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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beyond Welfare Queens: Developing a Race, Class and Gender Analysis of Welfare and Welfare Reform

From Colours of Resistance (COR)
    By Chris Crass < chriscrass1886@hotmail.com >
    May 1999

    In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act
    became law and dismantled the 61 year old program of
    federally guaranteed Aid to Families with Dependent Children
    or what is common referred to as welfare. The debate
    surrounding welfare reform was dominated primarily by white
    male politicians and journalists and focused predominately
    on Black women and their families living in poverty. The
    discussion in the mainstream media about welfare and welfare
    reform has centered on what Newsweek's columnist Joe Klein
    described as the "sexually irresponsible culture of
    poverty". The accusation that poverty is the result of the
    individual failings of single mothers to care for their
    families has shaped the debates about welfare. The actual
    lives, let alone ideas, of mothers on welfare have been
    pushed to the margins of debate unless they legitimize
    popular stereotypes.

    While the political drive to cut welfare is not new, neither
    is the image of the Black welfare mother. In this essay, I
    will examine the history of welfare and welfare reform from
    a radical political perspective that places Black women at
    the center of an interconnected analysis of race, class and
    gender. As it is Black womanhood that is positioned as the
    stereotype and image of the welfare mother, I wanted to
    explore the history of welfare and the development of racist
    images of mothers on AFDC. A reading of this history from a
    radical perspective will help develop a better understanding
    of how race, class and gender shape US society. By
    developing this analysis through a study of history, this
    paper aims to develop an analysis that can challenge myths
    of the "welfare queen".

     >From a Mother's Pension to AFDC to TANF: 
    A History of Race, Gender and Welfare Policy

    The history of aid to women with children began with the
    Mother's Pension program advanced by mainly white
    middle-class reformers during the Progressive Era
    (1896-1914). The Progressive Era marked a period of time
    when sweeping reforms were made in government at local,
    state and federal level. The reform efforts were generally
    organized by an upper to middle class white constituency
    that believed that government should be managed
    professionally and that middle-class values should be spread
    throughout society, particularly to poor immigrant and
    working class communities. The campaign for the Mother's
    Pension program pushed for greater government responsibility
    in the lives of poor women and their children. The poor
    mothers the women reformers campaigned for were widows. In
    1900, widows headed 77 percent of all mother only families.
    The advocates of the Mother's Pension focused on widows as
    mothers who were deemed socially "worthy" of public support.
    The pension would be used to help maintain families and
    reward mothers who stayed home with their children. The
    women reformers of the Progressive Era, in general, believed
    that the proper role of the mother was to stay home and care
    for the children. The pension would therefore help maintain
    established gender roles; this being the explicit strategy
    of the reformers. The size of the pension to widow's and
    their families was small, bit it did help families stay
    slightly above poverty levels. Between 1911 and 1921, forty
    states had passed the Mother's Pension program and by 1932,
    the program existed in all but two states.

    The Mother's Pension was based on the model of the "worthy"
    mother. In a society stratified by race that privileges
    whiteness at the expense of Blackness, this meant that the
    program by and large benefited white mothers. Historian of
    social policy, Mimi Abramovitz writes in her book Under
    Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United
    States, "the glorification of Anglo-American motherhood, the
    belief in childrearing as exclusively women's work, the
    narrow vision of proper single mothers as widows and the
    identification of worthiness with assimilation [into
    white-Anglo middle class society] condemned other mothers
    who did not live up to these ideals as immoral and unworthy
    of aid."

    The Mother's Pension had little to no direct impact on Black
    mothers. Black womanhood has historically been devalued next
    to the idealized white womanhood. During slavery, while the
    social ideal of womanhood conjured up notions of being
    placed upon a pedestal of femininity, Black women worked
    alongside Black men, in what Angela Davis called a deformed
    equality under a racialized oppression that did not
    discriminate between women and men. Furthermore, as Black
    Feminist theorist Barbara Christian writes, "the enslaved
    African woman became the basis for the definition of our
    society's Other." The notion of the other is rooted in
    either/or dichotomous thinking which catagorizes people,
    ideas and things in terms of their differences from one
    another. Black feminist writer bell hooks argues that
    either/or dichotomous thinking is "the central ideological
    component of all systems of domination in Western society."
    Patricia Hill Collins writes in her book, Black Feminist
    Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of
    Empowerment, that difference in dichotomous thinking is
    characterized as being in opposition, "One part is not
    simply different from its counterpart; it is inherently
    opposed to its 'other'." In Western society, Collins writes,
    "Whites and Blacks, males and females, thought and feeling
    are not complementary counterparts - they are fundamentally
    different entities related only through their definitions as
    opposites." In a society marked by racial inequality, class
    stratification and gender subordination, to be positioned in
    opposition to dominate groups is to be simultaneously
    objectified by those who exercise power. "Domination always
    involves attempts to objectify the subordinate group.",
    writes Collins. And hooks explains that, "as objects, one's
    reality is defined by others, one's identity is created by
    others, one's history named only in ways that define one's
    relationship to those who are subject" and that "as
    subjects, people have the right to define their own reality,
    establish their own identities, name their history", as
    subjects possess or exercise the power to define.

