Twenty-six years ago, with the assistance of a Republican congress, Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton fulfilled his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) on August 22, 1996, replacing the then sixty-one-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal cash assistance program that Americans had long referred to as “welfare,” with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Under AFDC, the federal government had granted states matching funds to support dependent children and caregivers (usually single mothers) they found eligible.Footnote 1 The PRWORA removed the welfare entitlement and instead funneled federal money through block grants states could allocate however they saw fit. It strengthened work requirements, capped cash assistance at a five-year lifetime limit, and allowed states to impose stricter sanctions and time limits. The PRWORA promoted marriage and ramped up tracking of so-called absent fathers and child support enforcement. It restricted the benefits available to documented and undocumented immigrants. The PRWORA was the apex of welfare retrenchment and represents the triumph of neoliberal social policy.
Some suggest that the expansion of other social welfare programs, including tax credits and public health insurance, offset the PRWORA and other welfare state contraction.Footnote 2 Since creating the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in 1975, the federal government has steadily expanded the program, which provides credits (and in some states refunds) to taxpayers working for low wages—one historian called it a “supplement to wages” rather than a safety-net program.Footnote 3 Public health care spending also increased.Footnote 4 The Children’s Health Insurance Program, created in 1997, covered 9.7 million children by 2019.Footnote 5 The 2010 Patient Protection and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) gave states the option to expand Medicaid to cover adults whose incomes reached 133 percent of the federal poverty level, adding about twelve million US citizens and permanent residents to Medicaid rolls by 2019.Footnote 6
But increased spending on health insurance and tax credits does not discount the severity of welfare reform. Cash support is unique and the elimination of AFDC irrefutably dire for single women and children, as many scholars and journalists have shown. Immediately following the PRWORA, many former AFDC recipients did not find jobs; some earned such low wages that they stayed below the poverty line, even after receiving the EITC. Welfare reform further immiserated women. Between 1995 and 1997, the poorest 20 percent of female-headed families lost $580 in income.Footnote 7 In the longer term, welfare reform shortened the life expectancy of women receiving benefits. In 2012, 74 percent of low-income families were not receiving TANF and in 2015, more than 1.5 million households (including three million children) in the US subsisted on less than US$2 per person a day, a 159 percent increase since 1996.Footnote 8 States have poured TANF dollars into marriage counseling and antiabortion pregnancy “crisis centers.”Footnote 9 Kansas banned TANF recipients from using benefits to go to the movies or swimming pools in 2015, and as of July 2016, the lifetime eligibility limit for TANF in Arizona is one year.Footnote 10
In a way, welfare reform continued a long, well-documented history of welfare policy failing to meaningfully address poverty or inequality. The Social Security Act of 1935, a vital piece of New Deal legislation and the epitome of the liberal welfare state, established Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)—later changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—alongside its old age and unemployment insurance programs, though ADC had earlier roots in nineteenth-century relief and Progressive Era mothers’ pensions. From its inception, ADC enacted gendered and raced ideas about work and dependency, imposed social control on recipients, and nurtured inequality. Still, the program offered unprecedented benefits (and according to some, rights) for many. But as ADC swelled to include more divorced, never-married, and African American women on its rolls in the post-WWII period, antiwelfare sentiment gained momentum and mechanisms of social control expanded to include “man-in-the-house” laws, which denied benefits to women found to be consorting with men, and legislation incentivizing work. In the explosive social movement milieu of the 1960s, a massive welfare rights movement demanded the right to welfare as a guaranteed income, the power to choose whether to work outside the home, and dignity and respect at the hands of the government. After the movement achieved limited success, including Supreme Court rulings establishing AFDC as an entitlement, the state responded with retrenchment and punishment—a trend epitomized by state-level reforms adding work requirements during the 1970s and, on a national level, President Reagan’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1981.Footnote 11 The Family Support Act of 1988 added child support enforcement to the state’s arsenal of social control strategies. The neoliberal PRWORA was in some ways the logical conclusion of an older, liberal social welfare system that was punitive, prejudiced, and paltry—a common theme in the historiography of welfare.
From the height of the welfare rights movement through the passage of the PRWORA, scholarly interest in welfare seemed to grow in an inversely proportional relationship with welfare itself. As state and federal governments waged a war on welfare, scholars raised questions about the history of the nation’s most stigmatized social program. In the early 1970s, when income redistribution seemed possible, activist scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward criticized liberal welfare programs for being capitalist tools of labor discipline and social control.Footnote 12 This early work set a critical tone for the scholarship that followed. As the New Deal order receded further into the past and antiwelfare virulence worsened in the 1980s and early 1990s, historians like Michael B. Katz excavated the roots of the stigmas surrounding welfare.Footnote 13 Feminist scholars such as Linda Gordon, Barbara J. Nelson, and Gwendolyn Mink looked more directly at AFDC’s history and how liberal reformers helped engender a two-tiered welfare system premised on the breadwinner wage and the racial and gender stratification of labor. They also gestured at the positive potential of welfare and alternatives for a more effective, less controlling system.Footnote 14 Implicitly, these scholars situated their own neoliberal contexts as outgrowths of a restrictive and exclusionary liberal order.
