From War on Poverty to War on Poor People

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America

By Marissa Chappell

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, 345 pp., $45.00, hardcover


Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

By Kaaryn Gustafson

New York: New York University Press, 2011, 225 pp., $45.00, hardcover

Poverty, Battered Women and Work in US Public Policy

By Lisa Brush

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 197 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Annelise Orleck


This is the nation we live in today: hot-lines entice anonymous callers to report friends, family, or neighbors to local prosecutors. Government workers interrogate, fingerprint, and perform lie-detector and drug tests on hundreds of thousands of US citizens not suspected of having committed any crime. More than 2 million Americans who are not on parole from prison are required to report monthly to local authorities to document hours worked that month and any changes in address, income, assets, or household makeup. Many face criminal charges if they fail, or forget, to do so.

Maybe you do not find any of this shocking. In the decade since the September 11 attacks, many Americans have grown accustomed to the idea that some civil liberties have been curtailed in the name of protecting us all from terrorist plots. That has not happened without protest. Civil-liberties advocates have rallied and sued to limit government infringements on the constitutional rights of US citizens to privacy. But their actions have had little effect on the policing of the population described above. For this is a group of citizens whose constitutional rights have been under assault for years, with few voices raised in opposition. In 2002, writes Kaaryn Gustafson in Cheating Welfare, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declared unequivocally that this group of Americans must accept “a somewhat diminished expectation of privacy” relative to other citizens. In other words, they really do possess fewer protections under the Bill of Rights than the rest of us.

So who are these people, so dangerous that they must be separated out from other Americans and shorn of the constitutional protections that define citizenship in the US? They are neither suspected terrorists nor felons convicted of violent crimes. They are poor mothers, a much smaller number of poor fathers, and other family members who are raising their own children and sometimes also the children of relatives who are unable to care for them—an act of kindness and personal responsibility that often stretches the family’s meager resources to the breaking point. They are citizens who have been forced by health problems, family crises, bad luck on the job market, jobs that do not pay a living wage, children with special needs, mental health issues, violent spouses, drug addiction, and sometimes problematic personal choices to seek help from government agencies to provide for their children. As soon as they ask for government help in making it through the month, they become suspect. Along with their children and romantic partners, they are subject to constant government surveillance, paid for by tax dollars.

These three valuable new books help us to understand how and why we have moved, over the past 75 years, from a national consensus that government should care for the poorest and most vulnerable American families to today’s view that investigating so-called welfare fraud is more urgent than feeding, housing, and providing medical care for poor children.

What we have seen over the past fifteen years, legal scholar Kaaryn Gustafson argues, is nothing less than “the criminalization poverty.” This has given rise to a relentless policy focus on checking eligibility, rooting out possible fraud, and tracking down and demanding repayment from anyone who has received even a few pennies more in cash aid than they are entitled to. States and county governments are spending tens of millions more on investigating fraud than they are reaping in repayments. But even in an age of spending cuts, no one questions this regime. Punishment and policing seem to be more important than balanced budgets. Criminalizing poverty, writes Gustafson, has “diverted public attention away from poverty and from the nearly forgotten policy goals of protecting low-income adults and children from the effects of economic instability.”

Interestingly, argue the historian Marissa Chappell and sociologist Lisa Brush, so has the withering away of the ideal of the “family wage”—the notion that families should be able to survive on the salary of a male breadwinner so women may devote themselves to full-time motherhood. “The persistence of poverty and the growth of economic inequality since the 1970s,” Chappell writes in The War on Welfare, “attest to the ultimate demise of the ‘family wage’ model, in reality if not in rhetoric.” Although the New Deal-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was built on the idea that even poor children needed their mothers at home, says Chappell, it was stingy, fragmentary, and generally reviled by all.  The only thing worse was what replaced it: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), mandated by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, or the Personal Responsibility Act).

As Brush writes in Poverty, Battered Women and Work in US Public Policy, this “new regime” lacks both the entitlements of the New Deal and the ideal of the family wage, which provided at least some justification for the idea that mothering had social and economic value. Now, Brush argues, “government interests in policing...converge with business interests.” Care work has become completely an individual responsibility, one that all too frequently drives families over the economic brink. Citizenship rights, even personhood, are thought to be rooted only in wage labor, which often pays so little that it barely supports the meanest kind of existence.

“Work first” welfare policies, Brush makes painfully clear, have reduced welfare rolls but done little to move poor mothers out of poverty, in part because work requirements create a surplus of low-wage labor that drives everyone’s wages down. Forced to take a job or risk losing benefits, poor mothers work for whatever they are offered, often leaving children home alone as they labor in disproportionate numbers in graveyard shifts that no one else wants. If they were trapped before by a sense of dependency, as so many scholars and politicians have argued, they are even more trapped now, say Brush and Gustafson. They face confusing and capricious government regulations; the exhaustion, humiliations, and inflexibility of low-wage labor; deepening poverty at a time when jobs are scarce; and the necessity of working two or even three jobs, which still may not pay them enough to live on.

Though wage labor is also touted as providing liberation and a path to economic independence for women in battering relationships, always a significant portion of those on public assistance, the women whose stories Brush recounts describe being stalked, harassed, and even beaten at work. Those who are fired as a result of their partners’ behavior do not receive sympathy or support from government caseworkers, but rather face the termination of their children’s welfare benefits because they will now fall short of the number of monthly work hours required by federal and state law. “A policy regime that mandates work as the foremost moral, practical, and political response to battering and poverty jeopardizes rather than guarantees the safety and solvency of battered welfare recipients,” Brush concludes. Indeed.