    It is important that we explore these underlying discourses
    in the Mother's Pension program, as these discourses are at
    the ideological core of welfare programs, welfare reform and
    discussions on poverty in general. This is why it is
    important that we develop a framework of analysis as we look
    at this history.

    At the same time that the Mother's Pension was adopted,
    other programs that would have benefited all poor women, all
    children, both single and two parent families (through a
    family allowance) were rejected. These alternative program
    proposals were based on the idea that public support was a
    right not a privilege. The programs that were able to
    generate support from power constituencies in the reform
    movement, business or the government, were programs that
    enforced the notion that public support was a burden on
    society and not a right of the public. The dichotomous
    notions of "worthy and "unworthy" mothers developed in the
    Mother's Pension program will continue throughout the
    evolution of welfare programs. Worthy women were rewarded
    with assistance barely above the poverty line, while
    unworthy mothers in poverty are further punished and made an
    example of to all of society. Race plays a significant role
    in this class based poverty program designed to serve women
    and their children.

    The next major event in the development of welfare took
    place during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Amid
    widespread unemployment, poverty, a crashing economy and
    growing social unrest, the federal government passed the
    Social Security Act of 1935. The significance of this Act
    was profound, as Abramovitz explains, "this landmark
    legislation transferred responsibility for social welfare
    from the states to the federal government, replacing
    nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics with twentieth
    century government intervention" The Social Security Act
    modeled many of the existing social welfare programs that
    had existed for over 30 years in most of the industrialized
    European nations.

    As part of the New Deal legislation created under President
    Roosevelt, the Social Security Act established two forms of
    cash benefits: social insurance and public assistance.
    Social insurance programs included Social Security and

    Unemployment Insurance. Social Security is a pension for
    retired workers that is generated through a payroll tax that
    is paid half by the worker and half by the employer.
    Unemployment Insurance covers the wages of those temporarily
    unemployed and the program is funded entirely be a tax paid
    for by the employer. Because these two entitlement programs
    have benefited a large segment of society, they are thought
    of as social rights rather than government assistance.

    However, these two programs did not cover everyone. The
    social insurance programs of 1935, excluded the majority of
    Black workers in the country. In order to win the support of
    Southern political leaders, the two entitlement programs did
    not include those in agricultural and domestic work. With
    the majority of Black men and women working in these two
    occupations, especially in the South, social insurance
    programs furthered race based economic inequality. In
    addition to the exclusion of Black women workers in
    agriculture and domestic work, both white and Black women
    were excluded from Social Security as the following
    occupations did not receive this federal entitlement;
    teachers, nurses, hospital employees, librarians and social
    workers -- all of which are heavily occupied by women. Thus
    writes Jill Quadagno, author of The Color of Welfare: How
    Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, the nations first
    social wage provided little or nothing for most women and
    most African Americans.

    The public assistance programs were: Aid to Dependent
    Children (ADC), Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind; Aid

