Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present

Ellen Reese, University of California Press, 2005
Reviewed by Lilyan Kay, MS MPH

Midwives listen to women, so the saying goes, but many of us have done so with a growing sense of alarm and rage since welfare reform was passed ten years ago. The cost in suffering paid by women and children due to the eroding social safety net is well supported by health outcomes data: the association between loss of public assistance and food stamps with maternal depression, admissions to the hospital and food insecurity in children under the age of 3 (Casey, et al. 2004); and the estimated 5.5% reduction in the national rate of breastfeeding in 2000 along with the associated health benefits lost to those babies, due to welfare reform’s rigid work requirements and the lack of protective legislation for breastfeeding mothers in the United States (Haider, et al. 2003).

Ellen Reese’s compelling work details the plight of mothers and children who have fallen victim to the cruel policies enacted since the passage of the so-called Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and concurrent TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) block grants passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. The book grabs our attention from the outset with its cover depicting two young mother-baby couples, one gazing together unwaveringly into the camera, the other mother looking away from her son, distracted and appearing to wonder what on earth will become of them.

The first chapter, aptly titled “Deferred Dreams, Broken Families, and Hardship”, documents the effects of welfare reform qualitatively through excerpted interviews with poor mothers and social service workers, speeches by activists, town hall meeting testimony, and a participant observation study of a welfare office. Women describing experiences such as what it is like to be left with children the day the money runs out are devastatingly effective uses of ethnography to convey precisely what is being done to hundreds of thousands of young women and children across the country:

The most painful thing that I remember is running out of money. That was my biggest fear, staying in a hotel and no more money. [I paid] my last $40 one night and…I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know where I was going to go….I felt like I had lost all hope (15).

Now I have a job, but I still have problems…After I bring all the kids to school, I go to work. I work on an assembly line. I have a one-hour break at four o’clock. At this time, I have to pick up my son from child care and bring him home. Then I have to return to work. I have to work until seven o’clock at night. During this time, I leave my kid at home alone until his brother comes back from school. While I am working, my mind is still with my kid, I worry about my kid at home alone. [Choking up.] I am scared that someone will find out they are home alone and take them away (10).

The first welfare of the early 20th century was intended for White widows, setting the racist and socially conservative ideological tone for future welfare backlashes, in addition to traditional prejudices regarding the “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor. This evolved into the Aid to Dependent Children program (ADC), which came with the New Deal in 1935. In the postwar years, the number of both nonwhite and unwed mothers increased due to rising fertility rates. Increased prosperity among Whites meant that less of them needed welfare, hence there was a larger proportion of Black welfare mothers. This provoked a racist welfare backlash during the 1950s, predating the “culture of poverty” polemic which would follow in the 1960s. Welfare was said by journalists, politicians, businessmen and welfare officials themselves to be “undermining family responsibilities, sexual morality, and the work ethic” as well as a waste of taxes.

Reese provides an insightful analysis of the ways in which class, race and gender politics intersect, and how business interests have used this during various historical moments in the US in order to protect their supply of cheap labor and keep taxes low. They have accomplished this through alliances with politicians and journalists to manipulate the working and middle classes, using conservative and racist rhetoric through news stories and editorials, speeches and books that promote stereotypes and kindle resentment against the poor, particularly single mothers.

In the final chapter, Reese also draws attention to the wretched state of American workers today in comparison with both their parents and ancestors, as well as with European workers of today. She lays out her own ideas for a New Deal, which would include benefits that are standard in European countries, such as paid family leave and child care for working families, and proposes they be financed with military cutbacks and increased (reinstated?) corporate taxes, in order to elevate our standard of living on par with other industrialized nations. Finally, she wonders why the Democratic Party continues to ignore polls of working people affirming that they want these things, and persists in leaving such reasonable initiatives off its platform.

Backlash against Welfare Mothers is an important, meticulously researched work. Relevant background information and data from public health, anthropology, sociology, history and political science are combined seamlessly, exposing the reality of welfare families’ lives, and how they got to be that way. Thus it would be a useful text for any course where these issues are examined, regardless of discipline.

Not only that, Ellen Reese has a sound, comprehensive, common-sense plan for rescuing the country. If she ever decides to run for office, she has my vote.

Lilyan Kay has been a Certified Nurse Midwife for 19 years and a Family Nurse Practitioner for 6 years. She has Masters’ degrees in Nursing and Public Health, and is currently an Instructor/Assistant Professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine at the University of South Florida, where she is also enrolled in the Department of Applied Anthropology PhD Program. She has practiced in Public Health settings for a number of years.

Casey, Patrick, et al.
2004 “Maternal Depression, Changing Public Assistance, Food Security, and Child Health Status” Pediatrics 113(2):298-304.

Haider, S. J., A. Jacknowitz, and R. F. Schoeni
2003 “Welfare work requirements and child well-being: evidence from the effects on breast-feeding” Demography 40(3):479-97.

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