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“Welfare moms” are single unemployed mothers who cannot support themselves and their children and are thus dependent on government assistance. Welfare moms comprise one of the lowest levels of society, and policymakers have difficulty passing legislation to effectively support them. One of the problems is the stigma surrounding welfare moms, who are often African Americans who became pregnant while teenagers, and never finished high school. Over the years the federal government has tried different programs to limit the dependency of these single mothers, setting up several types of programs to provide money for child-care facilities so that women can find work. Other programs give money to mothers so that they can get an education, and still other programs encourage welfare moms to marry so that they can stay at home with their children while their husbands provide for them. Further contributing to the stigmata surrounding welfare mothers is the fact that many welfare moms are members of minority groups.
Throughout American history, single mothers have been among the most impoverished. Conflict over the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor have seen single mothers at the nexus of the argument. Issues of illegitimate children led Progressive-era reformers to refuse aid on moral grounds: mothers with illegitimate children were not considered morally it, and these reform efforts were primarily intended as a means to “improve” the spiritual/psychological poverty, regarding material relief as secondary. The New Deal (early welfare state) changed this in some ways. The Social Security Act of 1935 established the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, which allocated $1 of federal funds for each $2 (this was soon changed to equally matching funds, but with a limit of $12 per family) spent locally to aid single mothers. This program, like all New Deal programs, did not provide sufficient support, and had many loopholes for local officials to refuse aid; for example, the local ADC administrators often refused aid to mothers with dependent children who had male friends or relatives even if these men were unemployed. Under the ADC, support was reserved only for the obviously needy, and the government was often very conservative in these estimates of need—and even when funding was available it was rarely sufficient.
In the following decades this situation changed little. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was the first comprehensive attempt to rectify the social and economic division of American society, illustrated by the plight of welfare mothers in urban slums. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), established by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, set up programs to help the poor move up in society. The concept of “welfare moms” played an especially significant part in the War on Poverty, combining the stigma of immorality and race: the common (but not necessarily correct) perception of welfare moms was as indolent and immoral. A common theme among sociologists/social reformers in the 1960s was the “culture of poverty,” meaning that the impoverished, and especially African Americans, had an entirely separate social system from mainstream America. Both Michael Harrington, who presented his theory in The Other America, and Lee Rainwater, who studied the social habits of African American public housing residents, argued that black slums were “matriarchal” because of the lack of a stable adult male presence. Both writers noted the prevalence of unwed mothers and the high incidence of single black mothers. Neither writer was wrong in observing the prevalence of single mothers, but their interpretation that this was a sign of “cultural” difference among the very poor is oversimplified. In part, this reflected the avowedly troublesome straits of black men, an unusually large percentage of whom were unemployed and thus unable to support a family, or in prison. In 1980, 51 percent of black males in large urban areas had been arrested at least once for an “index crime”—murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, car theft—compared to 14 percent of white males in the same areas, and blacks comprised 48 percent of all prison inmates while constituting only 12 percent of the nation’s population.
Despite the good intentions of liberal policymakers, the economic boom of the 1960s that had raised hopes of eradicating poverty faltered, allowing conservatives to regain control and cut back on welfare programs. In the debates over the future of the American welfare state, welfare moms played a large role: few policymakers could ignore that these mothers needed some kind of support if their children were to develop into functioning citizens. Even conservative administrations did not cut funding to welfare moms, and when Bill Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored 1996 welfare reform bill, he allotted four billion dollars to help single mothers on welfare pay for child- and health care. Clinton placed much of the responsibility on states, emphasizing the need to “make work pay” by improving education systems to reduce the number of dependents. Clinton also sought to improve child support measures through existing programs such as Head Start, hoping to educate and provide job training for the poor. Clinton welfare reform, which aimed to lessen the number of welfare moms by encouraging them to find employment, thereby providing for themselves and their children, was very similar to the New Deal’s Aid to Dependent Children program. Notwithstanding the many political solutions tried over the years, policymakers have as yet failed to a suitable method for preventing impoverished single mothers from joining the ranks of the welfare moms.
- Haveman, Robert H., and John Karl Scholz, “The Clinton Welfare Reform Plan: Will It End Poverty as We Know It?” Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Paper no. 1037-94 (1994);
- Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Rainwater, Lee, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum (Chicago: Aldine and Atherton Publishing, 1970).
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