    to the Permanently and Totally Disabled was added in 1956.
    ADC, which would become Aid to Families with Dependent
    Children in 1962, was a continuation of the Mother's Pension
    program, and carried the same dichotomous notions of worthy
    and unworthy mothers. ADC, which came to be known as
    welfare, was severely limited by institutionalized racism
    and sexism. To begin with Congress rejected a definition of
    a dependent child that would have entitled any poor child
    assistance if the family was either unemployed or could not
    provide a reasonable subsistence. This definition would have
    included children living in single or two parent homes as
    well as children living with extended families. ADC only
    offered assistance to children without parental support due
    to death, long-term absence or incapacity of the family
    breadwinner. ADC was also limited by Southern political
    leaders who again deprived Black women in the South from
    federal entitlements. Southern congressman, who chaired key
    committees, insisted that states reserve the right to
    establish the criteria for eligibility and make the
    decisions about who received benefits. Southern leaders
    prevented Black women and men from receiving federal
    entitlements, because the economy of the South depended on
    the underpaid labor of Black workers to generate enormous
    profit. Federal entitlements like ADC would have created
    opportunities for Black women to leave low-paying jobs. The
    systematic exclusion of the majority of Black women from
    federal entitlement programs and public assistance
    demonstrates two of the three main forms of oppression in
    Black women's lives as described by Black feminist theorist
    Patricia Hill Collins.

    In Black Feminist Thought, Collins sets out to develop a
    framework for understanding and theorizing Black women's
    lives. She begins this framework with a discussion of Black
    women's oppression, which "has been structured along three
    interdependent dimensions". The first is the exploitation of
    Black women's labor, on which Collins writes, "The drudgery
    of enslaved African-American women's work and the grinding
    poverty of 'free' wage labor in the rural South tellingly
    illustrate the high costs Black women have paid for
    survival." The underpaid labor or slave labor that Collins
    mentions was/is a form of exploitation in the lives of Black
    women and it was/is also a form of economic and racial
    privilege for the slave-master and the wealthy in the South
    who generate profit from this exploitation. Underpaid labor
    in the South resulted in families working full-time jobs
    living in poverty while the profit of this labor created the
    wealth of the white upper-class. Hence, the economic
    motivation behind Southern leaders racist practice of
    excluding Black workers from entitlements and Black women
    from public assistance, brings us to the second form of
    oppression, which is structural political inequality. "The
    political dimension of oppression has denied
    African-American women the rights and privileges routinely
    extended to white male citizens," argues Collins. She then
    notes that Black women have been forbidden to vote, excluded
    from public office, denied literacy, attended underfunded
    public schools, treated more severely in the criminal
    justice system and discriminated against in federal
    assistance programs as well. While political oppression
    disempowers Black women it institutionalizes power
    inequality that benefits white men, particularly those who
    hold economic power. As the example of Social Security and
    ADC demonstrate, Black women who are denied formal political
    power are further oppressed both politically and
    economically because of their race and gender by Southern
    leaders who directly benefit from this oppression.

    The third form of oppression, according to Collins, is the
    ideological dimension by which "certain assumed qualities
    are attached to Black women and how these qualities are used
    to justify oppression." Collins writes, "From the mammies,
    Jezebels and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt
    Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes
    and ever present welfare mothers of contemporary popular
    culture, the nexus of negative stereotypical images applied
    to African-American women has been fundamental to Black
    women's oppression." This is a process that involves both
    racializing and gendering meaning. Taking from the
    groundbreaking work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant's book
    Racial Formation in the United States, Collins explains
    racialization as a process that "involves attaching racial
    meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship,
    social practice or group." The process of gendering
    similarly involves attaching gendered meaning to previously
    ungendered relationships, social practices or group. The
    third form of oppression in Black women's lives as outlined
    by Collin's, has significantly shaped the formation and
    discourse of welfare. Let us look at ADC, which became AFDC,
    and the many layers of negative stereotypes and ideological

    As mentioned earlier, ADC was originally a program available
    primarily to white single mothers. Several major events
    changed the racial composition of ADC recipients. As the
    number of Black mothers receiving ADC grew, the program
    developed a racial coding that attached Black racialized
    meaning to a program that originally benefited white women
    almost exclusively. Whereas the dichotomous notions of the
    Mother's Pension focused on unworthy and worthy mothers, ADC
    will develop notions of worth related to the race of the
    recipient; to be a Black mother in poverty receiving ADC is
    to become the symbol of the unworthy woman. How did this

    To begin with, in 1939, the Congress amended the Social
    Security Act. A new program called Old Age Insurance (OAI)
    was created, which provided more then the public assistance
    program, Old Age Assistance. OAI moved up the starting date
    to begin collecting benefits and it also created benefits
    for deceased workers' widows and children. This impacted
    women in two ways. Black women who were widows of working
    men, or had worked themselves, were largely unable to
    receive OAI as most Black workers (male or female) were
    still excluded from Social Security benefits all together.
    Large numbers of white women who were widows of white
    workers went from ADC for OAI. Women who switched to OAI
    received double the amount of benefits.

