While the political drive to cut welfare is not new, neither is the image of the Black welfare mother. In this essay, I will examine the history of welfare and welfare reform from a radical political perspective that places Black women at the center of an interconnected analysis of race, class and gender.

Beyond Welfare Queens: developing a race, class and gender analysis of Welfare and Welfare Reform

by Chris Crass

In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act became law and dismantled the 61 year old program of federally guaranteed Aid to Families with Dependent Children or what is common referred to as welfare. The debate surrounding welfare reform was dominated primarily by white male politicians and journalists and focused predominately on Black women and their families living in poverty. The discussion in the mainstream media about welfare and welfare reform has centered on what Newsweek’s columnist Joe Klein described as the “sexually irresponsible culture of poverty”. The accusation that poverty is the result of the individual failings of single mothers to care for their families has shaped the debates about welfare. The actual lives, let alone ideas, of mothers on welfare have been pushed to the margins of debate unless they legitimize popular stereotypes.

While the political drive to cut welfare is not new, neither is the image of the Black welfare mother. In this essay, I will examine the history of welfare and welfare reform from a radical political perspective that places Black women at the center of an interconnected analysis of race, class and gender. As it is Black womanhood that is positioned as the stereotype and image of the welfare mother, I wanted to explore the history of welfare and the development of racist images of mothers on AFDC. A reading of this history from a radical perspective will help develop a better understanding of how race, class and gender shape US society. By developing this analysis through a study of history, this paper aims to develop an analysis that can challenge myths of the “welfare queen”.

From a Mother’s Pension to AFDC to TANF: a history of race, gender and welfare policy

The history of aid to women with children began with the Mother’s Pension program advanced by mainly white middle-class reformers during the Progressive Era (1896-1914). The Progressive Era marked a period of time when sweeping reforms were made in government at local, state and federal level. The reform efforts were generally organized by an upper to middle class white constituency that believed that government should be managed professionally and that middle-class values should be spread throughout society, particularly to poor immigrant and working class communities. The campaign for the Mother’s Pension program pushed for greater government responsibility in the lives of poor women and their children. The poor mothers the women reformers campaigned for were widows. In 1900, widows headed 77 percent of all mother only families. The advocates of the Mother’s Pension focused on widows as mothers who were deemed socially “worthy” of public support. The pension would be used to help maintain families and reward mothers who stayed home with their children. The women reformers of the Progressive Era, in general, believed that the proper role of the mother was to stay home and care for the children. The pension would therefore help maintain established gender roles; this being the explicit strategy of the reformers. The size of the pension to widow’s and their families was small, bit it did help families stay slightly above poverty levels. Between 1911 and 1921, forty states had passed the Mother’s Pension program and by 1932, the program existed in all but two states.

The Mother’s Pension was based on the model of the “worthy” mother. In a society stratified by race that privileges whiteness at the expense of Blackness, this meant that the program by and large benefited white mothers. Historian of social policy, Mimi Abramovitz writes in her book Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States, “the glorification of Anglo-American motherhood, the belief in childrearing as exclusively women’s work, the narrow vision of proper single mothers as widows and the identification of worthiness with assimilation [into white-Anglo middle class society] condemned other mothers who did not live up to these ideals as immoral and unworthy of aid.”

The Mother’s Pension had little to no direct impact on Black mothers. Black womanhood has historically been devalued next to the idealized white womanhood. During slavery, while the social ideal of womanhood conjured up notions of being placed upon a pedestal of femininity, Black women worked alongside Black men, in what Angela Davis called a deformed equality under a racialized oppression that did not discriminate between women and men. Furthermore, as Black Feminist theorist Barbara Christian writes, “the enslaved African woman became the basis for the definition of our society’s Other.” The notion of the other is rooted in either/or dichotomous thinking which catagorizes people, ideas and things in terms of their differences from one another. Black feminist writer bell hooks argues that either/or dichotomous thinking is “the central ideological component of all systems of domination in Western society.” Patricia Hill Collins writes in her book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, that difference in dichotomous thinking is characterized as being in opposition, “One part is not simply different from its counterpart; it is inherently opposed to its ‘other’.” In Western society, Collins writes, “Whites and Blacks, males and females, thought and feeling are not complementary counterparts – they are fundamentally different entities related only through their definitions as opposites.” In a society marked by racial inequality, class stratification and gender subordination, to be positioned in opposition to dominate groups is to be simultaneously objectified by those who exercise power. “Domination always involves attempts to objectify the subordinate group.”, writes Collins. And hooks explains that, “as objects, one’s reality is defined by others, one’s identity is created by others, one’s history named only in ways that define one’s relationship to those who are subject” and that “as subjects, people have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history”, as subjects possess or exercise the power to define.