But the catastrophic PRWORA prompted questions about how welfare under neoliberalism was different from what came before. Michael B. Katz, who wrote about poverty and welfare from the 1980s until his death in 2014, reflected on how the changing political climate had shaped his work. He remarked on “how odd it felt,” after Clinton signed the PRWORA, “to find myself on a panel at Bryn Mawr actually defending AFDC instead of trashing the program for its shortcomings.”Footnote 15 Katz’s comment captured the trajectory of welfare scholarship. Writing during the dismantling of welfare and the ascent of neoliberalism, welfare scholars had offered exceptional insights on continuities with earlier eras—perhaps seeking to alter the course of welfare policy. But the 1996 welfare reform bill (and indeed decades of welfare policy leading up to it) had marked a decisive change.
Welfare reform also changed the way scholars wrote about welfare history. After the PRWORA, two distinct bodies of feminist scholarship emerged. One, including historians Premilla Nadasen, Felicia Kornbluh, and others, documented the history of the welfare rights movement to recuperate arguments in defense of welfare.Footnote 16 Political historians such as Jennifer Mittelstadt and Marisa Chappell made up a second corpus. They looked to the recent past to probe the roots of welfare’s demise, concluding that liberals helped manufacture welfare’s contradictions and failings.Footnote 17 But after this burst of research on welfare history following the PRWORA, the study of the more expansive welfare state largely supplanted interest in the history of cash assistance. Historical investigation of welfare waned in the age of TANF.
A small group of scholars kept at it. And amidst the recent resurgence in movements favoring a more robust state response to persistent social and economic inequalities, a handful of pivotal texts are packed with fresh insights. The works of scholars including Karen M. Tani, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, and Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink recognized the limits of A(F)DC that welfare scholars before them identified while also highlighting its democratizing and empowering effects. They also recounted the backlash that ensued to discipline the rights claims resulting from that empowerment.Footnote 18 Centering cash assistance programs serving poor women and children, this five decades of scholarship offers a uniquely revelatory account of late twentieth-century politics.
Historians can and ought to look to this rich body of work to better understand neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a pervasive and nebulous late twentieth-century political paradigm that unraveled social programs, deregulated industry, heightened surveillance and social control, intensified worker discipline, constrained democracy, financialized daily life, and expanded inequality.Footnote 19 Early accounts of neoliberalism’s history centered the late twentieth-century fates of industrial workers, trade and monetary policy, and mainstream ideological realignment—perspectives that favored white men, implied that this period marked a sharp decline from the mid-century “golden age” of American liberalism, and suggested consensus.Footnote 20 Some recent scholarship reveals longer, rangier roots of neoliberalism, originating in the segregationist, “public-choice” politics of Virginians, the Federal Reserve’s anti-inflationary postwar fiscal policy even New Deal infrastructure projects and Great Society housing programs, to name some examples.Footnote 21 Others chart the rise of neoliberalism through histories of the carceral state, which swelled in response to surplus labor created by deindustrialization and an increasingly militant Black liberation movement.Footnote 22 A few show how the exploitation of women’s caring labors was integral to ushering in the new political and economic paradigm.Footnote 23 Scholar Melinda Cooper explicitly interrogates neoliberal social policy, arguing that policy makers responded to the breakdown of the Fordist family wage (and the social movements that criticized it) with the “strategic reinvention of a much older, poor-law tradition of private family responsibility, using the combined instruments of welfare reform, changes to taxation, and monetary policy.”Footnote 24 Some historians of racial inequality, including N. D. B. Connolly, reject the category of neoliberalism because it implies that liberalism was good for everyone, thereby eliding the experiences of Black Americans.Footnote 25
This article suggests that, for decades, scholars of welfare history—many assuming roles as “social critics” or even activist scholars—have been shedding light on the history of neoliberalism, from the perspective of people never fully included into social citizenship.Footnote 26 Though seldom focused explicitly on neoliberalism, historical writing on welfare, published as politicians were dismantling welfare, provided a trove of insights—and, crucially, ones that kept marginalized people, usually women, at the center of inquiry. By analyzing cash assistance programs that served poor single women, at times disproportionately women of color, this scholarship shows that attributes usually associated with neoliberalism had roots in liberal policy-making and reform efforts. Liberal social policy used social control to uphold capitalism and racist and sexist labor regimes. But state discipline and control existed alongside the promise to provide.
At the same time, through its attention to race and gender, welfare scholarship exposes what is distinctive about neoliberalism.Footnote 27 Many scholars have rightfully looked to the rise of the carceral state to parse what the neoliberal turn meant for marginalized populations. Welfare scholarship charts a parallel trend. It shows how neoliberal social policy set out to discipline poor women of color to fulfill growing demand for low-wage labor and, perhaps most importantly, in response to welfare recipients’ claims to cash support as a right. Focusing on political economy and social programs that, if stingily and coercively, remunerated women’s caretaking labors, this work unearths the complexities of the liberal state as a source of both care and coercion. It also shows how the neoliberal state abandoned its tenuous mandate to care, leaving many single mothers “without reserves,” in the powerful words of historians Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman.Footnote 28 The overly isolated corpus of welfare scholarship offers trenchant analysis of neoliberalism’s history and a model of activist scholarship. From the frontlines of the war on welfare, shoulder-to-shoulder with welfare rights activists fighting to transform, expand, and in some ways defend welfare, these scholars offered unflinching critique of the welfare system and evidence of its necessity. It is vital that historians reckon with welfare historiography because it demonstrates the lack of consensus on welfare reform or neoliberalism.