    The next major event effecting welfare programs took place
    during and after World War II. There was an enormous
    movement of Black people from rural areas into cities in the
    South and from the South into the North. The promise of jobs
    and the need to escape racial and sexual violence in the
    South motivated hundreds of thousands of Black people to
    move to large northern cities. In the north, Black women had
    greater access to federal programs like ADC and later AFDC.
    The eligibility requirements for ADC still limited the
    number of poor women, especially Black women, who could
    receive assistance in the 40's and 50's. In the 60's during
    the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs reformed
    the requirements in favor of Black women and expanded some
    of the welfare benefits. These programs were initiated due
    to pressure from protest movements, particularly the Civil
    Rights and Welfare Rights movements, along with widespread
    urban unrest in the mid to late 60. ADC and later AFDC,
    became one of the few federal entitlement programs available
    to Black women, and because other programs like OAI included
    poor and working class white mothers, ADC became a program
    that served disproportionately Black women. While white
    women continued to make up a majority of those on welfare,
    Black women where on welfare in higher percentages then
    their percentage in the population as a whole (for example,
    a city might be 20 percent Black, while 40 percent of those
    on welfare were Black, yet the majority receiving welfare
    overall remained white). The number of Black women receiving
    welfare grew from 21% of the mothers on ADC in 1942 to 48%
    in 1961.

    In 1960 20 percent of all whites, nearly 50 percent of
    families living in female headed-households and more than
    half of all African Americans were poor. In 1962 the Social
    Security Act was amended, which changed ADC to AFDC and
    allowed women on welfare to work and collect benefits,
    opened up eligibility to include some two parent families,
    and permitted the states to provide services to a broad
    range of current and potential recipients. Also during the
    1960's, the War on Poverty and Grand Society programs were
    changing the racial structure of social services. Quadagno
    writes, "While the New Deal had excluded African Americans,
    the War on Poverty would favor them. While the New Deal had
    conspired with southern elite's to deny political and social
    rights to African Americans, the War on Poverty would
    assimilate them into local politics, local job markets and
    local housing markets." The number of families receiving aid
    grew from 803,000 in 1960 to 1.9 million in 1970 and then to
    just under 3 million in 1972. While the numbers of people on
    welfare grew, so too did the number of welfare recipients
    who began organizing under the banner of Welfare Rights. The
    National Welfare Rights Organization was founded in 1966 by
    dozens of local groups that had already been doing years of
    grassroots organizing in their communities. The welfare
    rights movement was primarily lead and composed of mothers
    who were welfare recipients.

    Due to the number of people on welfare growing, the influx
    of Black women on welfare, the growing power of the welfare
    rights movement, and the expanding government programs to
    aid the poor, the situation led to a backlash by the white
    male power structure that feared it was losing its ability
    to govern. The backlash focused on long held notions of
    welfare mothers, such as illegitimacy, dependency, and
    immorality. However, the backlash in the 1960's began to
    associate these concepts primarily with Black women, the
    Black family and the Black community generally. The stigma
    of welfare and the corrupting effects of welfare on the
    family became racialized. As ADC and then AFDC have always
    been programs benefiting women and their children, the
    stigma has already been gendered. The social construction of
    gender that defines women as dependent on men is continued
    to the social construction of the welfare mother dependent
    on society.

    An article written in 1965 for the New York Times Magazine
    reflects the discourse shaping headlines and newspaper
    articles across the country. The article explains, "We know
    that the damage to the infant takes place long before he
    [sic] sees the dirt, the drunks, the drug addicts, the
    spilled garbage of the slum; the damage takes place when the
    unavailable mother brings her child home from the hospital
    and realizes she hates him for being alive." Also in 1965,
    the highly influential and controversial report by Daniel
    Moynihan, "The Negro Family", was released. Moynihan argued
    that the underlying cause for the rising welfare roles, the
    increased poverty, and the high rate of unemployment in the
    Black community was the Black family. The families headed by
    single mothers, in particular. He explained that the Black
    family had developed into a dysfunctional state due to
    slavery. During slavery, Black men were unable to exercise
    patriarchal power and maintained a general equality with
    women. Then as a result of job discrimination, Black men
    were not able to perform the task of breadwinner for their
    families. Black women became the head of households as they
    performed the breadwinner role and the caretaker role. Black
    women, argued Moynihan, had become powerful Black matriarchs
    that emasculated Black boys and failed to provide proper
    role models for Black girls. The Black father's position as
    head of the household had been so thoroughly undermined by
    the power of the Black mother, that he often left his
    families as a failure.

