The first time I remember hearing the word “welfare” was when I was about 8 or 9 years old: my father used it in regards to a little girl who had stood in front of him in the line at Lunds who had tried to buy some candy with her food stamps. He didn’t talk about welfare in a negative way, but he seemed to find it unfortunate that the girl tried to buy, what he thought was unhealthy junk with her food stamps, and couldn’t. He dryly wondered aloud if she even knew what money was, and asked how she could not have a few coins of change in her pocket. In the end, he bought her the bar of chocolate that she wanted, telling her to save her food stamps for “real food,” and then sitting down at our kitchen table, started in the big plate of food my mother had just set in front of him. My first encounter with the word left me puzzled. Were food stamps green lickable postable pieces of paper that looked like money? It was a mystery to me.
In her book, Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States, Mimi Abramovitz writes that, “welfare reform has wreaked havoc with women’s lives and the wider welfare state… [it has] intensif[ied] the regulations of womens lives….increased economic vulnerability of many poor women…[and has done] little or nothing to help poor women and children escape poverty, and undercut the entire welfare system (p. 49).
After World War II, women of all colors and socio-economic backgrounds and their allies lobbied Congress to support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Another important policy change to keep in mind is evolution of the Mothers’ Pension Act to ADC: “The campaign for Mothers’ Pension sought greater government responsibility for the well-being of all poor women and children, but especially widows…(p. 62).”The mothers, according to Abramovitz, who were deemed worthy by the supporters of the Mothers’ Pension Act were overwhelmingly white, widowed and native-born.
An unfortunate problem in regards to welfare is how poor mothers on welfare as distrusted by American society, these women, according to Abramovitz, are seen as not fit to take care of their own children, but interestingly enough, are appropriate nannies and hired babysitters. “Some welfare reform provisions also target poor women’s parenting. The view of single-parent families as ‘broken’ or ‘deviant’ reflects the long-standing distrust of women who raise children without men, especially poor, nonwhite, or foreign-born women (p. 42).”
Poor, single women and their children are most affected because women already make less than men do, and since women comprise the majority of “homemakers,” they suffer the most from socio-economic inequalities and failed welfare reform. “A ‘deserving widow’ might be allowed to keep one or two of her children, but deserted wives, who were often suspected of colluding with their spouses to get aid, were treated more harshly. Officials reserved the severest response for unmarried mothers...(p.60).” Women of color and their children are also highly affected because racial inequalities that were systematically and institutionally oppressive, not only because these recipients of welfare were women, but because they were women of color. Abramovitz explains that the “two-tiered structure of the welfare state also reproduces the inequalities of race found in wider society because the more disadvantaged members of society – those who are more likely to be deprived of an adequate income by racial discrimination – are relegated to the stigmatized and locally administered public assistance programs (p. 105).”
There is still plenty of welfare resistance institutionally, in the media, by the government, from the middle class, and within the communities of underprivileged recipients of welfare. Institutionally, the structures that are set up are supposed to allow every person to pursue happiness and success, but not everyone achieves these dream. Economic differences have been completely divisive in what is supposed to be a democratic country, and the media has a large role in how welfare is ultimately portrayed.
Media coverage has perpetuated the stigma of the “free-handout” ideology that many Americans subscribe to, the media’s portrayal of the war on the middle class, the war on drugs, and the war on poverty does nothing to unify the masses to work towards social justice. The war on the middle class, as some news anchors have termed it, has divided the middle and lower class against each other for the benefit of the upper class. This strategy of divide and conquer is one that the government is especially skilled at – right wing politicians their constituents vote and pass through bills that really only have their own best interests at heart, not the greater good.
There is also a lack of diversity in the government in terms of advocacy, poor single women with children and people of color are often times not invited to the boardroom table to discuss policies that directly affect them. Even in this election year, welfare has not been a widely publicized agenda item for the Democratic candidates. Those who speak out for true welfare reform usually are not taken very seriously and have inadequate resources and not enough power.
As the structures are set up to be systematically and institutionally oppressive those who have the power are sexist, racist, homophobic, heterosexist and classist – all of these identities that are being oppressed under welfare reform and welfare recipients that internalize the stigma perpetuated about them suffer. Those who need welfare don’t go on it because they are ashamed, those who probably have some hope to get off don’t try because they have lost all hope – all of these recipients unfortunately limit themselves because they feel worthless or ashamed.
Welfare reform is a social justice issue because history as shown that the reform hasn’t really been positive change. If politicians are still willing to call previous changes to welfare reformed than they must be able to explain why the system isn’t working. They must be able to detail what the future look will like for recipients of welfare under the current economic recession. What is Obama doing about this?
Welfare is a social justice issue because women of all walks of life are being treated unfairly and unequally and their children are paying the price; the consequences of socially unjust community carries on to a socially unjust world and breaks down the unified strength of all people. Welfare is an issue that is everyone’s business – everyone benefits from a better system and justice what we should demand for all.