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Ensuring Poverty

In Ensuring Poverty, Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink assess the gendered history of welfare reform, foregrounding arguments advanced by feminists for a welfare policy that would respect single mothers' rights while advancing their opportunities and assuring economic security for their families.

Ensuring Poverty
Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective

Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink

2018 | 240 pages | Cloth $49.95
Political Science / Public Policy / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Legislating the Personal Responsibility of Poor Mothers
Chapter 2. Welfare (Reform) as We Knew It
Chapter 3. Change They Believed In
Chapter 4. The New Democratic War on Welfare
Chapter 5. Welfare Ends
Chapter 6. Rethinking TANF as If Mothers Matter
Chapter 7. Patriarchal Consensus: Gender and Poverty Under Bush and Obama
Conclusion. Toward Ending the Vulnerabilities of Single Mothers in Poverty

Appendix. Women's Committee of 100/Project 2002, "An Immodest Proposal: Rewarding Women's Work to End Poverty"


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In a study published in February 2015, researchers reported that the 1996 welfare reform law shortens women's lives. Public health scholars studied two states, Florida and Connecticut, and compared the old, pre-1996 welfare program with the later one. They discovered that the new policy, authorized by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), shortened recipients' lives by nearly six months (0.44 years). It also saved governments approximately $28,000 per recipient over her lifetime. An earlier study by the same research group found that, in Florida alone, the death rate for participants in the post-1996 welfare program was 16 percent higher than for people who had received welfare in earlier decades. "The message of the finding," according to a scholar who was not one of its authors, "is that there is a very small but statistically significant difference in the measured death rates between these two populations."

This book is an effort to explain how we ended up with a national policy that promotes the death of mothers. To grasp the politics and policy making that gave us the cruel program unironically called "welfare," we ask readers to consider welfare policy in the broad intersectional context of gender, race, poverty, and inequality. The subject of welfare reform always has been single mothers, its animus always has been race, and its currency always has been inequality. Yet public conversations about poverty and welfare, even in current times, rarely acknowledge the nexus between racialized gender inequality and the economic vulnerability of single-mother families. We hope this book will broaden how we talk about the safety net and welfare justice. We offer a feminist chronicle and assessment of the contested history of welfare reform, including the alternative arguments advanced by feminists and proposals for welfare initiatives that actually would help mothers achieve independence for themselves and economic security for their families. We assess policy debates and decisions, examining voices engaged as well as those not heard.

Overall, we mean to restore to the past and present a sense of what historians call contingency, that is, a sense that things could have been different in the past and can change dramatically today. Our reading of the once-robust political debate over welfare reform salvages a "usable past" for people today who wish to change the terms of debate over gender, families, welfare, and poverty. Our evidence about the effects of welfare reform provides the cause for action and the reason for urgency behind such a change.

The authors of this book, Gwendolyn Mink and Felicia Kornbluh, have studied and done advocacy work on social welfare in the United States for over twenty-five years. We met in 1993 at a congressional symposium on welfare reform that was organized by Gwendolyn Mink's mother, the late congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink (D-Hawaii). Both of us were members of the Women's Committee of 100, a coalition of writers and scholars who opposed the legislative proposals that ultimately prevailed in PRWORA. We lobbied Congress in an effort to stop the proposals before they became law and worked together again during the reauthorization process, beginning in 2000. Under the leadership of Representative Mink, we participated actively in efforts to redefine work under the law to include the work low-income mothers do to raise their children, and to amend the law in other ways to restore women's reproductive rights and a measure of their economic security.

Welfare reform was the fulcrum of the wide-ranging 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which overhauled safety net programs. Among the programs targeted for revision or replacement was the sixty-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The signal features of PRWORA were elimination of the entitlement to aid for people who qualified for it; imposition of draconian rules on those who received assistance; dislodging of cash aid as the core principle of welfare; and a dramatic increase in budgetary and administrative flexibility for the individual states in implementing the law.