    What does Moynihan suggest doing about this situation?
    Ending job discrimination? Creating a federally guaranteed
    annual family income to end poverty?

    No. Moynihan points to the goal of restructuring the Black
    family. The father must regain his position as head of the
    household. Black women should be discouraged from paid work
    and stay at home with the children. Establishing male
    dominance in the family was a prerequisite of social
    stability. During the turbulent period of the 60's when the
    Black liberation movement is changing national politics and
    the women's liberation movement is beginning to question the
    base assumptions of a patriarchal society, Moynihan argues
    that social problems ranging from poverty to lack of self
    confidence in Black men is the fault of the matriarchal
    Black mother who exercises too much power. Moynihan's report
    was an attack on the social movements of the 60s and an
    effort to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal
    discourses on Black people and women generally and Black
    women in particular.

    Moynihan also developed an argument that has gained wide
    spread currency and is used consistently to describe the
    poor. Moynihan argued that the Black family was a tangled
    web of pathologies. Drug addiction, self-hate, violence,
    lack of a work ethic, dependency, out-of-wedlock,
    illegitimate babies and the teen mothers who can't take care
    of themselves let alone a child. These pathologies are the
    result of the breakdown of the Black family.

    In response to these arguments Collins writes, "creating the
    controlling image of the welfare mother and stigmatizing her
    as the cause of her own poverty and that of African American
    communities shifts the angle of vision away from structural
    sources of poverty and blames the victims themselves. The
    image of the welfare mother thus provides ideological
    justification for the dominate group's interest in limiting
    the fertility of Black mothers who are seen as producing too
    many economically unproductive children."

    Welfare Rights organizer Johnnie Tillman wrote an article
    for Ms. Magazine in 1972 that challenged the popular image
    of welfare mothers. Her a ticle titled, "Welfare is a
    Women's Issue", reads: "There are a lot of lies that male
    society tells about welfare mothers: that AFDC mothers are
    immoral, that AFDC mothers are lazy, misuse their welfare
    checks, spend it all on booze and are stupid and
    incompetent. If people are willing to believe these lies,
    it's partly because these are just special versions of the
    lies that society tells about all women."

    Throughout the 70's and 80's cutbacks on AFDC were made and
    the dominate discourse on welfare continued to focus on
    pathologies or what was then termed the "culture of
    poverty". The next big event in the history of welfare
    occurred in 1996. President Clinton promised to "end welfare
    as we know it", and on August 22, 1996, the Personal
    Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was
    passed into law. The welfare reform bill, as it came to be
    known, eliminated AFDC and created a block grant for states
    to provide time-limited cash assistance to families in
    poverty. The new block grant program's, Temporary Assistance
    for Needy Families (TANF), purpose is to "reduce dependency
    by promoting job preparation, work and marriage. The block
    grants can also be used by the states to fund efforts to
    reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage the
    formation and maintenance of two parent families." Highly
    controversial birth control methods are being administered
    to welfare mothers, regardless of the high levels of side
    effects and lack of testing on long-tern effects.

    Furthermore, "States may use their TANF block grant
    allocation for any 'manner reasonably calculated to
    accomplish the purpose of the TANF". As the TANF is
    administered as a block grant, the states have "complete
    flexibility to determine eligibility and benefit levels"
    which means that some of the options available to the states
    are that they "may deny assistance to additional children
    born or conceived while the parent is on welfare" and "may
    deny assistance to unmarried teen parents and their

    The welfare reform bill aims to remove families from welfare
    into employment through job-training programs. Adults in
    families receiving assistance under TANF are required to
    "participate in work activities after receiving assistance
    for 24 months (subject to good clause exemptions by the
    state). Recipients must be participating in community
    service within two months of receiving benefits if they are
    not working." The welfare bill also provides cash bonuses to
    states who have "high performance" in meeting the goals of
    reducing the numbers of people on welfare. Such criteria for
    "high performance" does not consider the numbers of people
    gainfully employed, out of poverty, or any other indicator
    of the "quality of life" for people removed from welfare.
    There is also an Illegitimacy Reduction Bonus Fund that
    rewards the five states with the "greatest success in
    reducing out-of-wedlock births without increasing