A quarter century after the PRWORA, this article reflects on the state of the field of welfare history from 1971, when Piven and Cloward published the foundational Regulating the Poor, through 2018, with Kornbluh and Mink’s Ensuring Poverty, a history of welfare reform. It is not comprehensive but instead focuses on histories of welfare in the twentieth century and centers foundational texts representative of critical moments in welfare historiography.Footnote 29
There are political stakes to revisiting welfare scholarship twenty-five years after welfare reform. Where neoliberalism has made redistribution appear to be a political impossibility, this historiography restores fading memories of the feminist, antiracist, and redistributive possibilities that cash assistance might have offered—and might offer now in a moment of ongoing crisis.Footnote 30 Welfare sits outside the imaginations of even many progressive political figures, who instead posit workforce participation as the only means to an adequate income.Footnote 31 In recent years, policy makers have propped up means testing and incentive to work in debates over whether they should grant Americans benefits during an unparalleled public health and economic crisis. Understanding welfare history can help restore positive visions of cash assistance and its role in empowering people to escape abusive partners, shelter from deadly pandemics, and survive.Footnote 32 In fact, I suggest that failing to consider this work is a concession to the efficacy of the neoliberal assault on welfare, which has so stigmatized and dismantled cash assistance that few historians discuss it.
Welfare as Social Control
Scholarly critiques of welfare emerged from activist scholarship in the 1970s and cast a long shadow. Leftist sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward published Regulating the Poor in 1971, on the heels of the mid-1960s explosion of welfare rolls and amid their involvement in the welfare rights movement (the book is dedicated to George Wiley, director of the National Welfare Rights Organization [NWRO]). They wrote in a moment of possibility; the NWRO and its allies were fighting for a guaranteed annual income (GAI)—and thought they might get it. Though legal challenges failed to “constitutionally establish the right to a minimum welfare payment,” according to Premilla Nadasen, struggles for a GAI were gaining traction in progressive circles.Footnote 33 Libertarians also backed a basic income support program, though with the intent to roll back other facets of the welfare state. Even President Nixon introduced a GAI program, the Family Assistance Plan (FAP). The NWRO, who demanded $5,500 annually, opposed Nixon’s proposed $1,600 as too low and denounced work requirements; they ran a campaign against it, catchily calling to “Zap FAP.”Footnote 34
In this context, Piven and Cloward looked to history to understand the means-tested, federalist, wholly inadequate welfare system they sought to transform. They devised a theory about the relationship between welfare and capitalism: “Relief arrangements are ancillary to economic arrangements,” they wrote. “Their chief function is to regulate labor.”Footnote 35 Since the sixteenth-century transition to capitalism in Western Europe, they found, relief was used as a tool of social control. Capitalism’s volatility produced periods of mass unemployment, which led to unrest. “To restore order,” the government expanded relief programs; when the economy stabilized, the state contracted relief, forcing people back into the labor market. Piven and Cloward proposed a schema to explain this process: periods of instability (the Great Depression, the postwar mechanization of Southern agriculture) caused unrest (unemployed mobilizations in the 1930s, urban uprisings in the 1960s); the state responded by increasing social welfare provision (the New Deal, the Great Society).Footnote 36 The state made ongoing relief degrading, “to enforce work, especially very low-wage work.”Footnote 37 During periods of relative quiet (the 1940s and 1950s), they posited, welfare programs focused on reinforcing work norms through statutes including “man-in-the-house” rules, which barred AFDC recipients from living with men the state perceived as would-be breadwinners; work requirements; and administrative practices such as intentionally not advertising programs, “fantastic paperwork,” underbudgeting, and surveillance. Public relief was not meant to help people, they argued; instead, it was a necessary complement to capitalism and, in recent decades, to American liberalism.Footnote 38
Piven and Cloward set their sights on critiquing the existing system, maintained by liberal policy makers, that controlled and degraded the poor. They were writing against the “progressive liberalization” of welfare and from the belief that a universal and substantial federal income program was necessary to eliminate poverty and provide dignity to all.Footnote 39 Piven and Cloward advocated mass organizing for a federal guaranteed income. “The size of the welfare rolls is not a response to the needs of the poor,” Piven and Cloward coaxed their readers, “but a response to the trouble they make.”Footnote 40 Regulating the Poor’s structural critique of welfare and its call to action are emblematic of the historical moment in which it was produced. But although Piven and Cloward supported and anticipated large-scale reform, they were writing amidst neoliberalism’s ascent (if before this terminology came into common use), as the state refused welfare rights activists’ legal claims to a guaranteed income and put more disciplinary measures in place. This context may have helped them recognize the longer history of the state using social policy to fulfill capital’s needs. Indeed in recent years, after watching policy makers openly debate how much money the government could distribute without disincentivizing low-wage work, Piven and Cloward’s overarching framework was prescient.