The new rules for recipients included time limits, work requirements, and policies regulating reproductive decisions and family forms. These rules could be used as a textbook example of reproductive injustice; by design, welfare reform made it harder for poor people to parent and constrained all their decisions about whether, when, and with whom to bear and raise children. Time limits imposed tight deadlines on individual transitions to economic self-sufficiency. Work requirements compelled recipients to take low-paying jobs, even at the cost of further education or training in preparation for better-paying jobs. Fertility control incentives and pressures stigmatized and punished childbearing while poor and unmarried. The stated justification for all these changes was that they would promote participation in the labor market, discourage childbearing by unmarried low-income women, and support married family life among low-income biological parents and children. Reducing women's poverty, enhancing their well-being, and affirming their equality were not among the stated goals of PRWORA or the TANF program.

In addition to ending the entitlement to aid and conditioning benefits on obedience to harsh new rules, welfare reform ensured poverty by permitting states to use TANF funds for the nonpoor and failing to insist that the aid poor families do receive support incomes at levels that can sustain families. Since 1996, there has been a steady increase in what some advocates call the "TANF misery index," which adds together the percentage of poor families not receiving TANF and the percentage gap between the TANF income of those who manage to receive it and the official poverty line. The TANF misery index for 2012, the last calculated before we finished this book, was the highest ever: 74 percent of low-income families with children were not receiving TANF aid, and there was, overall in the United States, a 73 percent gap between average TANF grants and poverty as the federal government defines it. These numbers represent dramatic changes from the time before welfare reform, when 28 percent of poor families with children did not receive public assistance, and there was a 65 percent gap between grants and poverty.

Welfare reform policy amplified states' rights to cut direct aid to the poor and weakened their ability to support poor families more generously. In 2016, states spent just 25 percent of their TANF funds on cash grants to TANF clients, down 70 percent prior to the implementation of welfare reform. While national law mandates certain levels of spending by states from their own funds, it simultaneously permits states to count spending on proselytizing services as spending on welfare. Tightening the chokehold on direct financial assistance to families, national TANF law authorizes states to channel increasing shares of federal TANF funds to programs and services and away from cash aid.

We have enough evidence now to assess welfare reform. TANF has, indeed, increased participation in the labor market by recipients and former recipients of aid. But the work lives of mothers who joined the labor market under pressure from welfare rules or time limits have not been secure. Wage work has not kept low-income single mothers or their children out of poverty. Nor have the publicly funded promotion of marriage and fatherhood eliminated the economic vulnerability of mothers who raise children on their own. Welfare reform's rules and incentives promoting married reproduction and child raising have not reversed the rise in single motherhood, improved marriages, or made life better for children who are raised by parents who lack economic resources. In fact, at its most brutal, welfare reform has broken families, as sanctions, the drastic reduction in cash benefits, and time limits have driven some mothers to surrender children to foster care and adoption. Rather than empower families economically to rise out of poverty, welfare reform has proliferated policing mechanisms against the poor while repudiating the original purpose of welfare: income support to help custodial parents make ends meet.

As a result of its many defects, TANF has done little to diminish or mitigate women's and children's poverty. The single-mother poverty rate remains shockingly high at 35.6 percent overall, 38.8 percent for African American female-headed families, 40.8 percent for Latina-headed families, 42.6 percent for Native American female-headed families, and 41.5 percent for families headed by foreign-born women. Despite this, policy makers in both political parties refuse to address family poverty as a women's issue, rooted in intersectional inequalities of gender, race, nativity, and class. Democrats generally have shunned a feminist agenda centered on the disproportionate poverty of single mothers and have specifically avoided advocacy of poverty-focused social policy in preference for championing improvements for a raceless (white), genderless (male) "middle class." Republicans, for their part, have for years reflexively engaged in "dog-whistle" politics, using soft-core racism to stoke both latent and explicit racist hostility—for example, by mobilizing tropes of poor people as "lazy" and "dependent." More recently, one wing of that party has pursued a more overt form of racialized and gendered politics, less a dog whistle than a loud, ringing alarm. Both parties obscure the unrelenting scale of poverty among single mothers raising children, instead pitching their appeals to different segments of the middle class. We think of this as snooze-mode politics, a failure to acknowledge the all-too-obvious gendered and racialized dimensions of poverty and suffering, an unwillingness by leading politicians and some influential intellectuals to wake up.