    During the debate over welfare reform the mainstream media
    presented a nearly unanimous perspective that welfare had
    failed and needed to be seriously reformed. The image of the
    welfare mother in the news was that of a Black teenager. In
    Newsweek (12/94) journalist Jonathan Alter wrote, "Every
    threat to the fabric of this country -- from poverty to
    crime to homelessness -- is connected to out-of-wedlock teen

    While less than 6 percent of AFDC recipients are under 20;
    only 1 percent goes to people under 18 years of age.
    Regardless of how many teen mothers are actually on welfare,
    the politicians and journalists used the image of the Black
    teen mother to generate anger against welfare in public
    opinion. Diane Sawyer, on her show "Prime Time Live" (02/95)
    asked a teenage mother on AFDC, "why should they [taxpayers]
    pay for your mistake?" Newsweek (02/95) carried a story on
    the "sexually irresponsible culture of poverty" and argued
    that we [morally correct citizens] must use the television
    to send a powerful message as it "is the only sustained
    communication our society has with the underclass."

    The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting
    did a study on the welfare reform debates and the
    representation of welfare recipients. They surveyed three
    months of welfare coverage in half a dozen of the most
    influential news outlets: the New York Times, the Washington
    Post, ABC News, PBS's "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Time and
    Newsweek. The study looked to see who the media quoted, how
    they were quoted and what sources were used in the
    reporting. Of sources whose gender could be identified 71%
    (608 sources) were men. When welfare recipients are removed
    from the percentage, the number of male sources is 77%.
    Reporters used current and former government officials as
    sources more than any other group, making up 59% of the
    sources. The single most quoted person during the period
    studied was Republican Rep. Clay Shaw, chair of the House
    subcommittee that drafted the "Personal Responsibility Act".
    In the New York Times Shaw described the welfare system as
    "pampering the poor".

    Welfare recipients made up 10 percent of the media's
    sources, however FAIR found that they were generally quoted
    only when they reinforced popular myths of welfare mothers
    and helped construct a perspective that viewed "guilty moms"
    and "innocent children". FAIR found that the idea of success
    was strictly associated with cutting welfare and not a
    decrease in the number of people living in poverty and that
    similarly experts continually referred to "getting tough" on
    welfare. While the actual number of teen mothers on AFDC is
    small, the study found that when welfare recipients age was
    given in media reports they were generally 17, 18 and 19,
    thus reinforcing the image of teenage welfare mothers. One
    example of how the media presented welfare and race was the
    cover piece on welfare in US News & World Report (01/95)
    that had pictures of seven women, all but one was a woman of
    color and most of them were Black. While white women are the
    majority of AFDC recipients only one was pictured, and she
    was described as "clinically depressed". The report produced
    by FAIR clearly demonstrates how the media objectified
    welfare recipients in general and Black women on AFDC in
    particular. The stereotypes and controlling images helped
    win public support for the "Personal Responsibility and Work
    Opportunity Act". "By articulating a definition of poverty
    that associated it explicitly with illegitimacy, then
    associated illegitimacy with race, the Right made it
    acceptable to express blatantly racist concepts without
    shame." The media consistently put forward a paternalistic
    message that all of this was "for your own good" regardless
    of how racist and sexist it may be.

    In a report to the United Nations about poverty in the
    United States, Special Rapporteur Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo
    wrote, this "new mythology provided the ideological cannon
    fodder for the attack on the poor and people of color. That
    mythology equates growth in poverty to growth in an
    underclass which is primarily Black, Latino and female. This
    was the basis for the myth of the 'welfare queen'. The
    increase in poverty is said to be the result of the growth
    of this sector of the population, not economic factors."

    Welfare Reform has been in effect now for nearly two years,
    and the measure for success remains to be the decreased
    numbers of people receiving welfare. A front page article of
    the Los Angeles Times (11/98), the success of welfare reform
    is noted by the percentage of people off of welfare, not by
    the number of people employed or living above the poverty
    line. As more and more families become homeless and are
    pushed deeper into poverty, the politicians and journalists
    cheer on about the great success of welfare reform. The
    connections between poverty and the skyrocketing number of
    people in prisons is also avoided in most discussions about
    welfare reform. The fact that women are the fastest growing
    segment of the prison population should warrant an
    investigation into this connection, but in the eyes of
    politicos and pundits who championed welfare reform, as long
    as they aren't still on welfare seems to be the only fact
    that matters.

