U.S. Welfare Reform: What Grassroots Pro-Choice Activists Need to Know

Author(s): Martha F. Davis
Date Published: July 16, 2006

Welfare reform, including an all-out assault on poor women's reproductive rights, is front and center on the agenda of the 104th Congress and of many governors and state legislators. Republicans and some Democrats have proposed a number of measures designed to coerce poor women to have abortions or otherwise avoid childbirth. Not surprisingly, the move to make welfare benefits contingent on women's reproductive choices has encouraged some elected officials to call for even more direct measures, such as mandatory Norplant for welfare recipients.

Unless women's rights groups are able to mobilize effectively, 1995 may signal a return to eugenics-driven governmental control of women's reproductive rights, starting with poor women. Because Congressional leaders have pledged to move on this legislation within the first 100 days of the new Congress, pro-choice activists need to move just as quickly to mobilize opposition and put pressure on legislators to oppose these measures.

Background on the Welfare System

Federal welfare reform proposals are targeted at Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a joint federal-state program implemented by states according to federal guidelines. Created in 1935, AFDC extends basic income support to needy single parent families with children, and was designed to enable single parents (usually widows) to support their children in the home. Levels of support vary significantly from state to state, with every state paying benefits at far below the federal poverty line. Recently, the program has been expanded to cover more two parent families with children. Despite this change, about ninety percent of the families receiving AFDC are headed by women.

Though welfare reform is touted as a way to save money, only 1 percent of the federal budget and 3 percent of states' budgets are devoted to these welfare programs. The proposed welfare reforms targeting women's reproductive choices will not improve the economy or save money; rather, welfare reform is being used as a means to further a conservative social agenda. The same right-wing attacks that fizzled when they were directed at Murphy Brown have gained new life now that poor single mothers are the target.

The Recent Rise of Coercive Birth Control

The current wave of attacks on poor women's reproductive rights began as a ripple when, in 1990, infamous ex - Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke proposed offering AFDC recipients $500 to accept Norplant implants. The bill was never enacted, but several states have since considered variations of this coercive Norplant scheme. As recent statements supporting mandatory Norplant by Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry indicate, these proposals are still very much alive.

Also in 1990, states such as Wisconsin and New Jersey began experimenting with programs to deter childbirth and coerce poor women to have abortions by denying AFDC benefits-averaging $57 per month-to children conceived and born to women already receiving AFDC. Because they deviated from federal standards, these programs (known as "Child Exclusion" programs) had to obtain federal waivers in order to proceed. Both the Bush and Clinton Administrations have been quick to grant these waivers and Child Exclusion experiments are in progress in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Georgia, and Arkansas, with waivers for several other states currently pending.

The Clinton Administration has explicitly recognized the link between denial of AFDC benefits and coerced contraception and abortion, requiring that states demonstrate the availability of family planning services prior to implementing the Child Exclusion. Further, the Administration's welfare reform proposal recommended eliminating the requirement of federal review of Child Exclusion programs prior to implementation, converting the Child Exclusion to a state option under the AFDC program. Litigation challenging New Jersey's Child Exclusion program on statutory and constitutional grounds, currently pending in federal court, will likely take years to resolve. Meanwhile, states continue to move forward with these programs and poor women's reproductive choices continue to be coerced by a government that denies subsistence benefits to new-born children.

The Personal Responsibility Act

The House Republicans' "Personal Responsibility Act" (PRA) is the starting point for the current phase of the welfare reform debate. Moving beyond Clinton's proposal, the PRA dramatically expands the concept of the Child Exclusion in order to coerce poor mothers not to have children. For example, the PRA proposes denying AFDC benefits and housing assistance to all unmarried women giving birth before age 18, with a state option of raising the age to 25. This lifetime exclusion would apply even to women who were not on AFDC when the child was born. In general, children born to these families would remain ineligible for subsistence level support, including food stamps, until their mothers married. Money saved by this measure would be returned to the states as a block grant to be used to pay for orphanages or pregnancy prevention efforts.

What Research Shows

Proponents of Child Exclusion measures often claim that such harsh steps are justified because welfare is a primary cause of out-of-wedlock childbearing, and that ending welfare for these children will dramatically reduce out-of-wedlock childbirth. Research evidence does not support these claims. As an initial matter, families on welfare are the same size as families in the general public, averaging 1.9 children. Further, as set out in a statement signed by 76 leading researchers in this area, "Most research examining the effect of higher welfare benefits on out-of-wedlock childbearing and teen pregnancy finds that benefit levels have no significant effect on the likelihood that black women and girls will have children outside of marriage and either no significant effect, or only a small effect, on the likelihood that whites will have such births. Indeed, cash benefits have fallen in real value over the past 20 years, the same period that out-of-wedlock childbearing increased… the evidence suggests that welfare has not played a major role in the rise of out-of-wedlock childbearing."

Instead, factors such as school performance and availability of other opportunities play a major role in teens' childbearing behavior. Also, non-voluntary sexual activity, including rape and incest, is a significant factor in teen pregnancy.

Supporters of the Child Exclusion also claim that denying additional benefits to children born on welfare treats AFDC recipients the same as working families who cannot get a raise when they have an additional child. However, children in working families are assured basic subsistence support through tax exemptions and child care credit. Eliminating subsistence-level benefits to children on welfare makes them worse off than all other children.

Resources for Activists

A number of groups have mobilized on the national level in response to punitive proposals targeting poor women's reproductive rights. The Child Exclusion Task Force, with over 100 members representing women's rights, children's rights, pro-life, pro-choice, religious, and civil rights groups, is co-chaired by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.

For more information on Child Exclusion proposals, tips on activism on welfare issues and dealing with the media on welfare reform, or to join this national Task Force, contact Kathleen Lyon, NOW LDEF, 99 Hudson Street, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10013, 212-925-6635.

For up-to-date information on other aspects of national and state-level welfare reform, contact the Center for Law and Social Policy, 1616 P Street NW, Suite 350, Washington, DC 20036, 202-328-5140; or the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, 275 Seventh Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10001, 212-633-6967.

For information on proposals for mandatory Norplant or other coerced contraception for poor women, contact NOW LDEF; the National Black Women's Health Project, 1211 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC 20036, 202-835-0117; or NARAL, 1156 15th Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005, 202-973-3000.

Martha Davis is senior staff attorney at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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.