It is important that we explore these underlying discourses in the Mother’s Pension program, as these discourses are at the ideological core of welfare programs, welfare reform and discussions on poverty in general. This is why it is important that we develop a framework of analysis as we look at this history.

At the same time that the Mother’s Pension was adopted, other programs that would have benefited all poor women, all children, both single and two parent families (through a family allowance) were rejected. These alternative program proposals were based on the idea that public support was a right not a privilege. The programs that were able to generate support from power constituencies in the reform movement, business or the government, were programs that enforced the notion that public support was a burden on society and not a right of the public. The dichotomous notions of “worthy and “unworthy” mothers developed in the Mother’s Pension program will continue throughout the evolution of welfare programs. Worthy women were rewarded with assistance barely above the poverty line, while unworthy mothers in poverty are further punished and made an example of to all of society. Race plays a significant role in this class based poverty program designed to serve women and their children.

The next major event in the development of welfare took place during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Amid widespread unemployment, poverty, a crashing economy and growing social unrest, the federal government passed the Social Security Act of 1935. The significance of this Act was profound, as Abramovitz explains, “this landmark legislation transferred responsibility for social welfare from the states to the federal government, replacing nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics with twentieth century government intervention” The Social Security Act modeled many of the existing social welfare programs that had existed for over 30 years in most of the industrialized European nations.

As part of the New Deal legislation created under President Roosevelt, the Social Security Act established two forms of cash benefits: social insurance and public assistance. Social insurance programs included Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. Social Security is a pension for retired workers that is generated through a payroll tax that is paid half by the worker and half by the employer. Unemployment Insurance covers the wages of those temporarily unemployed and the program is funded entirely be a tax paid for by the employer. Because these two entitlement programs have benefited a large segment of society, they are thought of as social rights rather than government assistance.

However, these two programs did not cover everyone. The social insurance programs of 1935, excluded the majority of Black workers in the country. In order to win the support of Southern political leaders, the two entitlement programs did not include those in agricultural and domestic work. With the majority of Black men and women working in these two occupations, especially in the South, social insurance programs furthered race based economic inequality. In addition to the exclusion of Black women workers in agriculture and domestic work, both white and Black women were excluded from Social Security as the following occupations did not receive this federal entitlement; teachers, nurses, hospital employees, librarians and social workers – all of which are heavily occupied by women. Thus writes Jill Quadagno, author of The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, the nations first social wage provided little or nothing for most women and most African Americans.

The public assistance programs were: Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind; Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled was added in 1956. ADC, which would become Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1962, was a continuation of the Mother’s Pension program, and carried the same dichotomous notions of worthy and unworthy mothers. ADC, which came to be known as welfare, was severely limited by institutionalized racism and sexism. To begin with Congress rejected a definition of a dependent child that would have entitled any poor child assistance if the family was either unemployed or could not provide a reasonable subsistence. This definition would have included children living in single or two parent homes as well as children living with extended families. ADC only offered assistance to children without parental support due to death, long-term absence or incapacity of the family breadwinner. ADC was also limited by Southern political leaders who again deprived Black women in the South from federal entitlements. Southern congressman, who chaired key committees, insisted that states reserve the right to establish the criteria for eligibility and make the decisions about who received benefits. Southern leaders prevented Black women and men from receiving federal entitlements, because the economy of the South depended on the underpaid labor of Black workers to generate enormous profit. Federal entitlements like ADC would have created opportunities for Black women to leave low-paying jobs. The systematic exclusion of the majority of Black women from federal entitlement programs and public assistance demonstrates two of the three main forms of oppression in Black women’s lives as described by Black feminist theorist Patricia Hill Collins.