Despite the persistence of single-mother poverty, on its face a signal of PRWORA's failure, welfare reform has become a model for safety net policy in the United States. As welfare participation has dropped under the 1996 welfare law, the law's main features, including work requirements and surveillance of recipients' family behavior, have been exported to other antipoverty programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) and public housing. As we write, many Republicans have called for adding work requirements to Medicaid participation, while Republican Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed replacing cash aid under SSI with services to prepare recipients for work.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this area of public policy is how normalized it has become, how little debated in mainstream politics. It was not always so. Most current-day discussions of welfare reform claim that the policy grew from a wide, bipartisan, consensus. But history says otherwise: many Democrats opposed the main features of the law President Clinton ultimately signed, which Republicans drafted shortly after they took the majority in both houses of Congress. Many continued to challenge their colleagues in Congress and the administration over the implementation of PRWORA and its reauthorization. Leaders such as Representative Patsy Mink and former administration official Peter Edelman argued that President Clinton betrayed Democratic Party principles when he signed PRWORA. They took issue with the substance of the law, especially the clause in it that ended an entitlement to aid for impoverished mothers with children. Mink and other women of color Democrats also took issue with the debate that preceded and undergirded PRWORA, which was characterized by overt racial and gender stereotyping and a marked disrespect for the work mothers of all backgrounds and income levels do to raise children.

Representative Mink and other feminists were especially aroused by the ways both the welfare debate and welfare policy imposed inequality on low-income single mothers. For example, they pointed out that the preamble to TANF policy ordained that heterosexual marriage and the greater presence of fathers in low-income homes are the best solutions to women's and children's poverty, while TANF provisions deliberately restrained and regulated the choices available to mothers once they enrolled in welfare. In these and other ways, TANF contradicted the basic principles of feminism, that women's lives matter as much outside marriage as in it and that they are self-sovereign citizens whose government has a role to play in ensuring their access to good lives. Social justice feminists like Mink, along with some other liberals, argued that emphasizing marriage and regulating mothers' intimate and family decisions diverted attention from economic and gendered sources of poverty, such as low wages, structural unemployment and underemployment, domestic violence, and the large portion of men of color involved in the carceral system.

The robust debate that occurred in the Clinton era has been forgotten in part because public conversation about welfare, poverty, and inequality shifted dramatically in subsequent years. Persistent inequality and poverty have been too often treated as natural or inevitable in the face of global trends and technological change, as unreachable by governmental policies, or separate from concerns about subordination on the basis of gender, race, nationality, disability, and sexuality. Moreover, the organic connection between poverty and all forms of inequality has never been fully acknowledged, and the consequent focus of poverty policy has been on the attributes of poor individuals rather than on the structures and conditions that make and keep people poor.

Even when income inequality grabbed popular attention as a response to the Great Recession, invocations of "the 99%" were too vague to reach the particular situation of low-income women and children trying to stay afloat in the wake of welfare reform. Progressive campaigns on behalf of "ordinary Americans," the "middle class," or people who "do everything right but still can't get ahead" may even have been counterproductive. The discourse of "playing by the rules" or "doing everything right" may establish a middle-class claim for a reformed home mortgage system or free college education. But it marginalizes and "others" people who do not "do everything right" almost by definition, because the rules the poor are required to live by are harsher and more stringent than any facing the middle class—starting with the compliance demanded by government in exchange for public assistance.