    However, along with the backlash against welfare and Black
    women is particular, there has been a groundswell of welfare
    rights activism that is organized and led by women. In 1992,
    the Women's Economic Agenda Project held the first ever Poor
    Women's Convention under the title, "Under Attack, Fighting
    Back". Over 400 poor women participated. The National
    Welfare Rights Union was active during the welfare reform
    debates, getting organizations like NOW to come out against
    the welfare reform bill. With the passage of the bill in 96,
    groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union have
    intensified their efforts. KWRU in the summer of 98 went on
    an organizer tour to build their "Economic Human Rights
    Campaign" and traveled in their Freedom from Unemployment,
    Hunger and Homelessness Bus across the country. They stopped
    in dozens of cities to meet with local poor people's groups
    and ended the tour at the United Nations where they
    presented economic human rights violations under welfare
    reform along with a speech to the general assembly on the
    struggle of poor people in the US. The KWRU is a multiracial
    organization started by and led by mothers.

    While it is crucial to examine the history of welfare and
    welfare reform discourse from a Black Feminist perspective
    that places Black women at the center of interconnected
    race, class and gender analysis. It is also imperative that
    we develop strategies of resistance from a Black Feminist
    perspective as well. Such a perspective would include the
    importance of self-definition and moving from objectivity to

    As Collins writes, "challenging controlling images and
    replacing them with a Black women's standpoint is an
    essential component of resisting systems of race, gender and
    class oppression." The process of self-definition involves
    not only rejecting social constructions of racial and gender
    inferiority, but also reclaiming history and knowledge that
    challenges white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic
    inequality. Liberatory knowledge for Black women and other
    oppressed groups is what Collins refers to as subjugated

    "Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group
    makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the
    seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the
    oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinated groups
    willingly collaborate in their own victimization," Collins
    explains. The image of the welfare mother is one of a
    powerless, irresponsible woman who not only willingly
    collaborates in her own victimization but has produced a
    culture of poverty based on that victimization. Subjugated
    knowledge is information, ideas, and history that has been
    buried, obscured or invalidated by discourses that serve
    power and privilege. The images of welfare mothers occupy
    the public debate not the history of how welfare developed
    or how race and gender have historically discriminated and
    kept Black women down. Reclaiming subjugated knowledge is
    one of the key practices of Black feminist thought as
    Collins outlines it and of radical political analysis that I
    employ throughout this essay. These political projects aim
    to not only recover lost history of Black women and other
    oppressed groups but also to reconceptualize history through
    an interconnected analysis of race, class and gender. This
    paper aims to reconceptualize welfare, welfare reform and
    images of welfare mothers so that welfare recipients can
    continue to move from being objects in this debate to become
    subjects shaping this debate. Welfare rights activists who
    are not also recipients can aid in this project by shifting
    the center of our analysis so that welfare recipients, their
    knowledge claims and their strategies inform and guide our



    1. Laura Flanders with Janine Jackson and Dan Shadoan. Media
    Lies: Media, Public Opinion and Welfare from For Crying Out
    Loud: women's poverty in the United States ed. by Diane
    Dujon and Ann Withorn, page 30. South End Press, 1996.

    2. ibid.

    3. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and
    Welfare in the United States, page 59. Monthly Review Press,

    4. Ibid., page 59. Although it should be noted that the
    status of widow was generally more respected then a
    single-mother headed family caused by separation or never
    married mothers, and so many claimed they were widows to
    escape stigma.

    5. Ibid., page 60. Many of the women reformers hoped that
    the pension would help stop women from entering the paid
    labor market.

    6. Ibid., page 60. While the program existed in all but two
    states, it had not necessary been adopted in every county of
    the states which had adopted the Mother's Pension.

    7. Ibid., page 60.

    8. Quoted by Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought:
    Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment,
    page 68. Routledge, 1990.

    9. Ibid., 68.

    10. Ibid., 68.

    11. Ibid., 69. Collins book has become a contemporary
    classic and has profoundly influenced my thinking on the
    subjects of Black women as mothers, controlling images of

    welfare mother and Black women's activism is this paper.