How did we arrive at this contradictory and cruel moment in American poverty policy? Marissa Chappell’s vivid, rich intellectual/political history of how ideas about aid to poor families have evolved since the 1960s combines economic, race, and gender analyses. She sheds a bright and unforgettable light on how we have arrived at the current consensus, in which it is agreed that poor mothers must not be allowed to receive a stipend to be stay-at-home moms, even while their children are preschool age. Southern Democrats, antiwelfare conservatives, and some business elites, she shows, have always seen poor mothers, particularly mothers of color, primarily as laborers. Full-time motherhood supported by a male breadwinner was not a universal ideal but a privilege reserved mostly for the white working, middle, and upper classes.

Antipoverty and racial liberals fiercely attacked AFDC for doing little to help poor families of color achieve the male-breadwinner model. Although there was little evidence to support the contention, they agreed with antiwelfare conservatives that substituting a welfare check for a male wage-earner helped to break up families. By the 1960s and 1970s, feminists too had begun to critique the system, pushing instead for programs that trained women for decently paid, traditionally male trades and professions. Mostly focused on opening up opportunities for women in wage labor, feminists in that era paid too little attention to the idea that mothers deserved economic recompense for the vital work they did raising children. Combined with relentless hostility to AFDC among powerful conservatives such as Louisiana Senator Russell Long, who worried that generous welfare benefits would reduce the number of women willing to iron his shirts, such critiques left public assistance programs for poor mothers with few friends.

There was, as Chappell and Gustafson show, a brief period when President Lyndon Johnson’s ringing declaration of a War on Poverty, a nationwide welfare-rights movement led by poor mothers, and the legal services program created by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act generated legal and political support for the idea that the poorest Americans had a right to government assistance and a minimum standard of living. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s affirmed that public assistance was an entitlement, not a gratuity, and could not be arbitrarily withdrawn without due process for aid recipients.

As Chappell describes in vivid political detail, this consensus even moved two centrist presidents—Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Jimmy Carter—to mount welfare-reform proposals that, to some degree, embraced the idea of a guaranteed income for all Americans. These proposals failed because they were attacked by both supporters and opponents of expanding the welfare state. Welfare-rights activists condemned them for offering stipends that were too paltry for anyone outside of the rural South to actually live on. In addition, though poor mothers applauded proposals to train them for jobs, many nevertheless resisted the coercive work requirements that were built in. Antiwelfare conservatives insisted that such programs would disincline the poor to take low-wage jobs, upending raced and gendered labor systems long entrenched in many parts of the country. Of course, these were the kinds of arguments you could still have in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Chappell argues, the outcry had so completely eclipsed earlier welfare-rights activists’ demand for a guaranteed income that it became politically unrevivable.

President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 Family Support Act, Chappell writes, began the federal government’s process of “relinquishing responsibility for poor families.” A “new consensus” was emerging that effective welfare reform must move poor mothers into wage labor. In different forms, this position was echoed across the political spectrum. On the Left, from the labor to the civil rights movement, opponents of the Reagan-Bush social welfare cuts sought to show that the cuts hurt a “broad” cross-section of the American public, including the working poor. Single mothers virtually disappeared from the political agenda of the Left, Chappell writes, and a new, sensationalist literature on the urban “underclass” revived the language of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notorious 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. Like the Moynihan Report, this literature evoked “pathological matriarchs” and rootless men—dangerous inner-city dwellers who perpetuated poverty by passing on their destructive values from generation to generation.

The focus on the bad behaviors of the poor as primarily responsible for entrenched poverty—rather than structural obstacles to class mobility such as a race- and sex-segregated labor force—paved the way for the Personal Responsibility Act. Passed by Congress under Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich as part of the 1994 Contract with America, it was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. After 61 years, the right of the poorest Americans to seek assistance from the federal government was repealed, wiped away without much notice or protest. The act set the stage for the system described in Brush’s and Gustafson’s work although, as Chappell illustrates well, the view that poor parents (particularly those of color) had to be policed and forced into low-wage jobs was hardly new. Rather, the PRWORA marked a return to the view of black and Latina mothers that had driven punitive antivagrancy laws, employable mother statutes, and work requirements for welfare recipients for more than the half a century.



The much vaunted “welfare reforms” of the 1980s and 1990s, Gustafson argues, “marked a dramatic shift away from the rights...of welfare recipients” to the “rights of states and the rights of employed taxpayers.” That shift has yielded the frightening, repressive climate in which poor mothers now live, dodging state sanctions and possible criminal prosecution for fraud as they desperately try to eke out the barest subsistence. Welfare reform has been almost universally described as successful, says Chappell, because the number of families receiving public assistance dropped from 4.5 million in 1996 to 2.1 million by 2002. The number of families enrolled in TANF continued to hover under 2 million in 2011, but not because there is no great need: this year, one in four children was fed with food stamps. Instead, as we stagger through the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, the punitive policies determining eligibility of poor families for TANF continue to multiply. Just this year, according to the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, several states enacted harsh requirements that will adversely affect about 750,000 families.

What next? All three books end with calls for a more humane system in which low-income families are no longer forced, in Gustafson’s words, to “bear a disproportionate share of economic risk.” Most moving are the words of poor women themselves: “What if parents...encouraged their daughters to leave abusive partners, and taught their sons to respect women?”

“What if young women and men got the training and education necessary to support and feel good about themselves?”

“What if there were small business loans available for welfare recipients?”

What if, as Congress once again discusses reauthorizing and revising our system of aid to poor families, we called upon our state and federal representatives to enact effective, fully funded childcare programs, drug treatment, transportation subsidies, support for education and aid for women hoping to open small businesses. What if?

Annelise Orleck is the author of three books and co-editor of two. The most recent are Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (2005) and The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History (2011.)

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