In Black Feminist Thought, Collins sets out to develop a framework for understanding and theorizing Black women’s lives. She begins this framework with a discussion of Black women’s oppression, which “has been structured along three interdependent dimensions”. The first is the exploitation of Black women’s labor, on which Collins writes, “The drudgery of enslaved African-American women’s work and the grinding poverty of ‘free’ wage labor in the rural South tellingly illustrate the high costs Black women have paid for survival.” The underpaid labor or slave labor that Collins mentions was/is a form of exploitation in the lives of Black women and it was/is also a form of economic and racial privilege for the slave-master and the wealthy in the South who generate profit from this exploitation. Underpaid labor in the South resulted in families working full-time jobs living in poverty while the profit of this labor created the wealth of the white upper-class. Hence, the economic motivation behind Southern leaders racist practice of excluding Black workers from entitlements and Black women from public assistance, brings us to the second form of oppression, which is structural political inequality. “The political dimension of oppression has denied African-American women the rights and privileges routinely extended to white male citizens,” argues Collins. She then notes that Black women have been forbidden to vote, excluded from public office, denied literacy, attended underfunded public schools, treated more severely in the criminal justice system and discriminated against in federal assistance programs as well. While political oppression disempowers Black women it institutionalizes power inequality that benefits white men, particularly those who hold economic power. As the example of Social Security and ADC demonstrate, Black women who are denied formal political power are further oppressed both politically and economically because of their race and gender by Southern leaders who directly benefit from this oppression.

The third form of oppression, according to Collins, is the ideological dimension by which “certain assumed qualities are attached to Black women and how these qualities are used to justify oppression.” Collins writes, “From the mammies, Jezebels and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes and ever present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, the nexus of negative stereotypical images applied to African-American women has been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.” This is a process that involves both racializing and gendering meaning. Taking from the groundbreaking work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s book Racial Formation in the United States, Collins explains racialization as a process that “involves attaching racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group.” The process of gendering similarly involves attaching gendered meaning to previously ungendered relationships, social practices or group. The third form of oppression in Black women’s lives as outlined by Collin’s, has significantly shaped the formation and discourse of welfare. Let us look at ADC, which became AFDC, and the many layers of negative stereotypes and ideological oppression.

As mentioned earlier, ADC was originally a program available primarily to white single mothers. Several major events changed the racial composition of ADC recipients. As the number of Black mothers receiving ADC grew, the program developed a racial coding that attached Black racialized meaning to a program that originally benefited white women almost exclusively. Whereas the dichotomous notions of the Mother’s Pension focused on unworthy and worthy mothers, ADC will develop notions of worth related to the race of the recipient; to be a Black mother in poverty receiving ADC is to become the symbol of the unworthy woman. How did this happen.

To begin with, in 1939, the Congress amended the Social Security Act. A new program called Old Age Insurance (OAI) was created, which provided more then the public assistance program, Old Age Assistance. OAI moved up the starting date to begin collecting benefits and it also created benefits for deceased workers’ widows and children. This impacted women in two ways. Black women who were widows of working men, or had worked themselves, were largely unable to receive OAI as most Black workers (male or female) were still excluded from Social Security benefits all together. Large numbers of white women who were widows of white workers went from ADC for OAI. Women who switched to OAI received double the amount of benefits.

The next major event effecting welfare programs took place during and after World War II. There was an enormous movement of Black people from rural areas into cities in the South and from the South into the North. The promise of jobs and the need to escape racial and sexual violence in the South motivated hundreds of thousands of Black people to move to large northern cities. In the north, Black women had greater access to federal programs like ADC and later AFDC. The eligibility requirements for ADC still limited the number of poor women, especially Black women, who could receive assistance in the 40’s and 50’s. In the 60’s during the War on Poverty and the Great Society programs reformed the requirements in favor of Black women and expanded some of the welfare benefits. These programs were initiated due to pressure from protest movements, particularly the Civil Rights and Welfare Rights movements, along with widespread urban unrest in the mid to late 60. ADC and later AFDC, became one of the few federal entitlement programs available to Black women, and because other programs like OAI included poor and working class white mothers, ADC became a program that served disproportionately Black women. While white women continued to make up a majority of those on welfare, Black women where on welfare in higher percentages then their percentage in the population as a whole (for example, a city might be 20 percent Black, while 40 percent of those on welfare were Black, yet the majority receiving welfare overall remained white). The number of Black women receiving welfare grew from 21% of the mothers on ADC in 1942 to 48% in 1961.

