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April 6, 1998

Welfare reform is the latest in history of attacks on poor mothers, according to new book

Gwendolyn Mink

By Jennifer McNulty

Although President Clinton proudly proclaimed the recent federal welfare reform effort "an end to welfare as we know it," political scientist Gwendolyn Mink writes in her new book Welfare's End (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) that the demise of welfare can be traced back almost to its origins.

The latest assault is part of nearly 60 years of welfare politics fueled by gender, racial, and class bias, writes Mink. The result is the repeal not only of the safety net for poor single mothers but also of such mothers' basic rights.

"Welfare has always been the terrain of racial and class politics," said Mink. "We don't call it that, but there has been a concerted effort conducted under the guise of 'welfare reform' that has left poor women with children with very few options."

Mink writes that welfare's demise can be traced back to 1939. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, was originally created to give mothers the financial wherewithal to stay home and care for their children when the family lost its breadwinner. While the policy initially offered assistance to all solo mothers, the roots of discrimination were planted in 1939 when Congress amended the Social Security Act by establishing the Survivor's Insurance System (SIS) to provide benefits to the widows and children of men who were contributing to the Social Security system.

The effect of the change was to create two separate avenues of assistance for women raising children alone. SIS was available for women who had lost their husbands, and AFDC became the purview of divorced, separated, or never-married women, and widows whose husbands had labored in marginal professions and had thus not been contributing to Social Security, writes Mink. "After 1939, AFDC in essence became a welfare program that served mothers who had been dishonored by society," she said.

By 1960, 45 percent of AFDC recipients were women of color. As the program's demographics changed, it was subjected to greater political scrutiny, and states began to discriminate against women by denying AFDC benefits to women with illegitimate children or those who were having conjugal relations with men other than their husbands, and on many other grounds.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s struck down those policies and denied states the discretion to discriminate among equally needy mothers. The focus shifted to Congress, where prominent Southern Democrats took the lead in retooling federal law. Each round of putative reform ushered in more restrictive paternity and child-support laws and more demanding work requirements for mothers.

Most significantly, in 1967, the Work Incentive Program, or WIN, was established. Though ineffective, the WIN program represented "an ideologically important moment" that opened the door to what Mink calls "a separate system of law" for poor mothers. In addition to making work outside the home the presumptive goal for welfare participants, it marked the first time that federal policy linked the identification of biological fathers to income assistance for poor mothers. Establishing paternity was deemed a vital tool in child-support enforcement efforts, but the law forced women to seek support from fathers "even when they had good reason not to," said Mink.

Mink asserts that welfare mothers are subjected to a separate system of law in which biology takes precedence over relationships. "Paternity laws force poor, never-married women into accepting as fathers men who may have done little more than donate sperm. Only when mothers need welfare does biology hold such sway," said Mink. "Typically, the determining legal factors are relational--marriage, legitimacy, a man's relationship with a child."

Mink calls for a class- and race-neutral recognition that caring for children is important and socially valuable work that warrants government assistance for those in need. Ironically, it is the Survivor's Insurance System that Mink turns to when arguing that the federal government has established a precedent for helping needy single parents support their children.

"SIS recognizes that caregiving is work and that it deserves social support," said Mink. "It recognizes that solo parenting is a unique situation, and its purpose was to give the surviving parent an opportunity to choose between wage earning or caregiving, or a combination of the two. It was--and remains today--a fundamental recognition that caregiving deserves social support. SIS established the principle that what caregivers do is work, and what I'm saying is that all single parents should be treated in the same manner. It is hardly a far-fetched idea."

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