When policy makers in the 1970s responded to more forceful rights claims like the ones Piven and Cloward were making with cuts and restrictions, they defied the schematic Piven and Cloward had outlined. The welfare rights movement continued to organize in the tumultuous years following the publication of Regulating the Poor, and for a time benefits expanded.Footnote 41 But antiwelfare sentiment came to dominate mainstream political discourse. Amidst rising inflation and growing unemployment, state governments created increasingly punitive welfare policies. Nixon’s FAP and Carter’s even less ambitious Program for Better Jobs and Income both failed. Instead, in 1975 the federal government created the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provided tax relief to workers whose earnings fell below a certain threshold.Footnote 42 In spite of persistent economic hardship, the Reagan Administration passed OBRA in 1981, narrowing AFDC eligibility and strengthening work requirements introduced in the 1960s. The rightward-moving Democratic Party increasingly embraced welfare reform. By the 1980s, something about the nature of US welfare policy and American liberalism had changed.Footnote 43
Scholarship during the 1970s and early 1980s, a pivotal period in the politics of welfare, was divided. Some work amplified Piven and Cloward’s claims about social control through case studies of different facets of the welfare state.Footnote 44 Many recounted more redemptive histories of the nation’s welfare system. William I. Trattner’s multiedition From Poor Law to Welfare State (1974, 1979, 1984, 1989, 1994, 1998, and 2017) offered a sympathetic, synthetic examination of social welfare, and James Patterson’s America’s Struggle against Poverty, 1900-1980 (1981) defended the US welfare system as more substantive and better intentioned than many had surmised.Footnote 45 Some recovered the welfare capitalist roots of the welfare state.Footnote 46 Other notable scholarship explicitly advanced the conservative, antiwelfare goals that were gaining prominence during this period. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984) argued outright that welfare was bad for its recipients.Footnote 47 In retrospect, Michael B. Katz saw a lacuna in historical welfare scholarship from this period—a gap with political consequences. He reflected in a 1998 historiography essay, “when President Ronald Reagan wanted to roll back the welfare state, historians by and large lacked the evidence with which to assess the assumptions about the historic roles of family, community, and state that underlay his proposals.”Footnote 48 Later in the decade, with attacks on welfare mounting, scholars set out to fill that gap—Katz included.
Disparaging tropes like the “welfare queen” and the “underclass” increasingly occupied the popular imagination in the 1980s; cuts and mandatory work requirements followed. Katz’s In the Shadow of the Poor House (1986), a synthetic history of US welfare from the nineteenth-century poorhouse to the 1980s “war on welfare,” defines the historiography of this dark era in welfare’s history. The increasingly punitive and demeaning nature of welfare policy lent resonance to Piven and Cloward’s social control thesis. Their influence on Katz, who argued that antiwelfare sentiment was not new but “echoes nearly two centuries of criticism,” is indisputable.Footnote 49 But Katz distinguished his work by emphasizing historical contingency: “welfare policy results from the choices among alternative possibilities,” Katz wrote.Footnote 50 Unlike Piven and Cloward, whose analysis of welfare as a system of liberal social control derived from optimism about impending change, Katz’s ideas emerged from a deeply pessimistic historical moment. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse opens, “Nobody likes welfare.”Footnote 51
Still, Katz offered other possibilities, and many of his conclusions matched those reached in Regulating the Poor. Looking back from the 1980s, Katz found likeness between the relief system set up to sustain the classically liberal economic system of the nineteenth century and his conservative antiwelfare moment when politicians ignored structural forces like unemployment, blamed the poor for their poverty, and ratcheted up disciplinary systems like fraud detection. In fact, he found continuity across the twentieth century. During tumultuous periods in US history, public officials and reformers pursued welfare policies that refused to “tamper with the structure of American capitalism.”Footnote 52 Instead, they implemented forms of public assistance that only went so far as to keep people from starvation while preserving the existing social, labor, and political order.Footnote 53 Katz argued that since the creation of the poorhouse, relief was bent on “deterring the poor from asking for relief and making them willing to work hard for low wages.” The widespread fear that relief bred idleness led to these contradictory goals—compassion and deterrence—that distinguished the worthy from the unworthy poor.Footnote 54 The New Deal state adopted aspects of Progressive Era welfare programs like mothers’ pensions and contributory systems of social insurance developed in the private sector, using “the power of the federal government to crystallize the distinction between social insurance and public assistance and reinforce income inequality.”Footnote 55 Officials abandoned more universal, federal, high-paying public works programs in favor of relief programs that were means-tested, decentralized, and inadequate.Footnote 56 The architects of the War on Poverty adhered to these “conventions of American liberalism,” favoring opportunity over redistribution.Footnote 57 In the 1970s, inflation, oil shocks, and rising unemployment made “voters receptive to the war on welfare.”Footnote 58 Katz traced change over time, but his argument highlighted the strange continuity of welfare, in spite of its many contradictions.
Katz’s book drew a straight line from classical liberalism to his neoliberal moment, passing through the heart of the New Deal and Great Society. Connecting nineteenth-century poor relief to the stigmatized welfare programs of the 1980s (and everything in between), Katz suggested that state refusal to use social policy to value dignity over capitalism was age old. But Katz failed to grapple fully with the public assistance program that mostly served families headed by single mothers and was practically synonymous with welfare: Aid to Families with Dependent Children.Footnote 59 Thus, he largely missed women, whose experiences demonstrated how late twentieth-century welfare policy was unique. Feminist historians writing in early 1990s would begin to illuminate the gendered and raced history of welfare—and what it told us about the political order we now call neoliberalism.