In 1960 2o percent of all whites, nearly 50 percent of families living in female headed-households and more than half of all African Americans were poor. In 1962 the Social Security Act was amended, which changed ADC to AFDC and allowed women on welfare to work and collect benefits, opened up eligibility to include some two parent families, and permitted the states to provide services to a broad range of current and potential recipients. Also during the 1960’s, the War on Poverty and Grand Society programs were changing the racial structure of social services. Quadagno writes, “While the New Deal had excluded African Americans, the War on Poverty would favor them. While the New Deal had conspired with southern elite’s to deny political and social rights to African Americans, the War on Poverty would assimilate them into local politics, local job markets and local housing markets.” The number of families receiving aid grew from 803,000 in 1960 to 1.9 million in 1970 and then to just under 3 million in 1972. While the numbers of people on welfare grew, so too did the number of welfare recipients who began organizing under the banner of Welfare Rights. The National Welfare Rights Organization was founded in 1966 by dozens of local groups that had already been doing years of grassroots organizing in their communities. The welfare rights movement was primarily lead and composed of mothers who were welfare recipients.

Due to the number of people on welfare growing, the influx of Black women on welfare, the growing power of the welfare rights movement, and the expanding government programs to aid the poor, the situation led to a backlash by the white male power structure that feared it was losing its ability to govern The backlash focused on long held notions of welfare mothers, such as illegitimacy, dependency, and immorality. However, the backlash in the 1960’s began to associate these concepts primarily with Black women, the Black family and the Black community generally. The stigma of welfare and the corrupting effects of welfare on the family became racialized. As ADC and then AFDC have always been programs benefiting women and their children, the stigma has already been gendered. The social construction of gender that defines women as dependent on men is continued to the social construction of the welfare mother dependent on society.

An article written in 1965 for the New York Times Magazine reflects the discourse shaping headlines and newspaper articles across the country. The article explains, “We know that the damage to the infant takes place long before he [sic] sees the dirt, the drunks, the drug addicts, the spilled garbage of the slum; the damage takes place when the unavailable mother brings her child home from the hospital and realizes she hates him for being alive.” Also in 1965, the highly influential and controversial report by Daniel Moynihan, “The Negro Family”, was released. Moynihan argued that the underlying cause for the rising welfare roles, the increased poverty, and the high rate of unemployment in the Black community was the Black family. The families headed by single mothers, in particular. He explained that the Black family had developed into a dysfunctional state due to slavery. During slavery, Black men were unable to exercise patriarchal power and maintained a general equality with women. Then as a result of job discrimination, Black men were not able to perform the task of breadwinner for their families. Black women became the head of households as they performed the breadwinner role and the caretaker role. Black women, argued Moynihan, had become powerful Black matriarchs that emasculated Black boys and failed to provide proper role models for Black girls. The Black father’s position as head of the household had been so thoroughly undermined by the power of the Black mother, that he often left his families as a failure.

What does Moynihan suggest doing about this situation? Ending job discrimination? Creating a federally guaranteed annual family income to end poverty?

No. Moynihan points to the goal of restructuring the Black family. The father must regain his position as head of the household. Black women should be discouraged from paid work and stay at home with the children. Establishing male dominance in the family was a prerequisite of social stability. During the turbulent period of the 60’s when the Black liberation movement is changing national politics and the women’s liberation movement is beginning to question the base assumptions of a patriarchal society, Moynihan argues that social problems ranging from poverty to lack of self confidence in Black men is the fault of the matriarchal Black mother who exercises too much power. Moynihan’s report was an attack on the social movements of the 60s and an effort to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal discourses on Black people and women generally and Black women in particular.

Moynihan also developed an argument that has gained wide spread currency and is used consistently to describe the poor. Moynihan argued that the Black family was a tangled web of pathologies. Drug addiction, self-hate, violence, lack of a work ethic, dependency, out-of-wedlock, illegitimate babies and the teen mothers who can’t take care of themselves let alone a child. These pathologies are the result of the breakdown of the Black family.

In response to these arguments Collins writes, “creating the controlling image of the welfare mother and stigmatizing her as the cause of her own poverty and that of African American communities shifts the angle of vision away from structural sources of poverty and blames the victims themselves. The image of the welfare mother thus provides ideological justification for the dominate group’s interest in limiting the fertility of Black mothers who are seen as producing too many economically unproductive children.”

Welfare Rights organizer Johnnie Tillman wrote an article for Ms. Magazine in 1972 that challenged the popular image of welfare mothers. Her article titled, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue”, reads: “There are a lot of lies that male society tells about welfare mothers: that AFDC mothers are immoral, that AFDC mothers are lazy, misuse their welfare checks, spend it all on booze and are stupid and incompetent. If people are willing to believe these lies, it’s partly because these are just special versions of the lies that society tells about all women.”