Mainstream public debates about poverty thinned to an unhealthy degree in part because many post-PRWORA policy interlocutors acquiesced in the othering of poor single mothers as behavioral anomalies who eventually would be fixed by the onward march of welfare reform. But policy debates about poverty also suffered because they were starved of progressive feminist ideas. Instead of giving a full hearing to feminist antipoverty ideas about self-sovereignty, economic opportunity, intimate liberty, and freedom from violence—ideas that touched on the structural and cultural inequality faced by single mothers—post-PRWORA welfare discourse treated patriarchalist solutions to poverty as neutral and self-evident, just as Newt Gingrich's GOP designed them to be in the middle 1990s. The coercive, misogynous edge of demands for universal marriage and mandatory paternity, widely noticed if incompletely grasped during the high point of feminist influence in the 1970s, was hardly acknowledged by the early twenty-first century. Instead, for a wide swath of thinkers in Washington, D.C., marriage became a ubiquitous symbol of the moral and economic good.

Some of the narrowing of debate over welfare and poverty occurred through the efforts of those who tried to help low-income mothers by punishing their male partners. Beginning in the 1980s, some liberals joined the idea of welfare reform with feminist-sounding demands for a punitive regime of child support collections. Strengthened under PRWORA and the state laws that implemented it, child support policy ensnared many low-income men in a kind of carceral debt peonage, in which the combination of mandated child support awards and fees for court costs and arrears led to repeated jailing and was virtually impossible to escape. Walter Scott, one of the men who became famous because police killed him during the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement, was $18,000 in arrears on child support payments at the time he was shot. Family members speculated that this may have been the reason he fled after police stopped him because of a broken tail light.

The sidelining of progressive feminist analysis cramped the spectrum of socially acceptable opinion about welfare and poverty, as policy makers lost the sense that human activity and sustenance could occur outside of the labor market. One consequence or symptom of this trend was the liberal dedication to "make work pay" by expanding the Earned Income, Dependent Care, and Child Care Tax Credits. Rather than resisting the logic of welfare reform, which hollowed out the obligations citizens could impose on their government, policies that focused single-mindedly on making work pay participated in it: welfare reform drove women with young children, who had been somewhat sheltered from full-time waged work in twentieth-century public policy, into full-time low-wage jobs and away from their children. Policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has increased in value substantially since the 1990s, painted lipstick on this pig by using public resources to supplement bad private-sector jobs. Journalists, legislators, and think-tank intellectuals stopped asking why it was better for mothers to work in the food service or home health care industries than to prepare their children's food or tend to their family members' illnesses. As in the case of child support, those liberals who took women's waged work as a positive end in itself, and who were willing to impose an obligation to engage in such work on low-income people, may have helped produce this disregard for the mostly uncompensated work of mothering.


This book interweaves three primary concerns. The first is the significance of gender in welfare reform, and, more generally, in poverty and inequality in the United States. This is something of a truism within feminist scholarship about the American and European welfare states. However, since passage of PRWORA, the gendered dimensions of antipoverty policy appear to have receded ever more from view. We assume at least two major audiences, scholars and advocates who work on public policy but do not routinely use contemporary gender analysis as part of their work, and students and colleagues in the feminist academy who have sharp theoretical tools but rarely bring them to the task of studying policy. Our intention is to have this book serve as an object lesson in what can be gained when the lines between these two groups are effaced, when public policy history, analysis, and advocacy embrace contemporary feminism and when feminists use their rich understandings of sex, gender, difference, and power to interpret the public structures that shape contemporary life—and to change them for the better.

To capture the origins and effects of PRWORA requires a wide, intersectional understanding of gender and its role in welfare policy. Gender in the sense of women's subordination, past and present, has unfortunately been a very salient part of this law's development. But PRWORA's gendered politics also was simultaneous with and inseparable from racism and race-based stereotypes. For example, the enthusiasm of some white, middle-class female legislators for federal policy that compelled other women's out-of-home work, and the desire by many middle-class whites to cure poverty with paternal child support payments, can best be understood as a shared product of gender, race, and class relations refracted through political opinions. A full understanding of PRWORA and its effects further involves interactions among gender, nationality, legal citizenship, language, sexuality, disability, and transnational migration.