From Social Control to Social Reproduction
In the 1990s, feminist scholars cast light on the racialized gender politics that had long animated US welfare policy. Where those before them had centered attempts to discipline productive labor, feminist scholars focused on programs that have been instrumental in defining women’s distinct relationship to work: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, formerly known as Aid to Dependent Children, and its predecessor, state mothers’ pensions. For feminist scholars writing in the 1980s and 1990s, the “feminization of poverty” and the political assault on welfare created a sense of urgency—not only to explain women’s unique relationship to welfare but also to defend it. In her groundbreaking edited volume Women, the State, and Welfare (1990), the historian activist Linda Gordon articulated feminist historians’ misgivings about what she called the “New Left social-control” model of theorizing welfare.Footnote 60 (In the volume’s Preface, Gordon acknowledged Piven and Cloward for “unintentionally” giving her “not only a model of committed scholarship but an argument against which I was able to develop my own feminist analysis.”Footnote 61) The explosion of feminist welfare scholarship provided two critical insights: it added gender and race analysis to the social control thesis, thereby enriching it, and it complicated the social-control thesis—ill-suited for their goal to defend welfare—by naming welfare’s potential to support work inside and outside the home.
Rapidly disintegrating due to the bipartisan efforts of policy makers, welfare drew the interest of feminist researchers in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, Reagan signed the Family Support Act, which emphasized “work, child support, and family benefits.” Feminist scholars mobilized alongside recipient activists, what scholar activist Gwendolyn Mink later called “a feminist mobilization against punitive welfare reform.”Footnote 62 They used their scholarship to make sense of and, it seems, mount a case against the antiwelfare moment they were living through. Activist scholars Felicia Kornbluh and Mink called this research “historical spadework.”Footnote 63
This “historical spadework” involved explaining why AFDC, a program serving mostly single mothers and children that never constituted a very significant portion of the government’s social spending, had become public enemy number one.Footnote 64 Feminist scholars traced the gendered distinctions between public assistance and social insurance programs back to the early twentieth century. Political scientist Barbara J. Nelson’s foundational essay, “The Origins of the Two-Channel Welfare State” (1989), recovered the differences between two Progressive Era programs: workmen’s compensation, a forerunner to New Deal social insurance programs, and mothers’ pensions, state programs that granted meager cash payments to fatherless families.Footnote 65 In the archives of female reformers and policy makers, Nelson found the roots of a two-channel welfare system. The first, created for white male industrial workers in the context of welfare capitalism and scientific management, was “male, judicial, public, and routinized in origin.” The second, intended for poor white widows, had roots in the “poor law tradition” and was “female, bureaucratic, administrative, private, and nonroutinized.”Footnote 66 The “entitlement process” for the workmen’s compensation was transparent and predictable, with simple paperwork and “formulaic” tables letting beneficiaries know how long their benefits would last.Footnote 67 Mothers’ pensioners, in contrast, were subject to the discretion of the moralizing caseworkers who administered the program and enforced norms about women’s work and policed recipients’ “capacity to care.”Footnote 68 When the Social Security Act “nationalized” mothers’ pensions in 1935, forming ADC, the gendered distinction became a cornerstone of the burgeoning welfare state.Footnote 69 Nelson provided a framework for understanding why AFDC was so stigmatized during the 1980s and early 1990s, whereas social insurance programs “nearly sacrosanct,” in the words of sociologist Ann Shola Orloff.Footnote 70
Feminist welfare scholarship was also part of a flourishing body of work on race and the New Deal.Footnote 71 The nonuniversal welfare system, feminist scholar Gwendolyn Mink suggested in her essay in Gordon’s volume, conditioned women’s labor and upheld white, Protestant values. White reformers’ anxieties over emancipation and immigration led them to embrace racial uplift and assimilation.Footnote 72 In this context, social programs sought to bolster mothers’ roles in reproducing the existing social order. Mothers’ pensions “broke through the rigidities of laissez-faire capitalism to make the creation of ‘sound mothers’ a social responsibility,” but in the service of imposing particular values on immigrant women. Caseworkers granted mothers’ pensions only after surveilling potential recipients’ housekeeping, cooking, and childrearing practices, thereby enforcing “temperance, nuclear-family households, American cooking.”Footnote 73 In Pitied But Not Entitled (1994), Linda Gordon similarly depicted mothers’ pensions as moralizing and disciplinary; “mothers’ aid was never meant to be open armed or trusting to those it helped.”Footnote 74
Although late twentieth-century antiwelfarism was inextricable from anti-Blackness, welfare originally excluded Black women from receiving benefits, feminist scholars showed. By denying Black women mothers’ pensions, reformers would not recognize them as mothers and left Black women to rely on poorly paid work alone. Southern congresspersons refused to support the Social Security Act unless local officials “retained control over the distribution of benefits,” sociologist Jill Quadagno wrote.Footnote 75 The SSA codified white women’s dependence, guaranteeing working white men entitlements like social insurance and designating women’s programs as needs-based, thus enshrining a different form of citizenship.Footnote 76 It excluded outright many Black Americans from social insurance, public assistance, or labor protections, denying them social citizenship. Liberal reformers built a welfare state that perpetuated and deepened social inequalities. There was no golden age of American liberalism.