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s cutbacks on AFDC were made and the dominate discourse on welfare continued to focus on pathologies or what was then termed the “culture of poverty”. The next big event in the history of welfare occurred in 1996. President Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it”, and on August 22, 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed into law. The welfare reform bill, as it came to be known, eliminated AFDC and created a block grant for states to provide time-limited cash assistance to families in poverty. The new block grant program’s, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), purpose is to “reduce dependency by promoting job preparation, work and marriage. The block grants can also be used by the states to fund efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families.” Highly controversial birth control methods are being administered to welfare mothers, regardless of the high levels of side effects and lack of testing on long-tern effects.

Furthermore, “States may use their TANF block grant allocation for any ‘manner reasonably calculated to accomplish the purpose of the TANF”. As the TANF is administered as a block grant, the states have “complete flexibility to determine eligibility and benefit levels” which means that some of the options available to the states are that they “may deny assistance to additional children born or conceived while the parent is on welfare” and “may deny assistance to unmarried teen parents and their children”.

The welfare reform bill aims to remove families from welfare into employment through job-training programs. Adults in families receiving assistance under TANF are required to “participate in work activities after receiving assistance for 24 months (subject to good clause exemptions by the state). Recipients must be participating in community service within two months of receiving benefits if they are not working.” The welfare bill also provides cash bonuses to states who have “high performance” in meeting the goals of reducing the numbers of people on welfare. Such criteria for “high performance” does not consider the numbers of people gainfully employed, out of poverty, or any other indicator of the “quality of life” for people removed from welfare. There is also an Illegitimacy Reduction Bonus Fund that rewards the five states with the “greatest success in reducing out-of-wedlock births without increasing abortions”.

During the debate over welfare reform the mainstream media presented a nearly unanimous perspective that welfare had failed and needed to be seriously reformed. The image of the welfare mother in the news was that of a Black teenager. In Newsweek (12/94) journalist Jonathan Alter wrote, “Every threat to the fabric of this country – from poverty to crime to homelessness – is connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy.”

While less than 6 percent of AFDC recipients are under 20; only 1 percent goes to people under 18 years of age. Regardless of how many teen mothers are actually on welfare, the politicians and journalists used the image of the Black teen mother to generate anger against welfare in public opinion. Diane Sawyer, on her show “Prime Time Live” (02/95) asked a teenage mother on AFDC, “why should they [taxpayers] pay for your mistake?” Newsweek (02/95) carried a story on the “sexually irresponsible culture of poverty” and argued that we [morally correct citizens] must use the television to send a powerful message as it “is the only sustained communication our society has with the underclass.”

The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting did a study on the welfare reform debates and the representation of welfare recipients. They surveyed three months of welfare coverage in half a dozen of the most influential news outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC News, PBS’s “McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Time and Newsweek. The study looked to see who the media quoted, how they were quoted and what sources were used in the reporting. Of sources whose gender could be identified 71% (608 sources) were men. When welfare recipients are removed from the percentage, the number of male sources is 77%. Reporters used current and former government officials as sources more than any other group, making up 59% of the sources. The single most quoted person during the period studied was Republican Rep. Clay Shaw, chair of the House subcommittee that drafted the “Personal Responsibility Act”. In the New York Times Shaw described the welfare system as “pampering the poor”.

Welfare recipients made up 10 percent of the media’s sources, however FAIR found that they were generally quoted only when they reinforced popular myths of welfare mothers and helped construct a perspective that viewed “guilty moms” and “innocent children”. FAIR found that the idea of success was strictly associated with cutting welfare and not a decrease in the number of people living in poverty and that similarly experts continually referred to “getting tough” on welfare. While the actual number of teen mothers on AFDC is small, the study found that when welfare recipients age was given in media reports they were generally 17, 18 and 19, thus reinforcing the image of teenage welfare mothers. One example of how the media presented welfare and race was the cover piece on welfare in US News & World Report (01/95) that had pictures of seven women, all but one was a woman of color and most of them were Black. While white women are the majority of AFDC recipients only one was pictured, and she was described as “clinically depressed”. The report produced by FAIR clearly demonstrates how the media objectified welfare recipients in general and Black women on AFDC in particular. The stereotypes and controlling images helped win public support for the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”. “By articulating a definition of poverty that associated it explicitly with illegitimacy, then associated illegitimacy with race, the Right made it acceptable to express blatantly racist concepts without shame.” The media consistently put forward a paternalistic message that all of this was “for your own good” regardless of how racist and sexist it may be.

