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  • Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present
  • Michael B. Katz
Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present. By Ellen Reese ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. xvi plus 355 pp.).

Mention welfare backlash and most people will think of cuts in social spending that began during the administration of Ronald Reagan or the assault on AFDC during the first half of the 1990s. Historians and those with longer memories will recall the "suitable home" policies of the 1950s designed to restrict Aid to Dependent Children payments or the draconian anti-welfare policies directed at black migrants briefly in place in Newburgh, New York, in 1961. Ellen Reese, a sociologist who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, sees all these episodes as part of a sustained campaign against welfare that began in the 1940s mainly at state and local levels, gathered steam in the following decades, and reached many, if not all, its goals with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (popularly known as "Welfare Reform"). This anti-welfare history, she claims, tracked the larger story of conservatism's emergence, growth, and eventual hegemony in American politics. In the case of welfare, the driving force for restrictive change came from employers of low wage labor and their allies. Reinforcing their case against welfare were racist stereotypes and moral jeremiads about the influence of public assistance on sexual behavior and family stability. Reese states her thesis succinctly. "Since the late 1940s, ideologically conservative and low-wage employers, concerned with protecting their supply of cheap labor and minimizing their taxes, and politicians representing their interests have been on the forefront of campaigns against poor mothers and welfare rights." (199)

Reese combines an intelligent synthesis of the literature on welfare history and the rise of the political right with her own research in primary sources. Much of her story will be familiar to readers reasonably well read in both fields; it will be very useful for those with less background. Her most original interpretive contribution is her stress on the continued and powerful influence of employers of low-wage labor on welfare policy, a line of argument harking back to Piven and Cloward's classic Regulating the Poor but relatively neglected in more recent scholarship. Reese buttresses this interpretation with a quantitative analysis that shows the relationship between selected characteristics of states which did and did not restrict ADC eligibility between 1949 and 1960. The analysis highlights the influence of both race and agriculture—the major source of low-wage labor. [End Page 500] "The quantitative analysis indicates that both the size of the black population and caseload and the strength of agribusinesses had a statistically significant independent effect on the odds that states would restrict welfare in the 1950s." (66)

Reese writes from the point of view of an activist as well as a scholar. Her book starts with a long discussion undermining the chorus of bipartisan praise for the impact of the 1996 welfare reform bill and ends with an agenda for the future that emerges from her interpretation of welfare history. She rightly points to the need for a coalition of organized labor and welfare rights activists—groups which split in the last few decades—to advance progressive politics that serve the interests of both groups. Also rightly, she understands that putting such a coalition together and reversing the thrust of policy during the last half century will be very difficult.

While Reese's argument is generally convincing, her discussion of welfare history and mothers' pensions in the early twentieth-century shows less familiarity with the historiography and sources than does her account of later events. For one thing, a case could be made for extending the "welfare backlash" back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. On the other hand, she does not point out the broad and favorable meanings of "welfare" and "welfare state" before the 1950s. Nor does her interpretation of the rise of anti-welfare state sentiment in the 1950s give sufficient weight to the Cold War's association of social benefits with European socialism and the consequent red-baiting that occurred, and her decision to equate...


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pp. 500-501
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