Welfare Reform & Poverty

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Welfare Reform & Poverty

Organized by: Katie Kerstetter, George Mason University

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program – more commonly called welfare – has become a flashpoint for national debates about work, family, gender, race, and class. Many of these debates center on the 1996 welfare reform law, because its implementation represented a significant change in the level and type of support the state provides to low-income women with children. For the first time, most welfare recipients faced lifetime limits on the amount aid they could receive, and eligibility for benefits is now conditioned on recipients’ participation in employment or other work-related activities. A vast majority of TANF recipients are women. As the articles below demonstrate, these policies changes have had significant impacts on low-income women’s ability to achieve financial stability, access educational opportunities, and avoid harmful relationships. While welfare reform ushered in dramatic policy changes, some aspects of the provision of public benefits have seen little change – such as the negative stigma associated with receiving benefits.  The articles below represent literature on welfare reform and poverty published in Gender & Society from 1987 through 2011. These articles provide helpful readings for classes focused on microsociology; inequalities in everyday life; sociology of work; social policy; race, class, and gender; and research methods, among others.

Meyer, Madonna Harrington. 1994. Gender, race, and the distribution of social assistance: Medicaid use among the frail elderly. Gender & Society 8(1): 8-28.

Meyer analyzes data from the National Long Term Care Study, a longitudinal survey, to examine disparities in the distribution of Medicaid benefits to frail elderly by class, gender, and race in 1982 and 1984. She finds that women, African Americans, and Hispanics are significantly more likely than White men to rely on public healthcare assistance. Accounting for differences in age, education, income, marital status, and nursing home residence, elderly women are 1.2 times as likely as elderly men to receive Medicaid and Blacks and Hispanics are three times as likely as Whites to receive Medicaid. Meyer suggests that these disparities exist because women, Blacks, and Hispanics have a greater need for long-term care and fewer resources with which to obtain this care. This means that members of these groups also are disproportionately more vulnerable to cuts to Medicaid budgets, the stigma associated with receiving poverty-related benefits, and gaps in public long-term care policies. Meyer’s findings support feminist theories which claim that welfare states stratify the provision of benefits not only by class but by race and gender as well.

Brush, Lisa D. 1997. Worthy widows, welfare cheats: Proper womanhood in expert needs talk about single mothers in the United States, 1900 to 1988. Gender & Society 11(6): 720-746.

Brush analyzes case records from public hearings, textbooks, and other sources to determine how experts have characterized the needs of single mothers over time.  She finds that during the 20th century, experts constructed the needs of low-income single mothers in ways that reinforced conventional gender and heterosexual norms.  Categories of “worthiness” included intemperance, sexual respectability, housekeeping, and psychoanalytic assessments.  Experts’ discourse both supported and responded to the changing of welfare benefits to women.  For example, categories of moral worthiness shifted in the 1920s and 1930s from a focus on women’s moral characteristics to their physical health partially in response to the professionalization of social work.  Changes in experts’ discourse appeared to be most related to changes in the structure of the welfare system; however shifts in social attitudes and demographic trends also played a role.  The article’s analysis covers the period from the 1900s through the Family Support Act of 1988.  Brush’s analysis helps to illuminate how gender – and women’s subordination – is constructed in everyday life through the institutional provision of welfare benefits.

McCrate, Elaine and Joan Smith. 1998. When work doesn’t work: The failure of current welfare reform. Gender & Society 12(1): 61-80.

The authors review previous empirical research and policy debates as well as analyze state-level data to critique assumptions embedded in the 1996 welfare reform law.  This research was conducted as part of a state-level campaign against mandatory work requirements in Vermont.  The authors critique three assumptions: that employment is readily available to low-income women, that work requirements will substantially reduce poverty among women, and that child support and generous tax credits will fill any remaining gaps in income after earnings.  In contrast, the authors find that unmarried women seek work at similar rates as married women, but are much less likely to succeed in obtaining a job.  Moreover, the work that single mothers are able to find often does not pay enough to support their family, even with the addition of income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit.  The authors also share lessons learned from the Vermont campaign, including the challenge of uniting women across class lines.  The authors conclude that workfare policies are destined to fail because they do not take into account the lived experiences of low-income women, and they call instead for economic policies that ensure greater equity for women and security for families.

