40.
    back to text
  3. Barbara Omolade, “The Unbroken Circle: Black Single Mothers,” Africana Polities (Fall, 1986) 11.
    back to text
  4. On poor women’s attitudes see, Milwaukee National Welfare Rights Organization, Welfare Women Speak Out (New York W.W Norton, 1972); Coalition on Human Needs, How the Poor Would Remedy Poverty. Interview with 50 Low-Income Persons in Washington, D.C. (Washington, D.C., July-August, 1986).
    back to text
  5. Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement (1981).
    back to text
  6. See, e.g., the Coalition of Labor Union Women’s American Family Celebration demonstration in Washington, D.C., May 14, 1988 which demanded federal action on childcare, health care, pay equity, paid parental leave.
    back to text

March-April 1991, ATC 31