Welfare Reform in the U.S.: Punishing Women for the System's Failures

Author(s): Julia R. Scott
Date Published: July 16, 2006
Source: Prochoice Idea, (Winter 1994/1995)

The years of anti-poor, anti-welfare rhetoric have had a devastating effect on the public's perception of women who receive welfare benefits. African-American women have largely borne the brunt of these misperceptions. For example, while most welfare recipients are white women, the image which prevails in the media of the "typical welfare recipient" is of an African American woman.

Moreover, the high percentage of Black women living in poverty is never used to counter the notion that African-American women are somehow predisposed towards unemployment and welfare. Recent poverty statistics confirm that African-American women are over-represented among those living in poverty and as a result are disproportionately represented among those receiving welfare.

When President Clinton campaigned on a pledge to "end welfare as we know it," most Americans did not take notice. They just assumed that it was part of the traditional anti-welfare campaign rhetoric that many politicians use to attract the votes of "middle America." However, it is now clear that "welfare reform" will be used to perpetuate myths and stereotypes without offering any real solutions to the underlying causes of welfare dependency.

We now see intense debate on welfare policies at the state and national levels. Some of the proposals that are circulating contain some disturbing provisions, such as:

  • Child Exclusion Policy (Family Caps). This would deny extra benefits to women who give birth to children while on welfare. These policies hurt the children of already impoverished families by denying them benefits. Moreover, it is a punitive measure which controls the reproductive freedom of women who are welfare recipients by denying their newborn children additional benefits.

  • Contraception Incentives. Women should have complete autonomy in making family planning decisions. Under Medicaid, women are covered for sterilization, childbirth and contraceptives. Abortion coverage is not provided. There should not be any measures (medical or economic) which would interfere with a woman's family planning decisions.

  • Time Limits. All welfare applicants would be forced to enter into social contracts before receiving benefits. Their contracts would last for two years and then their benefits would expire. These contracts would outline the applicant's plans to increase her employability and would focus on educational and job training. Also, recipients would be required to accept government sponsored jobs while receiving benefits. Some proposals would cut off all welfare benefits to mothers and their children after two years. Time limits not only penalize women for their inability to find employment but also penalize their children by denying them benefits.

  • Teen Residency Requirements. Under some proposals, parents who are minors would be required to live with their parents. This measure is dangerous for teenagers whose parents may have abused them physically or sexually.

The National Black Women's Health Project agrees that there must be an intensive overhaul of our current welfare system. However, these measures are punitive and do not seek to ensure the best interests of women and their children. Welfare reform should place an emphasis on lifting women out of poverty. One mechanism would be through a Guaranteed Annual Income or by placing an emphasis on job creation. The National Welfare Rights Union recommends that a federal program should provide a Guaranteed Annual Income, which ensures that all United States residents receive an income above the federal poverty level. A Guaranteed Annual Income (combined with universal health care and universal family support) will enable people to move up and out of poverty.

Any welfare reform proposal must address the underlying causes of welfare dependency such as poverty and joblessness. These problems cannot be rectified by simply pushing women into menial jobs mandated by the government. A comprehensive job creation strategy is necessary in order to achieve this goal. Access to affordable childcare and transportation is also necessary in ensuring that women will have the available resources in which to maintain employment.

Emphasis should also be placed on ensuring the provision of child support. While the Clinton plan places an emphasis on requiring states to establish paternity at birth for all children born out-of-wedlock, it makes no recommendations on having the government provide for child support payment when the state fails to collect. Governmental support is crucial in providing women with the necessary resources if the state fails to collect from the noncustodial parent or if the award is less than a government prescribed minimum.

Welfare reform proposals implemented at the state level have for the past few decades targeted and penalized the individual instead of attempting to revamp the welfare system. Any welfare reform proposal implemented by Congress must address the true problems associated with the system.

Julia R. Scott is director of the Public Education and Policy Office of the National Black Women's Health Project.

This article is reprinted from Prochoice Idea, (Winter 1994/1995), published by the ProChoice Research Center, Inc., 174 East Boston Post Road, Mamaroneck, N.Y. 10543.