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Backlash against Welfare Mothers

Past and Present

Ellen Reese

Publication Year: 2005

Backlash against Welfare Mothers is a forceful examination of how and why a state-level revolt against welfare, begun in the late 1940s, was transformed into a national-level assault that destroyed a critical part of the nation's safety net, with tragic consequences for American society. With a wealth of original research, Ellen Reese puts recent debates about the contemporary welfare backlash into historical perspective. She provides a closer look at these early antiwelfare campaigns, showing why they were more successful in some states than others and how opponents of welfare sometimes targeted Puerto Ricans and Chicanos as well as blacks for cutbacks. Her research reveals both the continuities and changes in American welfare opposition from the late 1940s to the present.

Reese brings new evidence to light that reveals how large farmers and racist politicians, concerned about the supply of cheap labor, appealed to white voters' racial resentments and stereotypes about unwed mothers, blacks, and immigrants in the 1950s. She then examines congressional failure to replace the current welfare system with a more popular alternative in the 1960s and 1970s, which paved the way for national assaults on welfare. Taking a fresh look at recent debates on welfare reform, she explores how and why politicians competing for the white vote and right-wing think tanks promoting business interests appeased the Christian right and manufactured consent for cutbacks through a powerful, racially coded discourse. Finally, through firsthand testimonies, Reese vividly portrays the tragic consequences of current welfare policies and calls for a bold new agenda for working families.

Published by: University of California Press

Praise, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

...This book began as a dissertation focusing on the 1950s welfare backlash, which I wrote while a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. The chair of my dissertation committee, Ruth Milkman, generously supported my research, and her insistence on the connections between labor and welfare politics helped to shape it. Other members of my dissertation committee, Michael Mann, Rebecca Emigh, Joel Handler, and Vilma Ortiz, also provided invaluable feedback on my dissertation...


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pp. xvii-xviii

Part I. Welfare Opposition: Causes and Consequences

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1. Deferred Dreams, Broken Families, and Hardship: The Impact of Welfare Reform

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pp. 3-19

...In 1996, following mounting attacks on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which significantly restricted poor families’ rights to income and social services. It ended their federal entitlements to welfare, froze welfare expenditures, and replaced AFDC with a more decentralized and selective program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). A central aim of the new welfare law was to promote...

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2. Attacking Welfare, Promoting Work and Marriage: Continuity and Change in Welfare Opposition

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pp. 20-32

...Why does the United States, one of the richest nations on earth, have such an obsession with purging the “undeserving poor” from the welfare rolls? How did AFDC, considered to be the least controversial welfare program when it was created, become the most controversial? How did a program that was originally designed to keep poor mothers at home with their children become transformed into a draconian workfare program...

Part II. The First Welfare Backlash (1945–1979)

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3. The 1950s Welfare Backlash and Federal Complicity

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pp. 35-47

...In the 1950s, states purged their welfare rolls through all sorts of new rules and regulations. In 1949, for example, Georgia’s welfare department required poor mothers to seek court orders of support from fathers and prohibited their supplementation, despite the fact that, as social workers noted, the father’s “contribution is often irregular and inadequate.” The rule also led to violent reprisals from fathers, as...

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4. Explaining the Postwar Rise of Welfare Opposition

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pp. 48-69

...The notion that poor people were using welfare to avoid work and their familial obligations was encouraged by the rise of conservative ideas in the 1950s. Structuralist views of poverty and the belief that the state had a responsibility to help the poor declined as a “cold war liberal” ideology took hold. This ideology viewed the free enterprise system and economic growth as the key to economic prosperity, democracy...

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5. Southern Welfare Backlashes: Georgia and Kentucky

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pp. 70-85

...The 1950s welfare backlash was the strongest in the South, where planters dominated the political economy and white racism against blacks was rampant. Yet, it was more powerful in some southern states than others. In this chapter, I compare Georgia’s large-scale purge of its welfare rolls with Kentucky’s welfare backlash, which was not nearly as powerful. The relative strength of these two welfare backlashes reflected broader differences in these states’ political economies and race relations...

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6. Western and Northern Welfare Backlashes: California and New York

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pp. 86-106

...The 1950s welfare backlash was not simply shaped by black-white race relations, nor was it confined to the South. In northern and western states, welfare critics appealed to racist resentment over blacks’ civil rights gains and the in-migration of blacks, Puerto Ricans, or Mexicans. This chapter explores how racism interacted with other factors to shape the welfare backlashes in California and New York. Attacks on welfare mothers were more powerful in California than in New York, mainly...

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7. Setting the Stage: The Failures of Liberal Innovation

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pp. 107-130

...The 1960s and 1970s were particularly tumultuous decades in welfare history, bringing forth both expansions and contractions in poor mothers’ welfare rights. On the one hand, increased electoral power of liberals, the rise of the civil rights movement and its demands for employment opportunities, and urban riots in the early 1960s provided new impetus to expand the rights of poor families. Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Congress undertook a “service and rehabilitation” strategy for...

Part III. The Contemporary Welfare Backlash (1980–2004)

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8. The Rise of the Republican Right and the New Democrats

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pp. 133-149

...The rightward turn in party politics, under way since the 1970s, was deeply shaped by race, class, and gender politics. Under pressure from corporate leaders, politicians of both parties, but especially Republicans, embraced a neoliberal economic agenda that called for minimal governmental interference with labor markets and economic transactions. At the same time, declining participation of working-class voters and the absence of a strong progressive movement reduced political pressure...

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9. Business Interests, Conservative Think Tanks, and the Assault on Welfare

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pp. 150-171

...By 1997, the year after PRWORA was enacted, outgoing secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted, “Almost eighteen years ago, inequality of earnings, wealth, and opportunity began to increase, and the gap today is greater than at any time in living memory.” Business leaders’ dogged pursuit of deregulation and the “low-wage” road to economic growth was apparently paying off. Since the late 1970s, corporations aggressively attacked any possible countervailing power that might get in their way...

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10. Congressional Attacks on Welfare, 1980–2004

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pp. 172-197

...The contemporary welfare backlash, on the rise since 1980, was broader in scope and intensity than previous ones, as Democrats as well as Republicans stepped up their attacks on welfare. This chapter provides an overview of this welfare backlash and analyzes the political forces that shaped it. I argue that antiwelfare propaganda and bipartisan attacks on welfare mothers, spread through the mainstream media, increased public opposition to AFDC. Antiwelfare rhetoric resonated with the broader public...

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11. Rebuilding the Welfare State: Forging a New Deal for Working Families

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pp. 198-208

...Despite the country’s vast economic resources, the Census Bureau’s latest report shows that 12.9 million children in the United States—about 17.6 percent—are officially poor. This crisis is even greater for young children. One out of every five children under the age of five is poor. For Latinos, this figure is nearly one out of every three, and for blacks it is nearly two out of every five. More than half, or 54 percent, of all female-headed...

Appendix 1: States That Restricted Eligibility for ADC (1949-1960)

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p. 209-209

Appendix 2: Variables and Data Sources Used in Quantitative Analysis

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pp. 210-212


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pp. 213-270


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pp. 271-330


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pp. 331-355

E-ISBN-13: 9780520938717
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520244627

Page Count: 372
Publication Year: 2005