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Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”

August 22, 2016, was the twentieth anniversary of the day President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced the income safety net for poor single mothers and their children with temporary, disciplinary, punitive relief. While this so-called reform of welfare did reduce the welfare rolls, it did not stanch the poverty of single mothers or improve the well-being of their children. The failure of 1990s welfare reform to enhance economic security and opportunity is reason to dedicate this anniversary to rethinking and revising our national approach to poverty.

It is time to end this version of “welfare as we know it” by creating a system of income support that makes the dignity and equality of low income mothers a preeminent policy value, while respecting and supporting the role of caregiving in family well-being.

Future policy should restore income support for low-income caregivers by renovating welfare policy in a way that restores the right of each caregiving parent to figure out her own balance between family work and wage work. We need not catalog here the numerous and familiar ways the key features of welfare 1990s reform — work requirements, time limits, family sanctions, fertility control pressures, and marriage promotion — suppress the economic empowerment and wellbeing of low-income single-mother families.

The outsized rate of single mother poverty (nearly 40% in 2014) commands attention and warrants a transformation of welfare policy. Certainly such gendered economic proposals as have been embraced by Democrats – paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, equal pay, accessible child care – will aid lower income Americans, especially women. But labor market policies alone will not attenuate the economic precariousness of single mothers whose caregiving work in their own families is neither supported nor valued by the market or in politics.

It would be a shame if the progressive energies unleashed in the 2016 election cycle landed us in the same old masculinist, middle-class rut of tying family wellbeing to the conditions of breadwinning alone. Democrats must pay attention not only to grievously poor wages and the lack of family-friendly employer policies. Care-conscious labor market policies need to be matched by care-conscious family policies that give economic support and credit to the care work performed disproportionately, though not only, by mothers.

One bright spot in the Democratic conversation in 2016 has been both Clinton’s and Sanders’ unabashed support for imputing economic value to family caregiving in the algebra of social security benefits calculations: both candidates want to credit workers who take time out of the labor market to care for a child or sick adult so that they are not punished for, as Clinton puts it, “taking on the vital role of caregiver.” This powerful acknowledgement of the irreducible importance of family care work should smooth the way to future policies that build upon the principle that poor mothers (and fathers) care, too.

Looking forward, we call upon Democrats to pledge themselves to broaden both the feminism and the economic egalitarianism that were championed this primary season by stipulating an agenda to mitigate and reduce poverty. Centering a poverty agenda on the multiple inequalities endured by the worst-off women — poor single mothers, disproportionately of color — would start the process of undoing the damages wrought by the 1996 welfare law. It would also avoid the pitfalls of economic universalism that proceeds as though gender does not matter.

Gwendolyn Mink and Felicia Kornbluh are the authors of the forthcoming, Ensuring Poverty: The History and Politics of Welfare Reform. Mink is the author of Welfare’s End, The Wages of Motherhood, and many other books and articles. Kornbluh is author of The Battle for Welfare Rights and many articles. Both were members of the Women’s Committee of One Hundred, a feminist mobilization for welfare justice.

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