Rich, Lauren M. and Sun-Bin Kim. 1999. Patterns of later life education among teenage mothers. Gender & Society 13(6): 798-817.

The authors examine patterns of educational attainment among teen mothers using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth.  While teen mothers are less likely than other women to enroll in school later in life, they enroll in larger numbers than might be expected.  Nearly one-fifth of teen mothers pursued education when they were between the ages of 25 and 36 years, and a similar proportion had completed at least one year of college 15 years after their first birth.  Black teen mothers were more likely than white teen mothers to pursue education later in life.  The authors conclude that education remains relevant and highly desired by a significant portion of teen mothers and express concern that the 1996 welfare reform legislation’s work requirements will limit women’s ability to complete additional education.

Curran, Laura and Laura S. Abrams. 2000. Making men into dads:  Fatherhood, the state, and welfare reform. Gender & Society 14(5): 662-78.

Curran and Abrams examine how fatherhood is constructed by performing a meta-analysis of literature related to the effects of changes in child support and paternity laws enacted as part of the 1996 welfare reform law.  In a departure from previous legislation, the 1996 law requires mothers to comply with paternity establishment procedures before they can be eligible for assistance.  It also includes an array of penalties for men who do not meet child support obligations, including work requirements and income withholding.  The authors find that the law relies on traditional conceptions of fathers as “breadwinners” and expands the ability of the state to punitively enforce men’s compliance with this role.  While seeking to reduce the role of the state in providing welfare benefits, the law simultaneously expands the state’s role in the lives of low-income men.  Additionally, the law shifts from treating child support as a means to recoup state expenditures on welfare to a means of support for women after they lose eligibility for time-limited welfare benefits.  This change provides a measure of leverage and support for low-income women in their efforts to claim child support, but also increases low-income women’s dependence on child support and the men who provide it.

Moller, Stephanie. 2002. Supporting poor single mothers: Gender and race in the U.S. welfare state. Gender & Society 16(4): 465-84.

Moller analyzes differences in the generosity of welfare benefits across the 48 contiguous U.S. states in 1970, 1980, and 1990.  She finds that states with a higher proportion of Black single mothers have lower welfare benefits than states with a higher proportion of white single mothers, controlling for per capita income, per capita state revenue, and unemployment.  Moller also explores potential alternate explanations for the racial differences in welfare generosity, but finds that interactions between race and family structure explain welfare generosity better than levels of unionization, percent of the state population voting Democratic, and voter participation rates.  Moller concludes that racial patterning in the provision of welfare benefits have persisted throughout most of second half of the 20th century.

Scott, Ellen K., Andrew S. London, and Nancy A. Myers. 2002. Dangerous dependencies: The intersection of welfare reform and domestic violence. Gender & Society 16(6): 798-817.

Using ethnographic data collected in Cleveland, Ohio, the authors describe how time-limited assistance and work requirement policies in the 1996 welfare reform law cause low-income women to become increasingly dependent on abusive men.  The authors interviewed 12 to 15 women receiving welfare in each of three neighborhoods from 1998 to 2001. They found that 26 of 40 women interviewed reported having an abusive relationship with a partner during their adult lives and that the prevalence was much higher for White women, compared to African American women.  To meet work requirements, women often relied on social networks to provide child care, transportation, and help with household work – networks that often included current or formerly abusive partners.  When women lost their jobs or lost their benefits due to time limits or penalties for noncompliance, they often relied on abusive men for financial support.  A smaller group of women turned to sex work for financial support, often while struggling with drug additions and domestic violence.  Thus, the authors conclude that welfare reform has led a number of women to replace dependence on welfare with dependence on a formerly or currently abusive partner.  The authors also highlight weaknesses of current welfare policies, such as the Family Violence Option, that fail to provide recipients with the resources they need to avoid these dependencies.

Litt, Jacquelyn. 2004. Women’s carework in low-income households:  The special case of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Gender & Society 11(5): 625-44.