In a report to the United Nations about poverty in the United States, Special Rapporteur Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo wrote, this “new mythology provided the ideological cannon fodder for the attack on the poor and people of color. That mythology equates growth in poverty to growth in an underclass which is primarily Black, Latino and female. This was the basis for the myth of the ‘welfare queen’. The increase in poverty is said to be the result of the growth of this sector of the population, not economic factors.”

Welfare Reform has been in effect now for nearly two years, and the measure for success remains to be the decreased numbers of people receiving welfare. A front page article of the Los Angeles Times (11/98), the success of welfare reform is noted by the percentage of people off of welfare, not by the number of people employed or living above the poverty line. As more and more families become homeless and are pushed deeper into poverty, the politicians and journalists cheer on about the great success of welfare reform. The connections between poverty and the skyrocketing number of people in prisons is also avoided in most discussions about welfare reform. The fact that women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population should warrant an investigation into this connection, but in the eyes of politicos and pundits who championed welfare reform, as long as they aren’t still on welfare seems to be the only fact that matters.

However, along with the backlash against welfare and Black women is particular, there has been a groundswell of welfare rights activism that is organized and led by women. In 1992, the Women’s Economic Agenda Project held the first ever Poor Women’s Convention under the title, “Under Attack, Fighting Back”. Over 400 poor women participated. The National Welfare Rights Union was active during the welfare reform debates, getting organizations like NOW to come out against the welfare reform bill. With the passage of the bill in 96, groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union have intensified their efforts. KWRU in the summer of 98 went on an organizer tour to build their “Economic Human Rights Campaign” and traveled in their Freedom from Unemployment, Hunger and Homelessness Bus across the country. They stopped in dozens of cities to meet with local poor people’s groups and ended the tour at the United Nations where they presented economic human rights violations under welfare reform along with a speech to the general assembly on the struggle of poor people in the US. The KWRU is a multiracial organization started by and led by mothers.

While it is crucial to examine the history of welfare and welfare reform discourse from a Black Feminist perspective that places Black women at the center of interconnected race, class and gender analysis. It is also imperative that we develop strategies of resistance from a Black Feminist perspective as well. Such a perspective would include the importance of self-definition and moving from objectivity to subjectivity.

As Collins writes, “challenging controlling images and replacing them with a Black women’s standpoint is an essential component of resisting systems of race, gender and class oppression.” The process of self-definition involves not only rejecting social constructions of racial and gender inferiority, but also reclaiming history and knowledge that challenges white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality. Liberatory knowledge for Black women and other oppressed groups is what Collins refers to as subjugated knowledge.

“Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinated groups willingly collaborate in their own victimization,” Collins explains. The image of the welfare mother is one of a powerless, irresponsible woman who not only willingly collaborates in her own victimization but has produced a culture of poverty based on that victimization. Subjugated knowledge is information, ideas, and history that has been buried, obscured or invalidated by discourses that serve power and privilege. The images of welfare mothers occupy the public debate not the history of how welfare developed or how race and gender have historically discriminated and kept Black women down. Reclaiming subjugated knowledge is one of the key practices of Black feminist thought as Collins outlines it and of radical political analysis that I employ throughout this essay. These political projects aim to not only recover lost history of Black women and other oppressed groups but also to reconceptualize history through an interconnected analysis or race, class and gender. This paper aims to reconceptualize welfare, welfare reform and images of welfare mothers so that welfare recipients can continue to move from being objects in this debate to become subjects shaping this debate. Welfare rights activists who are not also recipients can aid in this project by shifting the center of our analysis so that welfare recipients, their knowledge claims and their strategies inform and guide our work.


