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Gendering the Welfare State

Nancy Evans

The impetus for the creation of welfare in the United States was children . Children are viewed as a social goodó the good students (or the troubled youth) of tomorrow or the devoted worker (or the unemployed worker) of the future. However rampant the notion of the free-market, capitalist society, children, argued proponents, are not autonomous beings and should not be treated as so. Therefore, it was morally right and just to create a program providing for children who could not be provided for. Along the long road from New Deal policies, welfare shifted form many times, most notably to adjust to the growing sense that family is also a part of child development and well-being and parents must be included in financial support. The welfare system as we have known it in our lifetimes has been in place for the supposed aid of families and children. This paper will lay out the main components of the current welfare system, test the extent to which the system purports to be women and family friendly and the extent to which it actually is, and locate the place men have within the system. Furthermore, I will look to the current state of welfare as it approaches reauthorization, reviewing proposed changes and suggesting others to fully discover that the United States welfare system, though providing a very necessary service, devalues women and acts as a block against women acquiring agency and independence.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed TANF into law. The 'Temporary Aid For Needy Families' policy created several new distinctions between itself and pre-'96 law. The most important, with regard to scope and effect on women, were the devolution of power to the states, a federally imposed five-year time limit, and mandatory requirement work and/or work training. When the government released power over TANF to states they did so with few stipulations . These mandates included that monthly TANF checks be consistent with federally determined standards and that a certain percentage of the entire budget (though usually an undershot) be spent on food stamps, child care, and WIC . Beyond these limitations, states were free to develop whichever sort of programs they saw fit. As a result, many states poured money into research, pet-projects, and savings rather than funneling the surplus to under-funded areas like child care. One wonders if the politicians ignored the voices of TANF recipients, who are disproportionately female, or if the voices themselves never emerged.

Five year time limits seem to promise to prove disastrous for women. The first wave of recipients were kicked off welfare only in 2001, causing numbers of women to leave its ranks . However, as there have been few increases of women in the labor force, women leaving welfare simply disappear. It may be a few years still before any conclusive report of what these women are doing and where they go can be compiled. Until then, the dual conclusions might be made that women are still needy after five years and that job training is not extensive or reliable enough to prepare women for the workplace.

Mandatory work placement and training has also proven a confining policy for women. As current regulation stands, all welfare recipients must undergo an assessment to determine potential for entering the labor market. As the government is hesitant to become a 'crutch' for its needy, all individuals receiving welfare must be employed or in the process of seeking employment. On the surface, this seems a very women-friendly policy, allowing women back into the work force with training, if necessary. In reality, this is one of the most detrimental aspects for women because it can have negative effects on both their mid- and post-welfare lives. To begin, policy makers did very little to allow welfare to be compatible with education . Any individual may take only one year of their receipt of TANF (note, the clock ticking towards five years does not stop) for education of self-betterment. This does not lend much credence to the importance of women's education. Theoretically, time on welfare may be the best chance women have of going to college of finishing high school; they have a steady source of income without the time responsibilities of a job, they have child care, and they can enter into a work-placement program with new skills after the completion of their education. The government gives little reason for this restriction beyond re-stating that TANF is a policy that has a "work first" ideology6. Typically, women entering the workforce on welfare are somewhat stigmatized. They may be seen as unreliable workers and a risk for employers. Job training programs also encourage women to aim for higher-end, low-level jobs particularly in the health and private care sectors. This means women will not be working at a fast food restaurant, but they are likely to be aids in nursing homes, hospitals, and staffing other jobs that are deemed undesirable by other workers for their erratic hours and inflexible time off, to name a few.

The reauthorization of TANF has been extended several times and is currently set for March 2005 . Several changes have been proposed to welfare, yet no consensus has been reached on whether to include changes or continue with the 1996 system, hence the extensions. Lately, politicians have been encouraging conversation on welfare reauthorization and promising a March decision. With the Bush administration in office for another four years, it seems changes will be made. A major proposal from the right include government allocation of funds for marriage counseling for welfare couples . Proponents believe that "the erosion of marriage has created enormous difficulties for children, parents, and society." Plans include race-specific programs discouraging African American women from childbirth out of wedlock and encouraging Hispanic and Caucasian women to become and stay married. Financial benefits for married couples are also being discussed Feminists worry that this push for marriage will prevent women from acquiring the independence that is a supposed benchmark of the welfare system . It may also increase the chances of a woman staying in a relationship in which she is the victim of domestic violence. These programs are also inherently biased against homosexual couples and especially single mothers, providing no extra benefit to these women despite their single income versus a potential dual income of a married couple.

Some suggestions that have been shot down by the Bush administration include an increase in child care dollars. It seems to many democrats as though fully-funding child care is a solution to many of the problems of welfare. Women cannot seek or attain a job unless their children are cared for. A problem with the current system means mothers can only use their state-issued child care money at certain facilities. This means mothers may have to take their children far out of their way, if approved centers exist at all in their towns. Frequently, states are late dispersing child care money to centers, causing centers to reject a child at the door, which causes the mother to lose a day at work and jeopardize her employment.

More liberal suggestions may take more time to implement but promise to ease both the stigmatic tensions and the stark divide welfare creates between the 'very poor' and 'everyone else'. I propose national child care coverage. This program would resemble the public school system, be funded by property taxes, and take the enormously successful Head Start program as its model. Much like public schools, if more affluent parents place their children in free-state funded day care, not only will quality improve, the stigma will decrease. The European Model is another, albeit more Socialist, option. Perhaps every American, regardless of whether or not they have children, paid a certain percentage of their income towards national child care. Of course, America has not had as long to adjust to the idea of contributing to social welfare directly, but the program would mirror social security in many ways. There are also feasible ways to actually help women from welfare to work. For one, allowing women to become educated while receiving welfare is imperative. Another policy might include tax breaks for companies and small businesses who provide training and employment to women leaving welfare.

These suggestions will by no means "fix" the American welfare system, which in many ways is a useful tool for families living in poverty. The attention to women, promised by the program but not realized in its actuality, must be reevaluated if the system is going to become a tool for empowering women and turning out productive members of society.

WWW Sources


Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment. Janet C. Gornick Marcia K. Meyers. New York. Russell Sage Foundation. 2003.


"Reforming Welfare by Rewarding Work". Hage, Dave. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 2004


"Common Dreams News Center. "Unequal Treatment Over the Law". Online: available:


"Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Education Works. Online. Available:

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