Sunday, January 16, 2022


Article Index

By connecting welfare to social citizenship, both Gordon and Quadagno seek to expand welfare's cultural meaning beyond its current definition as a public handout to the very poor. Welfare's role in fostering citizenship suggests its potential for helping to achieve racial justice instead of perpetuating racial inequities. Moreover, Black people's demand for citizenship rights is a powerful catalyst for reimagining our conception of welfare. Paradoxically, white Americans' resistance to Black citizenship has prevented this vision from achieving fruition. After describing the citizenship ideal of welfare, I will discuss in Part VI possible strategies for overcoming this impediment.

An early example of the citizenship vision of welfare comes from the convergence of welfare advocacy and "race uplift" work in Black women's activism at the turn of the century. At a time when most Americans viewed welfare as undeserved relief for social inferiors, Black women reformers advocated welfare as a prerequisite for Black people's citizenship, similar to the right to vote or to equal access to public accommodations. For these advocates, "[r]ace issues were poverty issues, and women's issues were race issues. Race uplift work was usually welfare work by definition, conceived as a path to racial equality. And black poverty could not be ameliorated without challenges to white domination." Black women's citizenship perspective helped to structure the welfare programs they advocated: They preferred universal programs and a broad meaning of welfare that included public education and accessible health care.

Following in their foremothers' tradition, Black people's organizing for relief during the Depression combined civil rights and welfare activism. Quadagno, moreover, applies this citizenship orientation to her analysis of the War on Poverty, in which she discusses a wide range of government programs because of her focus on Black Americans' equal participation in society rather than the narrow issue of payments to the needy. Thus, Quadagno devotes as much attention to fair housing policy, political empowerment, and affirmative action in employment as to Social Security and AFDC. The history of welfare in the 1960s reminds us that many of these currently vilified programs were established as remediation for centuries of institutionalized repression.

Particularly enlightening is Quadagno's constant attention to the interdependence of our civil rights. Quadagno links together Blacks' ability to enter the labor market, to participate in politics, and to choose where to live. The right to work without coercion depends on the right to fair housing: People must enjoy the liberty to live where they can find jobs and take advantage of investment opportunities. For this reason, "[r]esidence is more than a personal choice; it is also a primary source of political identity and economic security. Likewise, residential segregation is more than a matter of social distance; it is a matter of political fragmentation and economic stratification along racial lines . . . ." Quadagno sees residential segregation as a major obstacle to the formation of class solidarity across racial boundaries as well. Because "working-class politics generally operated on the basis of membership in the local community rather than membership in a union," Blacks' spatial isolation impeded multiracial political organizing. Thus, decades of forced residential segregation that concentrated Blacks in inner cities compounded the racial barriers to their employment and political participation.

Similarly, the right to vote depends on the right to work without coercion: People who are economically subjugated have less freedom to assert their political will. For example, Quadagno points out that the critical determinant of Black political participation in the South was the source of Blacks' income: "[C]ounties with high black voter turnouts were those in which African Americans depended least on whites for their livelihood." And Quadagno notes that white Southerners opposed President Nixon's guaranteed- income proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, because it threatened to upset the racial caste system by emancipating the Southern Black labor force.

Quadagno also demonstrates the interdependence of public and private barriers to equality. After the New Deal and prior to the War on Poverty, for example, the federal government tacitly allowed racial discrimination by trade unions, even on projects using federal funds. Federal housing policies also reinforced the private residential discrimination carried out by homeowners, brokers, and lenders: Government-subsidized mortgages were virtually reserved for whites, and public housing for Blacks was confined to inner cities. Federal housing subsidies, then, are a form of welfare needed to redress decades of enforced isolation and to enable Blacks to participate fully as citizens in the national polity and economy.

Gordon and Quadagno suggest a conception of welfare's enabling role in citizenship that is more radical than the civic republican defense of minimum entitlements. Welfare is more than a minimal means of survival for the poor; it is a badge of citizenship, a prerequisite to full membership in the national community. Both books make clear that building a just welfare state requires abolishing its stratification based on earned entitlements and undeserved handouts. Advocates must strive to place individual welfare programs in their larger context of "all of a government's contributions to its citizens' well-being." This view would include as welfare not only AFDC, Social Security, and unemployment insurance, but also presently concealed benefits such as home mortgage deductions, public schools and parks, garbage disposal, farm subsidies, and corporate tax breaks. The view would thus reveal that most welfare helps Americans who are not poor.

This broader view of welfare would dramatically change the debate about single mothers receiving AFDC, for example. Far from being seen as undeserving and irresponsible dependents on public relief, these women would be seen as mothers whom the government should be obligated to compensate for their valuable contribution to society. We would view them as no less entitled to government aid than retired elderly people or mothers who rely on Social Security benefits to support their children. In addition, a citizenship view of welfare would seek to bring these women into full participation in the labor market rather than merely helping them to subsist. Under this approach, welfare would support working mothers through day care, medical insurance, education, paid parental leave, and a guaranteed income, as well as an aggressive policy to restructure the economy to provide more decent jobs.