Feminist scholars showed how the entire welfare system was premised on the white male breadwinner wage, exposing the deeper history of policies presenting marriage as a solution to poverty. Many attributed this system to the “maternalist” politics of white female reformers, who strategically advocated for mothers’ pensions as a replacement for an absent breadwinner. Political scientist Theda Skocpol analyzed maternalism in the context of an antiwelfare reaction to Civil War pensions. As opposition to building a robust welfare state grew, still-disenfranchised women adhering to the tenants of maternalism were able to influence policy.Footnote 77
Other feminist scholars, perhaps watching mainstream feminists fail to rally against welfare reform in the 1990s, analyzed maternalism as part of a more complicated part of feminist history.Footnote 78 Advocating to “protect” native-born white and European immigrant mothers’ roles as caretakers was strategic; feminists thought deploying traditional notions of womanhood would make it easier to find support for state pensions. But instead, Gordon argued, reformers constructed poor single mothers as widows deserving of pity and charity, inadvertently imposing stigma onto nonwidowed single mothers and the program as a whole.Footnote 79 Where aid for unemployed men “aimed to preserve the male breadwinner status and to keep wives and children at home,” aid for single mothers “aimed to prevent its recipients from being too comfortable on their own.”Footnote 80 Aid was too meager to keep women out of the paid workforce and did not recognize cash support as a right. Historian Joanne Goodwin called mothers’ pensions “a wage subsidy.”Footnote 81 They were not meant to adequately compensate women’s work at home but rather to subsidize her poorly paid work outside the home—suppressing women’s wages helped maintain the family wage model. By ensuring women’s immiseration, pensions and later ADC encouraged recipients to find husbands to financially support them. The disconnect between the stingy support welfare provided and reformers’ efforts to protect (and police) women’s caretaking labors at home resonated for scholars writing in a neoliberal welfare policy climate.Footnote 82 For poor women, who in the 1990s like in the 1910s regularly juggled low-wage work and parenting with meager state support, austere social policy premised on social control was old news; again, perhaps neoliberalism was not so “new.”
But feminist scholars, many of whom were involved in efforts to retain the imperfect version of AFDC that remained in the 1990s, recognized welfare’s importance as well as its pitfalls. In a 1996 review essay, legal scholar Dorothy Roberts remarked that during this “dispiriting age of welfare retrenchment,” feminist scholars had “issue[d] a call to rekindle the ideal of a universal, inclusive, and dignified welfare system that thus far has existed only as a defeated dream.”Footnote 83 Scholars regularly pointed to missed alternatives for a better, more universal system. In Pitied but Not Entitled, Gordon examined what she called Black female reformers’ “welfare vision” as one such missed opportunity. Because they were more likely to than their white counterparts to be wage earners and part of two-income families, Black middle-class reformers recognized that single mothers needed to work outside the home and advocated universal childcare. Their blueprint for better welfare policy, Gordon suggested, was ignored in New Deal policy circles.Footnote 84 Another missed opportunity was what Gordon, pushing back against the liberal feminists who associated paid work with liberation, called a “more radical maternalist vision:” the recognition, valuing, and compensation of the work of mothers.Footnote 85 Indeed, some scholars implied that for all its limitations and prejudice, the very existence of “state sponsored social protection” was notable. Mink said income support “was conceived as remuneration for maternal work” and a step “toward entitlement,” though in “the interest of race and republic.” Pensions did compensate social reproduction, but only for some, and they were not intended as “social rights.”Footnote 86 Here were the stakes of welfare reform and the long roots of poverty’s feminization.
This generation of feminist scholars was writing in a “time of conservatism and economic depression,” as Gordon described the early 1990s, when the United States underwent massive economic restructuring under the auspices of protecting individual freedoms, with disastrous consequences for women combining low-wage work and parenting.Footnote 87 They underscored the role liberal women, constrained by existing norms, played in creating welfare programs that did not adequately address poor women’s needs. From the battleground of welfare reform, they found in history morsels of what was good about welfare and alternatives for a better system—destigmatized remuneration for all forms of labor (including the second shift), higher wages, and universal childcare. But by the time they wrote, policy makers had largely abandoned even the promise to support the work of social reproduction; instead, they required poor single mothers to take personal responsibility by engaging in paid work. The next generation would go further to recover the differences between welfare’s origins and welfare’s decline.
The Roots of Welfare Reform
The historic passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996 irrevocably altered cash support in the United States, ending welfare as we knew it. It also changed the way historians wrote about welfare. Where many had focused on similarities between the liberal origins of welfare and historians’ own neoliberal presents, the PRWORA revealed stark differences. Beyond underpaying, surveilling, and stigmatizing recipients, the PRWORA eradicated AFDC, a hallmark of twentieth-century liberal governance, and shepherded in an era of social policy that exacerbated inequalities during an economic upturn. In a 1996 review essay, historian Felicia Kornbluh summed up the moment: “Unfortunately, the only thing worse than the inadequate, oppressive, and obfuscatory welfare systems that have emerged in the modern United States and Europe seems to be their absence.”Footnote 88 During this pivotal period in the history of welfare, activism and decline drew the bulk of scholarly attention.
The bipartisan passage of the PRWORA prompted two new lines of feminist historical inquiry—and new revelations about late twentieth-century political realignment. The first was a vigorous defense of a universal, more just welfare system through the examination of the welfare rights movement. Historians Premilla Nadasen, Eileen Boris, Felicia Kornbluh, Annelise Orleck, and Rhonda Y. Williams, among others, recounted the rich histories of the National Welfare Rights Organization and other groups.Footnote 89 The then-understudied movement attracted over 30,000 participants across the US in the 1960s and 1970s. Welfare rights historians exposed the horrors AFDC recipients were forced to endure: paltry benefits, lack of transparency, labor exploitation, and caseworkers’ “midnight raids,” or surprise checks to enforce the “man-in-the-house” rules that had cropped up in response to the shifting demographics of welfare recipients.