A second thread of our analysis considers the narrowing of debate that has occurred in recent decades. We focus here on changes that occurred in the thinking and rhetoric of Democrats, progressives, and allied researchers. Conservative opinion and activism have, of course, been significant in the development of public policies that affect low-income people. The conservative "Contract with America," issued by activist Republicans who became a congressional majority after the elections of November 1994, shaped the statute Congress passed for President Clinton's signature two years later. Anti-welfare conservatism constrained later efforts to ameliorate the effects of PRWORA. But moderates and liberals also contributed to anti-welfare discourse, principally by leaving unrebutted underlying assumptions about parenting, poverty, and the role of government.

The third concern of this book is the path charted by social justice feminists in the 1990s and early 2000s, a path not yet chosen by policy makers but not impossible to choose. The social justice feminist path begins with the irreplaceable role of people who will be most affected by public policy decisions in making those decisions. In the case of PRWORA and whatever in the future might replace it, this means involving low-income mothers actively in discussions of their needs and perspectives—and, when discussing policies about marriage and fatherhood, involving fathers, too. It also means making policy as if poor people's needs and perspectives matter even when poor people are not in the room. At a conference in 2002, in the midst of congressional struggles over TANF reauthorization, one of us asked, "Could we please talk about TANF as if mothers matter?" The history of PRWORA is an object lesson in the effects of policy making in which virtually everything about low-income mothers and fathers was decided without them. We endeavor to foreground and consider the distortions that occurred in political debates about poverty and welfare when those most affected, and their status as mothers and fathers, were omitted.

The social justice feminist path further requires centering the equality of mothers, especially mothers of color, in policies aimed at poor families. Disproportionately, poor children live in single-mother families. Disproportionately, single mother families are the poorest families. And disproportionately, single mothers are required to trade self-sovereignty for even the stingiest economic assistance. The exclusion of intersectional gender analysis in creating and advancing a policy that is about gender has resulted in a cruel deepening of inequality for poor mothers. We will highlight the legislative effort engaged by social justice feminists to make welfare policy work for poor mothers in the hope that the effort instructs future possibility.

In the work that follows, we return repeatedly to these themes. We return as well to a set of overarching questions that haunt this study: What are the terms of political incorporation and economic well-being for adults, paradigmatically women, who spend much of their time caring for others? How do we explain the failure of our polity and society to address the basic and predictable tensions between families and job markets as they are currently constituted? What roles have race, class, and nationality played in this failure? And what do we do next?

These are fundamental questions of feminist social thought. They demand a broader conceptualization of rights than we are accustomed to encountering in popular feminist texts or narrow discussions of civil rights. To resolve the problems PRWORA has raised so pointedly requires a rich, substantive menu of rights, "freedom to" rights in addition to "freedom from" invidious public or private action. We need a government that enters social life actively to enable those who do the work of care to survive and thrive.

These are theoretical claims, but the possibility of pursuing them is not merely theoretical. At the same time that the United States has experimented with PRWORA and other devastating reductions in public assistance, numerous other societies maintained low rates of women's and children's poverty. Western and northern European countries—and even our near North American ally Canada—have spent dramatically more on public welfare and less on incarceration than the United States has since the late twentieth century. The trade-off appears not to have diminished public safety but to have reduced social strife and the worst effects of poverty on citizens' well-being. Substantive rights are more rare in the United States than in Europe or Canada. But they are not entirely lacking in our traditions; after all, for at least thirty years, before the welfare reform of the middle 1990s, the government promised basic economic help to every impoverished mother with children who met certain criteria. As Representative Patsy Mink said: "We have to build things that we want to see accomplished. . . . It is easy enough to vote right and be consistently with the majority . . . but it is more often more important to be ahead of the majority and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary."

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