Litt describes the challenges faced by low-income women who have a child diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The author draws on 15 qualitative interviews with women in central Iowa whose children were facing the termination of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.  The 1996 welfare reform law narrowed eligibility standards for the SSI program, requiring children to demonstrate functional limitations to qualify for benefits.  Thus, at the same time that women faced time limits on their eligibility for welfare benefits, they also faced the loss of state support for their caregiving work from the SSI program.  The women in Litt’s study also faced challenges to participating in paid employment due to the inflexibility of their low-wage jobs and the difficulties they faced securing adequate care and other resources for their children.  Litt explores women’s direct and advocacy care work – the work involved in the daily care of their children as well as the work required to fight for the resources to support this care.  She finds that the labor market and the social welfare system combine to create a context of vulnerability for low-income women caring for children with ADHD – a context that is not present for higher-income women whose children share the same diagnosis.  As a result, Litt calls for new supports for work-family balance that recognize and value the care work of low-income women.

Pearson, A. Fiona. 2007. The new welfare trap: Case managers, college education, and TANF policy. Gender & Society 21(5): 723-48.

Pearson draws on interviews with 19 welfare-eligible students and 10 case managers as well as observations of a welfare office in an urban area of Georgia to examine the influence of case managers’ actions and office culture on students’ perceptions of educational opportunities.  She conducted her interviews in 2004, when shifts in federal and state welfare policies had relegated education to a “secondary activity,” meaning that women had to engage in at least 20 hours of employment before education activities could count toward their work requirements.  Pearson finds that welfare office culture privileges employment over education and identifies four themes present in the observations and interviews.  The first two themes address case managers’ failure to present educational options to welfare recipients due to their assumptions that welfare recipients do not qualify for or want to pursue additional education or because case managers consider education a privilege that should not be supported by the welfare program.  Similarities in race, gender, and socioeconomic background among case managers and welfare recipients lead some case managers to expect recipients to follow a similar path to employment.  Finally, some case managers highlight the impact of work requirements and time-limited assistance policies on their unwillingness to recommend longer-term educational opportunities to recipients.  Pearson demonstrates that few welfare recipients are encouraged to pursue the one path that consistently leads to economic self-sufficiency – a college education – and discusses the implications of this policy for low-income women.

Kelly, Kimberly and Linda Grant. 2007. State abortion and nonmarital birthrates in the post-welfare reform era:  The impact of economic incentives on reproductive behaviors of teenage and adult women. Gender & Society 21(6): 878-904.

Kelly and Grant analyze state-level data to describe the impact of state policies on rates of abortion and nonmarital births for teens and adult women.  State policies enacted in response to the 1996 welfare reform act sought to simultaneously reduce abortions and nonmarital birth rates.  The authors use ordinary least squares regression to estimate the effect of abortion availability, economic incentives, political climate, and previous trends on women’s reproductive choices.  The analyses show that policies enacted between 1996 and 2000 had little impact on abortion rates, with the exception of the effect of “partial birth” abortion bans and the prohibition against Medicaid funding of most abortions on lowering adult women’s abortion rates.  The authors conclude that economic incentives, such as state bonuses for lowering abortion or unwed birth rates, have little effect on women’s reproductive choices.  The authors point to logical inconsistencies in the welfare reform legislation to explain their findings.  For example, the law links financial bonuses to rates of abortion and nonmarital births among all women, rather than focusing on the rates of women impacted by the welfare reform law.  The authors were unable to test the impact of state welfare policies specifically on the reproductive behaviors of low-income women due to a lack of state data describing abortion rates by income level.   

Weight, Jill. 2010. “I feel like it’s a heavier burden…”: The gendered contours of heterosexual partnering after welfare reform. Gender & Society 24(5): 565-590.

Weight explores how women experience heterosexual partnerships after they lose access to welfare benefits.  Her analysis is based on a panel study conducted in Oregon with a sample of low-income, mostly white women who were married or cohabitating when they left the welfare program.  While partnering provided some benefits to low-income women, it also created disadvantages in the form of increased housework, interference with child-rearing, and financial conflict.  The gendered dimensions and demands of partnership often were satisfied at the cost of women being able to pursue education and employment opportunities that would have brought them greater stability.  Weight highlights how the loss of welfare benefits can increase women’s dependence on partnerships for economic support, and she calls for more income supports that would allow women to support their families without relying on the financial assistance of men.