Most crucially, this scholarship reprised the alternate visions of cash assistance welfare rights activists put forward in the 1960s and 1970s.Footnote 90 The multiracial movement of welfare recipients and allies, led by Black women, fought for dignity, substantive cash support, and the choice of whether they worked outside the home or focused solely on their care work as parents. In the face of work requirements that forced some TANF recipients to perform the same work they had done previously as paid public employees, but now in exchange for benefits, historian Eileen Boris recovered activists’ condemnation of work requirements as “slavery” and their “defense of motherwork.” Activists had criticized mandatory paid work since the 1967 establishment of the Work Incentive Program (WIN), rejecting the liberal feminist goal of paid work outside the home and condemning reforms that “reinscribe[d] black women as workers, not mothers, relegated to household labor as maids, nannies, and daycare providers for other women’s children.”Footnote 91 Boris chronicled how for recipient activists, “the goal was not employment, but an adequate income to support their duties as mothers” (as well as health care and childcare).Footnote 92 The movement pursued fair hearings and broader legal rights.
When the PRWORA flattened any remaining hope of welfare as a right, feminist scholars inserted activists’ positive vision of welfare as remuneration for social reproduction into feminist discourse and welfare historiography. Though they failed in court, welfare rights groups waged a fierce campaign for a guaranteed adequate income, which, historian Premilla Nadasen’s Welfare Warriors (2004) showed, Black female activists envisioned as a decent wage for the work of mothering and maintaining the home. They demanded a GAI that “forced the state to recognize housework and childcare as legitimate work, freed women from dependency on men, debunked the racial characterizations of black women as lazy by acknowledging their work as mothers, and gave women a viable option to degrading labor market conditions.”Footnote 93 Studying the history of cash assistance and the mostly Black women who mobilized to expand it and remove its scrutinizing, punitive characteristics, these scholars exposed a welfare system that equated deservingness of income, comfort, and dignity with labor. In the history of the welfare rights movement, they also found explicit rejection of these entrenched liberal norms and resistance in the face of a mounting neoliberal attack on welfare.Footnote 94 The contrast between activists’ demands and policy outcomes was stark.
After the PRWORA, another smaller group of feminist scholars traced the origins of the neoliberal consensus to the earlier, racially motivated concessions of liberal policy makers and activists. As others told the history of neoliberalism as the late twentieth-century rise of fragmentation and embrace of market logics, Jennifer Mittelstadt, Marisa Chappell, and others considered liberal policy making. The decisions liberal lawmakers and advocates made about work and family created openings for conservative policies and paved the way for neoliberalism and welfare reform.Footnote 95
In the PRWORA’s wake, Jennifer Mittelstadt’s From Welfare to Workfare (2005) examined the so-called liberal consensus of the mid twentieth century and found the roots of workfare.Footnote 96 A liberal coalition of social work professionals, researchers, government officials, foundations, and labor and civic groups “rediscovered poverty” in the postwar period as more nonwhite, divorced, and never-married women joined ADC rolls. These reformers began to associate poverty with single motherhood.Footnote 97 The Keynesian coalition abandoned comprehensive visions of welfare embraced by some New Deal liberals and increasingly “assumed that American society and its economy were healthy and functional and that the welfare poor simply needed to be helped or compelled to participate in both more effectively.”Footnote 98 When analyzing the poverty of female-headed households, they blamed individual “handicaps” associated with “broken” families, not structural problems and lack of income.Footnote 99 The reformers took up a politics of rehabilitation, teaching single mothers to better care for their children and, increasingly, encouraging them to work for wages, especially following a series of so-called crises that drew national attention to AFDC in the 1960s.Footnote 100 They supported the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments, which provided job training, work incentives, and daycare for welfare recipients—even as the labor market and suppressed wages made it difficult for single women to financially support their households.Footnote 101 To rinse ADC of its racialized and gendered stigma, they launched a public relations campaign claiming welfare fostered white family stability, going so far as to insert the word “families” into ADC in 1962, creating Aid to Families with Dependent Children.Footnote 102 It was not only economists and industrialists who created the market-centric society out of which the PRWORA emerged. Mid-century social workers and researchers seeking to address poverty without undertaking largescale change helped solidify the racialized logic of “personal responsibility” that led to TANF work requirements.
Raced and gendered assumptions about the family were central to the PRWORA, which explicitly promoted marriage as a solution to poverty. In this context, Marisa Chappell’s The War on Welfare (2009) documented how liberal groups like the League of Women Voters, the Urban League, industrial unions, welfare rights groups, and liberal politicians clung to “cultural conservatism with respect to gender and family structure” in the poverty proposals they put forward in the 1970s.Footnote 103 Like Mittelstadt, Chappell located decisive moments in welfare’s decline in liberal politics (and brought the historiography of welfare full circle by historicizing the era in which Piven and Cloward wrote). As economic crisis ended postwar affluence, the breadwinner or family wage model became even less viable than it had been in prior decades. But the liberal coalition remained attached to the family wage, undercutting a more “generous social-democratic economic vision” and perpetuating the racist stigmatization of welfare.Footnote 104 To secure white working-class support, liberals avoided aligning themselves with AFDC, a program many associated with women of color (even though white women always made up the majority). Later in the 1970s, liberals went so far as to embrace the racist concept of the “underclass,” which ascribed poverty to cultural deficiency.Footnote 105 Once vying for guaranteed income, the coalition increasingly pursued full employment—an objective tailored to resonate with the newly unemployed white working-class persons hurt by deindustrialization.Footnote 106 Where other historians had attributed political realignment to the white working-class rejection of identity politics, Chappell described liberal reformers willing to accommodate the prejudiced status quo.
