Review of Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present

ELLEN REESE, a sociologist who studies social movements, offers a compelling narrative of the creation of the powerful conservative anti-welfare political movement in the United States. She argues that the earliest manifestations of the anti-welfare backlash began right after World War II when low-wage employers, with support from conservative racists who opposed the post-war civil rights gains of blacks, lobbied to severely restrict payments under the New Deal Aid to Dependent Children program introduced in 1935.

The anti-welfare movement gradually gathered momentum and a broader base of support, peaking perhaps in 1996 with the adoption of the very restrictive federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act [PRWORA]. Reese argues that “as the social safety net shrank, the depth of poverty increased sharply between 1996 and 2002.” (5)

This is familiar territory to those in Canada as well as the US who advocate for better policy for women. Reese’s book makes two important contributions to the debate. The first is a detailed historical perspective on the welfare backlash of the 1940s and 1950s. The second is a solidly researched exploration of the development of a racist, sexist, ultra-conservative right-wing movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

The connections she draws between the emergence of right-wing think-tanks, the Christian right, and the rightward turn of both the Republican and Democratic parties at the national level are well developed and thoroughly persuasive.

The book is laid out in three parts, beginning with an overview of recent policy and debate, followed by extended discussions of what she calls the “first Welfare Backlash (1945–1979)” which reached the national level by the 1960s, and finally the “contemporary welfare backlash (1980–2004).” This structure works remarkably well to establish a strong and persuasive narrative.

The history of welfare in the United States has broad parallels with the Canadian experience, but also striking differences created by the US federal government’s New Deal in the 1930s. The program at the heart of this study is Aid to Dependent Children [ADC], renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] in 1962. The fact that it did not initially include “agricultural, domestic, and casual workers” (24) meant that the program almost exclusively served white widows and allowed it to draw relatively little criticism in early years.

In the post-war period, as more black women became entitled to benefits, opposition soon followed. In 1943 Louisiana adopted the first formal work requirement for ADC, but much stronger and widespread opposition developed following the war.

Part II of Reese’s book documents what she calls the first welfare backlash — from 1945 to 1979. Between 1945 and 1960, as ADC caseloads tripled, low-wage employers, especially in the agricultural sector, stepped up the backlash, and in that period almost half the US states, mostly in the south and southwest, restricted entitlement. Although these restrictions were enacted at the state level, Reese is highly critical of the federal government’s complicity.

Case studies of four states, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, and California, explore the roots of what would become a national backlash against welfare by the end of the 20th century. Reese locates the backlash in the labour crisis faced by large southern farmers who were facing a labour crisis after the war. Sharecropping was being replaced by wage workers and blacks were migrating in large numbers to the north and west. Neither mechanization nor foreign labour provided a quick fix, and these farmers saw ADC as a threat.

The four state-level case studies are an innovative element in the book. Georgia, where white racist large-scale farmers wielded considerable power in state politics, cut benefits and tightened eligibility to ADC in 1949 and made more severe cuts in 1952. A third of ADC recipients, almost all of them black, were cut from the rolls. Large-scale farmers in Georgia not only used their influence in the state legislature but also served on county welfare boards where they were direct participants in the welfare system.

As a result welfare was routinely denied to black women during the harvest season. In Georgia critics of the cuts had little impact. In Kentucky, on the other hand, the welfare opposition was more contested despite the fact that welfare caseloads tripled between 1945 and 1950. The difference was the strength of pro-welfare groups, including the strong coal-mining unions, small-scale farmers, blacks, urban voters, and liberal Democrats.

In 1950 only 7 per cent of Kentucky’s population was black, so racist bias was much less potent. Welfare politics in California and New York followed similar trajectories. In both cases racists and low-wage employers led the assault on ADC. Reese chose these two states because racism had different targets than in the south. In California it was Mexican Americans who were the target; in New York it was Puerto Rican immigrants. In both states liberal forces were able to hold back the cuts and restrictions for a few more decades.

In the chapters on the 1960s and 1970s Reese turns her attention to federal politics. Though these decades are often regarded as a period of liberal reform when the civil rights movement and the war on poverty made their mark on the national stage, business and low-wage employers were able to achieve tougher rules in 1967 and again in 1971. Reese attributes the 1960s welfare backlash at the national level to the white racist backlash against civil rights, which dovetailed conveniently with the needs of low-wage employers. Reese argues that opposition to welfare became more racialized.

Her discussion of national welfare policy debates in this period includes a very useful analysis of the attempts by both Johnson and Nixon to enact a guaranteed annual income program. Their proposals faced opposition from the National Welfare Rights Organization as “anti-poor and antiblack,” from feminists who believed they did not address the gender gap, from unionists who wanted job creation, and from some elements of the business community which was split on the issue.

Part III of Reese’s book, “The Contemporary Welfare Backlash” (1980–2004), does an excellent job of addressing the development of a powerful coalition that opposed welfare. Low-wage employers and conservative racists continued to play leading roles in the 1980s and 1990s, but their numbers and their influence were augmented by the rise of right-wing think-tanks and the Christian right. As a feminist and welfare activist I found her discussion of the Christian right’s pro-family and charitable choice policies especially chilling.

The think-tanks developed an emotionally charged rhetoric that “played a crucial role in shifting political debate about welfare rightward and undermining public support welfare.” (151) Collectively the think-tanks and the Christian right were able to influence public opinion to the extent that opinion polls suggest that between 1984 and 1994 the number of Americans who believed that the government was spending too much on public welfare increased from 40 to 60 per cent.

Reese also notes that both big business and the Christian right began to take a much more direct role in Republican party politics in this period. What Reese calls the “New Democrats” became virtually indistinguishable from the Republicans, and it was the Clinton administration that eliminated AFDC and replaced it with the much more restrictive Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act [PRWORA] in 1996.

The adoption of PRWORA reflected the culmination of the movement building efforts of the right. The coalition of racists dissatisfied with civil rights gains, low-wage employers, conservative Republicans, the right-wing think-tanks, and the Christian right was augmented by white working- and middle-class voters’ resentment of taxation and by a broader acceptance of maternal employment. However, and this is a striking observation, the punitive, miserly, and restrictive elements of PRWORA exceeded public opinion. The ironic conclusion is that sustained political organization and activism can change public welfare policy.

This book has much to offer scholars and activists concerned with welfare policy. While at times one felt trapped in acronym soup, and wished for more consideration of the international context, the book forcefully documents the building of the American right as a powerful social movement. Reese dedicated her book to “those forced to cope with the shortcomings of the current welfare system, and all those fighting for a better one.”

While she demonstrates that welfare policy can be negatively affected by a powerful lobby that advocates a position not supported by public opinion, her example of the success of Kentucky unionists, blacks, and liberals in blocking tighter restrictions for Aid to Dependent Children in the state in the 1940s demonstrates that left-wing activism can also be effective.

Janet Guildford
Mount Saint Vincent University