The Transformation of Aid to Families with Dependent Children: The Family Support Act in Historical Context


That was Europe. How do we think about the poor? Do American attitudes towards poverty in the second half of the twentieth century differ significantly from those of sixteenth century Europeans? Certain themes leap from Braudel’s description – danger, containment, stigmatization, deterrence. What relevance do these attitudes and responses have to current American welfare policy?

Today, there appears to be a consensus on welfare reform. Congress has just enacted the Family Support Act of 1988 (FSA) which, in customary political rhetoric, is hailed as a major change in welfare policy. Whether or not “reform” is an appropriate term, there appears to be widespread agreement on what changes ought to be made in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.

This Article explores the connection between our attitudes towards the poor and welfare policy. The consensus on welfare reform includes, but is much broader than, the new federal program. There is apparent agreement between liberals and conservatives, the current Administration, most of the states, and several important national organizations on the changes that ought to be made. Robert Reischauer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has identified five broad themes around which the consensus centers: responsibility, work, family, education, and state discretion. These themes provide a convenient analytical framework. What are the ideas behind this consensus? My thesis is that the current consensus represents a deep hostility to the female-headed household in poverty. This hostility has always been present in American social welfare history, and the changes in AFDC over the past decades, and especially today, reflect that hostility. The tip-off is workfare. The issue of work – coercive work – has been at the heart of welfare policy at least since the Great Plague in England.

To illustrate my thesis, I will compare the category of poor, female-headed households with other categories of the poor – the aged, the unemployed, childless couples, and singles. As moral attitudes towards particular categories have changed, so have the characteristics of programs directed at the people in those categories. Thus, the characteristics of programs for the aged – Social Security and Supplemental Security Income – are very different from programs designed for the most morally troublesome groups, singles and childless couples. The programs for the aged are inclusive and are relatively condition-free; the others are exclusive and are miserly, harsh, and mean-spirited. The aid to dependent children programs are ambivalent. They fall somewhere between programs for the deserving and undeserving poor, moving, at various points in history, in one direction and then in another. My analysis takes an historical, comparative approach from which I derive certain constant principles:

The structure of specific social welfare programs reflects fundamental attitudes towards the category of poor to be served. In developing a social welfare program, the first questions, of necessity, must be why a particular category of persons is poor and what, if anything, should be done about their poverty. Social welfare programs are moral programs. Welfare programs are one way by which society controls inappropriate, “deviant” behavior. Welfare programs, therefore, are structured differently depending on the category of recipients for which the program was designed.

The core issue is whether the applicable category is morally excused from work If the category is not morally excused from work, then the relief of misery cannot conflict with the moral value of work; either members of the category will be excluded or, if admitted, subject to work requirements.

All social welfare programs are both inclusive and exclusive. The category of persons excluded, and why, may be even more important than the category included. The failure to distinguish between these categories and to focus on the category of the excluded has led to a major misinterpretation of our social attitudes towards the female-headed household in poverty.

The current welfare reform reflects the deeply held, historical attitude that female-headed households in poverty are a deviant category of the poor. As a result of the dramatic changes in AFDC in the post-World War II period, a great struggle has taken place over the direction of the program: should the program emphasize the deserving or undeserving poor? The current welfare reform consensus represents a sharp move towards increased social control. This move, for the most part, reflects, in modem guise, only the reemergence of the persistent themes of threat, containment, stigmatization, and deterrence.

As the social characteristics of the AFDC population changed from white widows to divorced and never-marrieds, the AFDC stereotype became the unmarried, black female-headed household. As poverty became feminized, more particularly, as the specter of the black, unwed female-headed household became fixated in the public consciousness, the current welfare reform consensus slowly emerged. That consensus looks to the social control features of General Relief and seeks to apply them to AFDC. General Relief, our harshest program, was designed for the stereotypical male malingerer, the bum, the deviant. The female-headed household program (the children’s program as it is sometimes called) is becoming more like the harsh male relief program. AFDC is changing not because our attitudes towards the working mother have changed – poor mothers have always had to work – but rather because large numbers of the formerly excluded poor mothers (the black unmarrieds), the undeserving poor, have been let into the program.

In addition to work requirements, I emphasize the jurisdictional location of the program – the unit or level of government that has the major administrative responsibility for the particular program. The control of deviant behavior is primarily a local matter. Juries, prosecutors, police – the guts of criminal law enforcement – are local. The moral issues, the dilemmas, the fears, the hatreds, the passions and compassion that arise out of close contact with deviant behavior are most keenly felt at the local level. Welfare has always involved great moral issues – work, moral redemption, pauperism, vice, crime, delinquency, sex, and race. The anger and hostility among social classes and categories is most keenly felt among those who are the closest in proximity. As a general rule, the more deviant the government considers the social category, the more local the program.

Responses to poverty are designed to perform a number of social purposes. We tend to focus on the practical, social control functions – quell disorder, relieve misery, enforce sanctions. But welfare programs perform other functions which, I think, are even more important. They define values and confirm status; they are expressive and symbolic. The heart of welfare policy is the distinction between the deserving and undeserving. This distinction is a moral one. It affirms the values of the dominant society by stigmatizing the outcasts.

The conditions that are defined as problems at any time are not facts, but social constructions that reflect and reinforce established beliefs about the self, the other, and the social setting in which we live…. [Welfare policy signifies] who is virtuous and useful and who is dangerous or inadequate, which actions will be rewarded and which penalized.

The importance of ideology explains a great deal of the massive disjunctures between the stated goals of welfare policy and the ambiguities of enforcement.

In defending my perspective, I will have to generalize and simplify. Social welfare history is detailed and complex. It is the product of many voices at different historical periods. It is often contradictory, and, at different periods of time, different elements temporarily gain ascendancy. Moreover, as my initial discussion of the contemporary consensus shows, many specific policies are genuinely thought to have important rehabilitative values. Work and independence are valued by all social classes, including mothers in poverty. I emphasize the conservative, social control aspects not only because I think that they have proved to be the major, dominating voice, but also because I think that welfare history has been written primarily by liberals; perhaps in their optimism, they have put too much of a progressive gloss on the history of AFDC and the treatment of poor women and their children. The story is much more bitter. While I shall be emphasizing the harsh side of welfare, there have always been progressive, humanitarian liberal voices. At timesthese voices have had importance. The present, however, is not such a time.

In Part I of this Article, I discuss the current consensus on welfare policy. In Part II, I discuss the historical development of our current welfare policy. Through an historical and comparative approach, I argue that there is an important relationship between the structure and jurisdictional location of welfare programs and our moral attitudes towards the categories of poor. Programs for the deserving poor – those who are morally excused from work – are very different from those programs that expect their clientele to work. In Part III, I will analyze the current reform consensus and will focus on the work requirements of the reform legislation. Part IV will continue this analysis by examining the Family Support Act of 1988. Finally, in Part V, I will reflect on the implications of the current reform effort for the future direction of welfare policy.

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