Become a Patron
Dorothy E. Roberts
excerpted from: Welfare and the Problem of Black Citizenship , 105 Yale Law Journal 1563 -1602 (April, 1996) (216 Footnotes Omitted) Book Reviews: Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. by Linda Gordon. New York: the Free Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 419. $22.95; The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. By Jill Quadagno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 240. $24.00
Racial politics has so dominated welfare reform efforts that it is commonplace to observe that "welfare" has become a code word for race. When Americans discuss welfare, many have in mind the mythical Black "welfare queen" or profligate teenager who becomes pregnant at taxpayers' expense to fatten her welfare check. Although most welfare recipients are not Black, Black single mothers do rely on a disproportionate share of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). It is likely, then, that the current campaign to slash funding for welfare programs, couched in a rhetoric that condemns welfare's social harms and recipients' irresponsibility, reflects a worsening racial crisis in America. At the same time, the exclusion from the mainstream debate of any consideration of enhancing public assistance to the poor signifies the resounding defeat of a progressive welfare ideal.
Those seeking strategies to reverse this trend will profit from studying past welfare advocacy movements to learn what went wrong. Two recent books lend tremendous assistance to this project by explaining the social forces that thwarted the vision of a strong welfare state. What these books add to the voluminous literature on the history of welfare in America is their search for lessons from defeated alternatives, as well as their critique of politically successful programs. Both books also examine more thoroughly than others how racism structured the political choices that led to the current system of welfare.
In Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, Linda Gordon examines the feminist reform effort that produced the first mothers' aid laws during the Progressive Era and laid the foundation for the New Deal welfare programs. Jill Quadagno picks up here in The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty to explore how a white backlash dismantled the antipoverty programs of the 1960s. Both books are enlightening in three ways. First, Gordon and Quadagno dispel the notion that the stingy American welfare system stems from noble liberal ideals; rather, they attribute its inadequacy to a racist unwillingness to include Blacks as full citizens and to patriarchal norms about women's place in society.
Second, both books present an expansive definition of welfare that situates it within the broader context of citizenship in the national community -- a much-needed perspective in the narrow contemporary debate centered on poor single mothers. At the most basic level, government aid provides individuals with the prerequisites for their participation in political decisionmaking and the social life of the community. As Gordon explains, "Without some minimum level of security, well-being, and dignity, people cannot function as citizens." But welfare programs, broadly defined, can also work to eradicate structural barriers to social membership so that citizens not only survive but also flourish. Unlike people subject to state control, citizens are entitled to state assistance as a matter of right to compensate them for their valuable contribution to society or to ensure their full participation in the polity.
Both authors condemn the stratification of welfare into two basic categories -- social insurance and what is commonly called "welfare." While social insurance (Social Security and unemployment insurance) provides a dignified entitlement to wage earners and their spouses and children, welfare (mainly AFDC) doles out humiliating relief primarily to poor single mothers. Welfare recipients are stigmatized as shiftless and irresponsible, their personal lives are scrutinized by government workers, and they must conform to behavioral rules in order to receive their benefits. The beneficiaries of social insurance, on the other hand, suffer none of these indignities.
Finally, both books suggest strategies necessary for any hope of reviving past visions of welfare and adapting them to current social realities. They highlight the peril in liberals' present defensive posture. The fight to salvage pieces of the current welfare system from Republican annihilation tends to overlook the system's serious flaws; the specter of completely destitute women and children makes even the state's meager handout look generous by comparison. It is easy to forget that the system of poor relief many seek to save was also designed to subordinate Blacks, devalue women's work, and mollify demands for economic justice. In this dispiriting age of welfare retrenchment, these books issue a call to rekindle the ideal of a universal, inclusive, and dignified welfare system that thus far has existed only as a defeated dream.
My only dissatisfaction with these books arises not from my disagreement with their central points, but from the fact that I found them so compelling. Gordon and Quadagno uncover from past movements the promise of a visionary welfare ideal only to explain how time and time again it was squelched by racism. Considering these books together highlights the dilemma that Black citizenship poses for radical welfare reform: While a strong welfare state is required to make Blacks full participants in the political economy, Blacks' exclusion from citizenship persistently blocks efforts to establish an inclusive welfare system. On the one hand, racial justice demands aggressive government programs to relieve poverty and redress longstanding barriers to housing, jobs, and political participation. Yet, as Gordon and Quadagno demonstrate, white Americans have resisted the expansion of welfare precisely because of its benefits to Blacks. Harold Cruse's words in 1968 still ring true today: "[W] hite America has inherited a racial crisis that it cannot handle and is unable to create a solution for it that does not do violence to the collective white American racial ego." Thus, Black citizenship is at once America's chief reason for and impediment to a strong welfare state. Neither author offers us a convincing way out of this deadlock.
I explore in this Book Review the case that these books make for the citizenship ideal of welfare and the problem of Black citizenship that they leave unresolved. After setting out in Parts I and II the gendered and racial origins of the current welfare system that the books disclose, I explain more fully in Part III the problem that Black citizenship poses for the American meaning of welfare. Part IV discusses how categories of welfare distinguish between citizens and subjects and how the most vilified welfare programs deny recipients the rights of citizenship. In Part V, I describe the new vision of welfare proposed by Gordon and Quadagno, which centers on welfare's connection to citizenship.
Finally, Part VI looks critically at strategies for establishing this citizenship vision of welfare despite America's racial impasse, as well as at the Black separatist alternative of rejecting the pursuit of American citizenship altogether. I conclude that, despite the political appeal of race- neutral, universal programs, advocacy for an inclusive welfare state must be grounded in the explicit demand for Black people's citizenship rights. On the other hand, I doubt whether separatist solutions that do not engage in a systemic assault on poverty and racial subordination can possibly achieve the massive economic and social transformation needed to improve the material status of the masses of Black urban poor; and I do not believe that we should relinquish the ideal of this radical change. Instead, I advocate in Part VII a strategy of developing Black economic, cultural, and political institutions as part of a struggle for a strong American welfare state to which Black people belong as citizens.