Race, Welfare Reform, and the Push for Family Values

National Welfare Rights Organization Rally, September 8, 1971 (Library of Congress)

With the stroke of a pen, all the gains of the abortion rights movement in the United States were overturned when the Supreme Court decided to repeal Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.  Roe guaranteed pregnant women’s rights to an abortion prior to their third trimester, and its repeal will make it more difficult for them to do so. The implications of the repeal have already started to rear their ugly heads: a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to travel to another state to terminate her pregnancy when her home state of Ohio denied her the right to do so.

Its repeal is especially a victory for the conservatives of yesterday, many of whom argued that abortion was an assault on family values. In 1977, for instance, the Pro Family Rally that protested the Equal Rights Amendment in Houston made anti-abortion central to its agenda, along with taking anti-feminist and anti-same sex marriage stances. Seth Dowland makes similar observations, noting that evangelical ministers in the 1970s “developed a political philosophy that connected defense of the “traditional family” with opposition to abortion, feminism, and gay rights.”

American political culture’s preoccupation with regulating women’s reproductive rights as a means of promoting family values correlates to welfare reform measures in the late twentieth century. Believing welfare dependency to be a major contributor to out-of-wedlock births among poor Black women, conservatives and liberals in the 1980s and 1990s argued that restricting their access to benefits would compel them to build stable nuclear families. In this way, politicians and policymakers, under the banner of family values, used welfare reform to limit poor Black women’s reproductive choices.

Welfare reform policies were rooted in postwar social science’s ideas about Black women and poverty. The immediate postwar era was marked by prosperity for many Americans. For the first time, a growing number of citizens (mainly white) were becoming middle class, acquiring homes, and participating in the burgeoning consumer economy. This, however, belied the fact that some groups did not benefit from this prosperity, including African Americans living in cities increasingly riddled with poverty, unemployment, and dependency.

Rather than cite deindustrialization as a cause for these conditions, liberal social scientists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan attributed them to supposed weak family structures within poor Black communities. In his influential 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan argued that slavery and Jim Crow had emasculated Black men, which led to a proliferation of single-parent, female-headed households. This, he further argued, produced a “tangle of pathology” that encouraged poverty, illegitimacy, dependency, crime, and a host of other social issues.

Though many civil rights activists and groups criticized the report, arguing that it tended to ignore how structural racism contributed to Blacks’ economic plight, its ideas enjoyed a resurgence among conservative social scientists and politicians in the 1980s, who advocated for a complete overhaul of the welfare state. They believed welfare policies exacerbated poverty by promoting dependency and immorality among the poor. For social scientists like Charles Murray, Alice O’ Connor explains, the system “made it possible and acceptable [for poor Black women] to choose….illegitimacy and welfare dependency over marriage.”

Ronald Reagan embraced similar ideas about Black female welfare recipients with his use of the “welfare queen” trope. While the term was first used by journalists in the 1970s, it began to be widely used in political debates about welfare in the 1980s. “Welfare queen” was a pejorative used to describe single mothers who allegedly refused to work and instead relied on the state for financial security. This stereotype represented dependency and illegitimacy for politicians and policymakers, who argued that the more children a mother had out-of-wedlock guaranteed additional support from the state. In speeches, Reagan often referred to a ‘“Chicago welfare queen” who had “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards,” and whose “tax free income alone is over $150,000.”’ Though he never mentioned race, many commentators took the welfare queen to be Black, since welfare dependency tended to be associated with single, African American mothers at this time. Stating it plainly, Michelle Alexander asserts that ‘“welfare queen’ became a not-so-subtle code for ‘lazy, greedy, black ghetto mother.’”

Like Murray and Reagan, liberal Democrats like Bill Clinton were also avid supporters of welfare reform. Vowing to “end welfare as we know it” during his tenure as president, Clinton, much like his contemporaries, believed that dependency was inextricably linked to black family dissolution, and he often drew on social science research to make his case. In a 1993 NBC interview, for instance, Clinton praised Murray for his analysis of the welfare system and its effects on poor people:

He did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right…There is no question that… if we reduced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, it would be some incentive for people not to have dependent children out of wedlock … [O]nce a really poor woman has a child out of wedlock, it almost locks her and that child into the cycle of poverty which then spins out of control further.[1

Murray’s, Reagan’s, and Clinton’s ideas were reflective of a major shift in how people thought about the state’s relationship to its citizens. New Deal/postwar liberalism, which dominated American politics from the 1930s until the 1960s, ushered in the view that it was the government’s responsibility to promote the public good by maintaining a strong welfare state, eradicating poverty, and promoting civil rights. Yet by the 1980s, it had been replaced with a view that such measures had fostered an overreliance on government, leading to dependency, joblessness, and illegitimacy among the nation’s poor. Therefore, limited government and values like hard work, personal responsibility, and family values became prescriptions to counter this perceived dilemma.

The consensus on Black female welfare recipients—and the conservative political culture that supported it—laid the groundwork for punitive welfare reform measures. In 1988, for instance, Congress passed the Family Support Act. It required that absentee fathers financially support their children by withholding some of their earnings and granted financial assistance to fathers if they were the sole financial providers in their households and did not earn enough to financially support their children. It also made it more difficult for teenage mothers to receive benefits and required at least one parent to participate in state-sponsored “employment programs” where they would “engage in some type of work-related activity.”

With major bipartisan backing, Congress also passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which placed a 5-year limit on financial assistance that individuals and their families could receive from the federal government. By rewarding fathers, penalizing mothers, and weaning both off welfare through time limits and workforce preparation, policymakers hoped that these laws would disincentivize poor Black women from having children out of wedlock and encourage them to build financially independent nuclear families.

Welfare reform, like the anti-abortion initiatives in the 1970s, were part of a nexus of measures that advocates and the government used to utilize women’s bodies as a site for advancing their family values agenda. Yet a woman’s body is not a symbol for narrow political goals nor should her reproductive choices be dictated by them. The implications of having women subjected to the whims of anti-abortion advocates and the state are clear: since PRWORA’s passage, many black women have remained trapped in a cycle of poverty because of the lack of assistance from the state, while pregnant women might be forced to carry their child to term despite the possible health risks and/or financial burden it would pose on them. Given this, laws and court rulings dealing with reproductive rights should be repealed not only because they limit women’s bodily autonomy, but also because they can affect their personal and material well-being.

  1. Jacobin (@Jacobin), “President Bill Clinton praising Bell Curve author Charles Murray and celebrating welfare reform, 12/3/1993,” Twitter, June 12,2020, 8:32 PM, https://twitter.com/jacobin/status/1271616456288067585?lang =en. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was a New Deal program that provided financial benefits to poor single-parent families. See Daryl A. Carter, Brother Bill: President Clinton and the Politics of Race and Class (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016), 171,173.
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Trumaine Mitchell

Trumaine Mitchell is a second-year history PH.D. student at Northwestern University who specializes in late 20th century U.S. politics with a specific focus on African American politics. Their research currently explores how Black politics were impacted by the conservative realignment in American politics in 1980s and 1990s.