1.Laura Flanders with Janine Jackson and Dan Shadoan. Media Lies: Media, Public Opinion and Welfare from For Crying Out Loud: women’s poverty in the United States ed. by Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn, page 30. South End Press, 1996.
3.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States, page 59. Monthly Review Press, 1996.
4.Ibid., page 59. Although it should be noted that the status of widow was generally more respected then a single-mother headed family caused by separation or never married mothers, and so many claimed they were widows to escape stigma.
5.Ibid., page 60. Many of the women reformers hoped that the pension would help stop women from entering the paid labor market.
6.Ibid., page 60. While the program existed in all but two states, it had not necessary been adopted in every county of the states which had adopted the Mother’s Pension.
7.Ibid., page 60.
8.Quoted by Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, page 68. Routledge, 1990.
9.Ibid., 68.
10.Ibid., 68.
11.Ibid., 69. Collins book has become a contemporary classic and has profoundly influenced my thinking on the subjects of Black women as mothers, controlling images of welfare mother and Black women’s activism is this paper.
12.Ibid., 69.
13.Ibid., 69.
14.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 61.
15.Ibid., page 16.
16.The social welfare programs in the industrialized nations of Europe were created in response to popular protest and resistance amongst the working classes of these nations. These programs were not created out of the benevolence of rulers for their people, but out of fear of losing their ability to rule altogether. Race relations and the role of white supremacy in dividing the working classes of the United States significantly weakened the labor movements efforts to win social welfare programs.
17.Ibid., page 16. This paragraph is taken entirely form Abramovitz. Social Security and Unemployment Insurance currently cover more than 95% of the population writes Abramovitz, and they both maintain strong political support from well organized constituencies.
18.Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, page 20-24.
19.Ibid., page 157.
20.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, pages 62-64.
21.Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare, page 119.
22.Ibid., page 20-24.
23.Most Black men and many white women were also excluded from these federal entitlement programs, however this paper puts Black women at the center of analysis. What is of particular importance is that analysis of and by Black women routinely seeks to develop interconnected theories and strategies that include the oppression and exploitation of Black men and white women and seek social change through collective struggles challenging inequality that effects the majority of society.
24.Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, page 6.
25.Ibid., page 6.
26.Ibid., page 6.
27.While this discussion has focused on Southern leaders, economic and political leaders in the North also exercise these practices as the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s clearly brought to light. Our analysis should be far-reaching and look to understand race, class and gender as key organizing principles of the United States as a whole.
28.Patricia Collins, Black Feminist Thought, page 7.
29.Ibid., page 7. This is but one of many passages that clearly demonstrates Collins status as a social science superstar.
30.Ibid., page 73.
31.This is very much just a working definition, as I don’t think I’ve come across any clear definition of gendering meaning as I have read on racialized meaning.
32.Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 64. Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare, pages 20-24.
33.Darlene Clark Hines. Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance. Hines present a Black feminist analysis of why women moved to the North during this period of time and demonstrates how Black women exercised their own agency in the “acquisition of personal autonomy and economic liberation”.
34.Nancy Naples. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work and the War on Poverty, pages 40-60.
35.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, pages 67-72.
36.Ibid., pages 67-72.
37.Ibid., page 74.
38.Jill Quadagno. The Color of Welfare, page 31. The War on Poverty was created by the government because of pressure from protest movements, and Quadagno goes on latter in her book to explain the process by which the government dismantled many of the gains made during the War on Poverty.
39.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 73.
40.Nancy Naples. Grassroots Warriors. Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 74.
41.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 81.
42.Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought, page 77.
43.Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 80. 44. Legislative Summary, analysis of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Prepared by the National Governors’ Association, National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Public Welfare Association. The summary also states that the bill “also makes far-reaching changes to child care, the Food Stamps Program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for children, benefits for legal immigrants and the Child Support Enforcement program.
47.Laura Flanders. Media Lies: Media, Public Opinion and Welfare, p. 29.
48.Ibid., p. 29.
49.Ibid., p. 30.
50.Ibid., p. 30.
51.Ibid., p. 31.
52.Ibid., p. 31.
53.Ibid., p. 32
54.Ibid., p. 34.
55.Lucy Williams. “The Public Eye”, Political Research Associates Newsletter, Fall/Winter, 1996.
56.African American Human Rights Foundation report to Special Rapporteur, 12 October 1994.
57.Melissa Healy. “Welfare Cuts Get Tougher With Success”, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1998.
58.Mimi Abramovitz. Under Attack, Fighting Back, page 134.
59.Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought, page 104.
60.When welfare recipients move from objects to subjects in this debate it effects all of us. I think of the quote from James Baldwin, “if I am not what you thought I was, you are not what you think you are”.
61.From the Boston Globe, November 30th, 1998. 30 people were arrested.