Decades of Distortion:

The Right's 30-year Assault on Welfare

by Lucy A. Williams
December, 1997

A Report From Political Research Associates
©1997 Political Research Associates and Lucy Williams

In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 19961 - the "welfare reform" bill- which ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a sixty-year old federal entitlement program. Often it seems that this attack on welfare (euphemistically called "reform") is a new political phenomenon. Because it was so closely associated with the Newt Gingrich Congress, it is easy to see it as the brainchild of the New Right and the "new Republicans" who dominated the 104th Congress.

However, the targeting of welfare dates to the "Old" Right of the 1960's- the movement headed by Barry Goldwater and identified with the John Birch Society. In the 30 years since the 1960s, right-wing think tanks and intellectuals have polished and refined the critique, and developed the policies that were captured in the current bill. Often the actors who advocate welfare reform represent different sectors of the Right, all converging in a multithematic, thus powerful, attack on welfare.

The AFDC or "welfare" program, which provides sub-minimal cash assistance for poor children and primarily their mothers,2 was enacted in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act. Initially, it served primarily white widows and orphans- seen as the, albeit complicated, "deserving" poor, for whom society had a responsibility. Central to the recent welfare debate, however, were assumptions that AFDC was largely a program for African Americans and that a consensus existed that it needed to be thrown out, without recognizing that the current "consensus" was in large part the result of a concerted attack by the Right. How did such a dramatic change in public perception occur?

This article will track the ideological evolution and policy developments that have led us to this point. It situates the Right's attack on welfare within the broader framework of the agendas of the submovements of the Right, analyzes the confluence of the themes targeting welfare recipients as responsible for societal problems, and discusses how these various submovements have over 30 years transformed their discourse into mainstream discourse culminating in President Clinton's signing of the "welfare reform" bill. Underlying this transformation is the powerful coincidence of two events: the growth of the Right's attack on welfare, and the arrival of African Americans and other people of color on the welfare rolls.

Prior to the 1960s, a number of states had found methods to exclude large numbers of African Americans from the AFDC program. In the early 1960s, several factors contributed to opening the rolls to people of color, although the vast majority of recipients continued to be white.3 The evolution of a right-wing critique of welfare in the early 1960s coincided with this shift in the racial composition of the AFDC population.4

The Old Right's critique associated the War on Poverty with communism, particularly focusing on the AFDC program as a case study of how "liberalism" destroys society.5 At the same time, the Old Right used explicit racism to promote its message that the civil rights movement was resulting in the breakdown of law and order. By combining these two messages, it becomes possible to single out a vulnerable sector of the population, welfare recipients (increasingly seen as African American and Latino), as scapegoats to perpetuate an agenda of limited government and rugged individualism.6

In the 1970s, the New Right updated the Old Right's focus, shifting it from anti-communism and explicit racial segregation to social issues. This shift in political priorities- a brilliant marketing strategy- opened new possibilities in the attack on welfare. It allowed the New Right to develop and elevate the stereotype of the "welfare queen," which was then skillfully used to full political advantage by Ronald Reagan.7 This resulted in a singular, non-normative, and non-contextualized image of the welfare recipient as a socially deviant woman of color (unwed teen parent, non-wage worker, drug user, long-term recipient). With shrewd use of dissembling imagery, exaggeration, and stereotyping, the New Right played to fears of the welfare recipient as "other."

This rearranging of the agenda has diverted attention from the multiple economic, structural, and institutional factors which contribute to shifts in societal behavior and economic decline,8 thus creating a discourse which connected many, if not most, societal ills to the presence and receipt of welfare.

The Diversity Of Those Receiving AFDC

To understand how the Right cornered the debate, we must first understand how many of our own images and beliefs incorporate a carefully constructed singular portrayal of welfare recipients as socially deviant. Most of us care about certain definitions of teen pregnancy, crime, drug abuse, and child abuse, but somehow many of us have come to believe that the causal connection of the receipt of welfare and these social ills is a given and, in fact, a centrist position. Mainstream media and policy discussion discounts the welfare system as failed, without recognizing the complexities of such a critique. It is essential to our analysis that we understand how we have been duped into simplistically believing on some level that AFDC has fostered many of the "evils" of our society.

The population of families receiving AFDC is highly diverse; therefore any attempt to generalize results in an essentialized depiction which then leads to a rigid and narrowly defined, rather than comprehensive and nuanced, welfare policy.9 However, a few basic statistics provide a backdrop for understanding the deception of the Right's attack.

In 1994 (the most recent year for which data is available), 37.4% of AFDC families were non-Hispanic white, 19.9% Hispanic, and 36.4% were African American.10 The average AFDC recipient has 1.8 children, slightly less than the number which the general population has. In 1994, 72.6% of all AFDC families had two children or less; the average AFDC family size had dropped 30% since 1969.11 The poverty rate in nonmetropolitan areas was 16%, while the poverty rate in metropolitan areas was 14.2%, including 20.9% in the central cities only.12 Depending on the method of calculation, 29-56% of all AFDC recipients leave the rolls within one year, 48-70% leave within two years, and only 7-15% stay on for eight consecutive years.13 Thesepercentages do not reflect an increasing "dependency" on AFDC. A 1952 nationwide study of AFDC found that 20% of families received AFDC for less than one year, only 11% received benefits for seven years, and only 3% received benefits for more than eleven years.14 Sixty-four percent of young women who grew up in families that received welfare during their adolescence receive no welfare during young adulthood.15

Only 6.3% of AFDC families are headed by teens.16 Of these, most are 18 or 19 years old. Only 1.2% of all AFDC mothers are less than 18 years of age.17 Teen birth rates in fact are significantly lower than they were in the 1950s. In 1955, the adolescent birth rate (ages 15-19) was 90.3 per 1000 females.18 It reached an all-time low of 50.2 in 1986, rose to 62.1 in 1991, and dropped to 59.6 by 1993.19 Between 1970 and 1993, the total number of births to teenagers dropped from 656,000 to 501,000, with the birth rate per thousand women 15-19 years old dropping from 68.3 to 59.6.20

The increase in childbearing by unmarried women21 cuts across class, education attainment,22 and age lines. Most of this increase is in births to adult unmarried women, not adolescents.23 Two-thirds of all women who give birth outside marriage are not living below the poverty level during the year prior to their pregnancy.24 Most of them- teen and adult- are white.25 Finally, teen mothers do not inevitably end up as long-term welfare recipients.26

Thus a reductionist view of welfare as an inner-city, long-term, intergenerational, teenage pregnancy, or illegitimacy problem does not capture the experiences of the vast majority of mothers and children who have been receiving those benefits. How has this disjuncture in the thinking of the American electorate come about?

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