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The Gendered Origin of Welfare

Gordon traces the origins of welfare's stratified structure primarily to women's advocacy for maternalist legislation during the Progressive Era. Mothers' aid, initially provided through state and local programs, laid the groundwork for the modern federal welfare system and shaped the terms of the debate about single motherhood that still govern welfare policy discussions today. In some respects, the Progressive women's campaign achieved a remarkable transformation of Americans' understanding of public welfare. Until then, local asylums or poorhouses distributed inadequate and discretionary relief to the "worthy" poor alone; only those stricken by natural calamity, such as the blind, deaf, or insane, and orphaned children, were deemed deserving of any public assistance. The mothers' aid programs not only rejected the prevailing laissez-faire approach to poverty, but also "sought to remove relief from the stigma of pauperism and the poorhouse." Through a crusade that identified exclusively with women and children, the women reformers convinced the public that single motherhood was an urgent social problem that should be addressed through social welfare. The resulting maternalist welfare policy provided government aid so that the female victims of misfortune and male irresponsibility would not have to relinquish their maternal duties in the home in order to join the work force.

Gordon's analysis is more critical than Theda Skocpol's history of this crusade in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Skocpol lauds the Progressive women's monumental accomplishment: Their maternalist rhetoric was powerful enough to mobilize disenfranchised women, defeat conservative opponents, and persuade American legislatures to embark on social welfare programs far ahead of those of most European countries. While recognizing the historical significance of the reformers' valuation of mothering and refutation of Social Darwinist assumptions, Gordon does not discount the programs' gross inadequacy at meeting the needs of female-headed families. Moreover, Gordon points out that mothers' pensions represented a defeat for more progressive, universalist models advocated at the time by organizations such as the National Consumers' League and the Women's Trade Union League. Rather than interpret mothers' aid as a victory for women's rights, Gordon seeks to unravel its paradox: Why did welfare programs designed by feminists end up failing women so miserably?

Gordon's answer to this paradox is the reformers' adherence to a patriarchal family norm that fostered a misguided faith in the "family wage" and in mothers' economic dependence on men. The women crusaders believed in the prevailing sexual division of labor that "prescribes earnings as the sole responsibility of husbands and unpaid domestic labor as the only proper long-term occupation for women." They therefore advocated a living wage for each family that enabled the husband to support a dependent, service-providing wife, rather than programs that would facilitate female independence. The reformers' fear that welfare might provide an incentive for state dependency ("pauperization"), moral degeneracy, and family breakdown further limited the programs' generosity.

 

The New Deal, the end point for Gordon's account and the starting point for Quadagno's, established the stratified and unequal provision of public assistance. The fate of mothers' aid was sealed when it was assigned to a program separate from the government's provision for men. Social insurance (Social Security and unemployment insurance) provided a dignified entitlement to primarily white, male wage earners and their wives; Aid to Dependent Children doled out humiliating relief to poor single mothers. While Social Security laws obligated the federal government to pay beneficiaries a fixed amount, "ADC clients faced caseworkers, supervisors, and administrators with discretion regarding who got aid and how much they got." These government bureaucrats required recipients to meet not only means standards but also degrading morals, or "suitable home," tests that typically probed clients' sexual behavior.

 

ADC's inferiority was enhanced by its provision of aid exclusively to the child, defeating the position that mothers' aid compensated women's service to society as a principle of entitlement. While rejecting this positive aspect of feminist reformers' view of mothers' aid, the male-dominated New Deal regime incorporated the most limiting aspects of the earlier reformers' view -- the reliance on male wages to meet the needs of families and the moral supervision of recipients of poor relief.

 

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