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 Dorothy E. Roberts, 
excerpted from
Welfare and the Problem of Black Citizenship , 
105 Yale Law Journal 1563 -1602, 168-1572 (April, 1996)
(216 Footnotes Omitted) Book Reviews: Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. by Linda Gordon. New York: the Free Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 419. $22.95; The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. By Jill Quadagno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 240. $24.00

Does Gordon's focus on patriarchal norms fully explain the stratification and inadequacy of America's welfare system? In The Color of Welfare, Quadagno makes a convincing case that gender alone cannot account for American exceptionalism any more than can explanations based on the sequence of democratization, the legacy of a politically weak working class, or the liberal opposition to government intervention. For Quadagno, all of these explanations are inextricably tied to racial politics. And while centered on gender, Gordon's history of the first welfare programs reveals that the reformers' vision of welfare was shaped at least as much by race.


A. The Racist Origins of Welfare

Although much of the American public now views welfare dependency as a Black cultural trait, the welfare system systematically excluded Black people for most of its history. Besides its misguided faith in the family wage, the Progressive welfare movement was flawed by the elitism of the privileged, white activist network that led it. As a result, a defining aspect of its welfare vision was the social control of poor immigrant families and the neglect of Black women.

Immigrant women, who reformers incorrectly believed made up a disproportionate share of deserted wives and illegitimate mothers, became the primary objects of reformers' moral concern. Worried about urban immigrants' threat to the social order, the reformers treated welfare as a means of supervising and disciplining recipients as much as a means of providing charity. According to this social work perspective, the cure for single mothers' poverty lay in socializing foreign relief recipients to conform to "American" family standards. Thus, aid generally was conditioned on compliance with "suitable home" provisions and often administered by juvenile court judges who specialized in punitive and rehabilitative judgments.

Black single mothers, on the other hand, were simply excluded. The first maternalist welfare legislation was intended for white mothers only: Administrators either failed to establish programs in locations with large Black populations or distributed benefits according to standards that disqualified Black mothers. As a result, in 1931 the first national survey of mothers' pensions broken down by race found that only three percent of recipients were Black. The exclusivity of mothers' aid programs coincided with the entrenchment of formal racial segregation -- another Progressive reform intended to strengthen social order.

In a fascinating chapter entitled "Don't Wait for Deliverers," Gordon demonstrates the welfare movement's ideological loss that resulted from excluding Black women by contrasting the elite white reformers' programs with the welfare vision of Black women activists of the era. Although Black women reformers also relied on motherhood as a political platform, their approach to women's economic role differed dramatically from that of their privileged, white counterparts. Black women eschewed the viability of the family wage and women's economic dependence on men. Instead, they accepted married women's employment as a necessity, advocating assistance for working mothers.

Moreover, while white reformers relied largely on the romantic rhetoric of moral motherhood, Black women's organizations stressed the value of mothers' work in the home. As historian Eileen Boris observes, "black suffragists were redefining the political and demanding votes for women on the basis of their work as -- rather than their mere being -- mothers." Black activist women showed their respect for housewives, for example, by making them eligible for membership in the National Association of Wage Earners.


B. The Perpetuation of the Racialized Welfare System

The New Deal solidified welfare's stratification along racial as well as gender lines. Northern New Dealers struck a bargain with Southern Democrats that systematically denied Blacks' eligibility for social insurance benefits: Core programs allowed states to define eligibility standards and excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants in a deliberate effort to maintain a Black menial labor caste in the South. Whites feared that Social Security would make both recipients and those freed from the burden of supporting dependents less willing to accept low wages. In addition, New Deal public works programs blatantly discriminated against Blacks, offering them the most menial jobs and paying them sometimes half of what white workers earned. Even Aid to Dependent Children was created primarily for white mothers, who were not expected to work; the relatively few Black recipients received smaller stipends on the ground that "blacks needed less to live on than whites."

Quadagno connects racial politics both to the enactment and to the dismantling of the 1960s welfare programs that followed. She interprets the War on Poverty as an effort to eliminate the racial barriers of the New Deal programs and to integrate Blacks into the national political economy. For example, the Office of Economic Opportunity used federal funds to empower community action groups run by local Black activists; federal affirmative action and job-training programs broke longstanding racial barriers to union jobs; the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave housing subsidies to the poor.

At the same time, the National Welfare Rights Organization, a grassroots movement composed of welfare mothers, joined forces with neighborhood welfare rights centers and legal services lawyers to agitate for major changes in the welfare system's eligibility and procedural rules. This welfare rights movement secured entitlements to benefits, raised benefit levels, and increased availability of benefits to families headed by women. As a result, "by 1967, a welfare caseload that had once been eighty-six percent white had become forty-six percent nonwhite."

But Black welfare activists won a Pyrrhic victory. As Gordon notes, they got themselves included "not in social insurance but mainly in public assistance programs, which by then had become even stingier and more dishonorable than they had been originally." As AFDC became increasingly associated with Black mothers already stereotyped as lazy, irresponsible, and overly fertile, it became increasingly burdened with behavior modification, work requirements, and reduced effective benefit levels. Social Security, on the other hand, effectively transferred income from Blacks to whites because Blacks have a lower life expectancy and pay a disproportionate share of taxes on earnings. Meanwhile, a white backlash had decimated the War on Poverty programs within a decade.



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The Gendered Origins of Welfare ] [ Blacks and the History of Welfare ] The Problem of Black Citizenship ] Welfare and the Denial of the Rights of Citizenship ] Citizenship and a New Vision of Welfare ] Strategies for Transforming the American Welfare System ] Can Racial Realists Pursue Systemic Change? ]
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