Rethinking Welfare Reform

With re-authorization of key "welfare reform" legislation due in the coming year, activists are mobilizing to place the rights of minorities and women foremost on the agenda. Many indict the current system -- established by the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- as a racist and gender-biased structure that keeps the poor in poverty and further burdens disadvantaged families.

The five-year-old legislation has in fact reduced welfare rolls. A White House report in 2000 said that the number of Americans on welfare had decreased from 5.5 percent in 1993 to 2.3 percent in 1999. An argument now rages over whether the point of reform is to reduce the welfare rolls or to reduce poverty. Some activists maintain that these numbers reflect a slashing of America's "safety net."

"Welfare rolls dropped by more than half nationally since 1996, but poverty for single mothers is only down 0.7 percent," reports Ann Withorn, professor of social policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Withorn is a co-author of "An Immodest Proposal," a series of demands collected by the feminist Women's Committee of 100 that challenge the gender and race discrimination they find rampant in current welfare legislation. The document contains demands for an end to mandatory work outside the home, a "caregiver's allowance" that reimburses mothers for work they do inside the home, and a substantial increase in labor standards for women.

"Living without a backup, going from one low-wage job to another, calling on relatives and friends who are themselves stretched to the limit, destabilizes everyone, especially children," Withorn says. "So family homelessness is actually up."

Gwendolyn Mink, another signer of the Women's Committee document, perceives the upcoming re-authorization of welfare as an opportunity to "fix the ways it abuses poor women and their families." However, Mink states, "re-authorization also offers the forces of patriarchy an opportunity to tighten the screws on poor women."

Mink rejects the notion that emphasis on fatherhood and marriage provisions as the "next steps in welfare reform" will provide avenues to living above the poverty line. "Aside from the fact that government should not be messing with intimate decisions about family formation and parental relationships, this focus on getting mothers to 'marry out' of poverty totally begs the question of why so many mothers are poor," Mink says.

Some maintain that welfare reforms are of little use until labor standards and skills training are improved. "Even for former TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) recipients who have played by all the rules, employment in the labor market earns them on average only $7 per hour," says Mink. "That's hardly a living wage for one person, let alone for a mother with a child to support."

Critics question the bottom line of the 1996 legislation. "The goal of welfare 'reform' was to reduce caseloads, not to reduce poverty," asserts Kate Kahan, executive director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, based in Montana. "People can be sanctioned off welfare for being five minutes late for an appointment."

Kahan decries the system's ill effects on women. "I got on welfare in 1993 after leaving an abusive relationship. The welfare system today is so intrusive and degrading that many women are staying in such relationships."

Other activists denounce what they see as inherent racism in current welfare reform policies. In the 1980s, President Reagan used anecdotes about "welfare queens," tricking the system out of excess cash, to elicit support for his measures against assistance programs. Some analysts call this approach a form of playing the race card.

"The deployment by politicians and the media of racist images of lazy and sexually promiscuous black 'welfare mothers' facilitates the enactment of ostensibly color-blind, but in fact racism-driven, policies and programs," said Noel Cazenave, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Cazenave points to the fact that, while a proportional amount of whites and blacks are currently on welfare rolls, "African-Americans are more likely to be sanctioned off" due to discrimination.

"Ultimately," Cazenave says, "when welfare racism goes unchallenged, all poor people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are harmed."

Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy (

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