    12. Ibid., 69.

    13. Ibid., 69.

    14. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 61.

    15. Ibid., page 16.

    16. The social welfare programs in the industrialized
    nations of Europe were created in response to popular
    protest and resistance amongst the working classes of these
    nations. These programs were not created out of the
    benevolence of rulers for their people, but out of fear of
    losing their ability to rule altogether. Race relations and
    the role of white supremacy in dividing the working classes
    of the United States significantly weakened the labor
    movements efforts to win social welfare programs.

    17. Ibid., page 16. This paragraph is taken entirely form
    Abramovitz. Social Security and Unemployment Insurance
    currently cover more than 95% of the population writes
    Abramovitz, and they both maintain strong political support
    from well organized constituencies.

    18. Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare: How Racism
    Undermined the War on Poverty, page 20-24.

    19. Ibid., page 157.

    20. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, pages

    21. Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare, page 119.

    22. Ibid., page 20-24.

    23. Most Black men and many white women were also excluded
    from these federal entitlement programs, however this paper
    puts Black women at the center of analysis. What is of
    particular importance is that analysis of and by Black women
    routinely seeks to develop interconnected theories and
    strategies that include the oppression and exploitation of
    Black men and white women and seek social change through
    collective struggles challenging inequality that effects the
    majority of society.

    24. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, page 6.

    25. Ibid., page 6.

    26. Ibid., page 6.

    27. While this discussion has focused on Southern leaders,
    economic and political leaders in the North also exercise
    these practices as the Civil Rights movement of the 60's
    clearly brought to light. Our analysis should be
    far-reaching and look to understand race, class and gender
    as key organizing principles of the United States as a

    28. Patricia Collins, Black Feminist Thought, page 7.

    29. Ibid., page 7. This is but one of many passages that
    clearly demonstrates Collins status as a social science

    30. Ibid., page 73.

    31. This is very much just a working definition, as I don't
    think I've come across any clear definition of gendering
    meaning as I have read on racialized meaning.

    32. Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 64.
    Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare, pages 20-24.

    33. Darlene Clark Hines. Rape and the Inner Lives of Black
    Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the
    Culture of Dissemblance. Hines present a Black feminist
    analysis of why women moved to the North during this period
    of time and demonstrates how Black women exercised their own
    agency in the "acquisition of personal autonomy and economic

    34. Nancy Naples. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering,
    Community Work and the War on Poverty, pages 40-60.

    35. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, pages

    36. Ibid., pages 67-72.

    37. Ibid., page 74.

    38. Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare, page 31. The War on
    Poverty was created by the government because of pressure
    from protest movements, and Quadagno goes on latter in her
    book to explain the process by which the government
    dismantled many of the gains made during the War on Poverty.

    39. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 73.

    40. Nancy Naples. Grassroots Warriors. Mimi Abramovitz.
    Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 74.

    41. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 81.

    42. Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought, page 77.

    43. Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 80.

    44. Legislative Summary, analysis of the Personal
    Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of
    1996. Prepared by the National Governors' Association,
    National Conference of State Legislatures and the American
    Public Welfare Association. The summary also states that the
    bill "also makes far-reaching changes to child care, the
    Food Stamps Program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for
    children, benefits for legal immigrants and the Child
    Support Enforcement program.

    45. ibid.

    46. ibid.

    47. ibid.

    48. Laura Flanders. Media Lies: Media, Public Opinion and
    Welfare, p. 29.

    49. Ibid., p. 29.

    50. Ibid., p. 30.

    51. Ibid., p. 30.

    52. Ibid., p. 31.

    53. Ibid., p. 31.

    54. Ibid., p. 32

    55. Ibid., p. 34.

    56. Lucy Williams. "The Public Eye", Political Research
    Associates Newsletter, Fall/Winter, 1996.

    57. African American Human Rights Foundation report to
    Special Rapporteur, 12 October 1994.

    58. Melissa Healy. "Welfare Cuts Get Tougher With Success",
    Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1998.

    59. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 134.

    60. Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought, page 104.

    61. When welfare recipients move from objects to subjects in
    this debate it effects all of us. I think of the quote from
    James Baldwin, "if I am not what you thought I was, you are
    not what you think you are".

    62. From the Boston Globe, November 30th, 1998. 30 people
    were arrested.

    Copyright (c) 1999-2001 Chris Crass. All Rights Reserved.

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