These scholars theorized how liberals’ abandonment of more generous visions of welfare combined with their declining power to pave the way for welfare’s eradication—and, tacitly, neoliberalism. Mittelstadt suggested that as liberal reformers lost influence in the second half of the 1960s, conservatives adopted their ideas toward new ends. The WIN program and its amendments required AFDC recipients to work and thus heralded a new era of welfare policy: the shift from the liberal objectives of rehabilitating recipients “according to their needs” and toward more conservative goals “to make clients act ‘responsibly.’”Footnote 107 Mittelstadt described this shift toward workfare as both “a continuation of and a break from the past.”Footnote 108 Similarly, Chappell suggested that liberals’ inability to imagine redistribution outside of the family wage led to conservative appropriation of pro-family rhetoric in the service of ending welfare.Footnote 109 By the time Reagan ran for president, most saw employment, not income support, as the only viable solution to poverty. Once elected, Reagan launched a vicious attack on AFDC through OBRA and later the Family Support Act. But liberal concessions had created the foundation for this “major federal assault on welfare.”Footnote 110 By favoring work-centric, racist, and patriarchal politics as their influence diminished, liberals helped secure the neoliberal agenda that followed. Until recently, most scholarship tracking the history of neoliberalism has overlooked these liberal roots.
Even within the field of social policy history, the insights these historians offered were relatively unique in the 2000s. To shed light on welfare’s bad reputation—so bad, in fact, that AFDC had been eliminated with broad support—many set out to expose other aspects of the welfare state and especially, the types of nonstigmatized support that went disproportionately to white Americans, like federally backed mortgages, tax credits, and employment-based insurance.Footnote 111 Policy makers and the public directed their wrath at public assistance, but the government spent far more resources on nonpoor Americans. Political scientist Christopher Howard’s groundbreaking The Hidden Welfare State (1997) cited the EITC as a primary example. Tucked into the tax code, the EITC garnered the support of policy makers across the political spectrum. The facts that the EITC went only to the working poor and did not require “large social service bureaucracies” helped explain the program’s success and growth.Footnote 112 Many identified the embrace of the EITC as emblematic of a new political order. Katz reported glibly that “by the century’s end, the only politically viable antipoverty strategies either attached benefits to employment, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, or worked indirectly through markets,” what he called “fighting poverty 1990s style.”Footnote 113 Some looked to the hidden or submerged or private welfare state to question the assumption that the welfare state had even retrenched in recent decades.Footnote 114
Feminist historians of welfare did not mistake the growth of the EITC and other parts of the “hidden welfare state” for a more robust safety net. Though the EITC “did bolster the income of poor wage-earning breadwinners,” according to Chappell, it “did nothing for families without an employed adult.”Footnote 115 Like welfare reform, sociologist Ann Shola Orloff argued, the EITC reinforced “the centrality of employment for women as well as men.”Footnote 116 But these perspectives were exceptional and mostly relegated to the narrow subfield of feminist welfare history. In the years after the PRWORA eliminated the welfare entitlement, replacing AFDC with the time-limited and otherwise restricted TANF, much welfare state scholarship set cash assistance aside. So, too did many beginning to take interest in the history of neoliberalism, who looked to histories of monetary policy, business, and industrial unions instead of social policy. As the poverty program receded further into the apses of the past, historical memory of welfare’s very existence faded.
Claiming Welfare as a Lost Right
Several recent histories countered such forgetting by reclaiming the history of welfare as a right; in the process, they historicized neoliberal governance more explicitly. As I have argued, scholars living and writing amidst the ascendance of neoliberalism found powerful continuities between mid and late twentieth-century social policy and, more recently, traced how liberals created openings for conservatives to attack welfare and let neoliberalism take hold. Writing as the effects of neoliberal policy became the targets of movement critique, this new cohort found more of what was new about neoliberal social policy. Much of this work shifted the scope of analysis from federal reform and policy making to state and sometimes local policy administration, reflecting increased interest in federalism.Footnote 117 Some scholarship revisited the mid-twentieth-century history of welfare when many recipients viewed welfare as a right, if perpetually inadequate. Others historicized the late twentieth-century backlash against the right to welfare, helping explain why in the twenty-first century, it felt so far away.Footnote 118
Some in this generation rethought liberal policy making and especially, earlier scholarship’s emphasis on coercion and continuity. Lisa Levenstein’s A Movement without Marches (2009) traced the history of poor Black women in postwar Philadelphia who individually made claims that implied the right to welfare (as well as health care and the courts), long before the welfare rights movement explicitly demanded such rights.Footnote 119 In States of Dependency (2016), legal historian Karen M. Tani went further to suggest that the Social Security Act of 1935 itself embedded welfare as a right. Tani argued that the New Deal’s public assistance grants created a system “more inclusive (albeit still discriminatory), more centralized and bureaucratic, and more capable of seeing and vindicating individual rights” than the local system that preceded it.Footnote 120 By installing a federal administrative capacity that infiltrated localities around the country, the government empowered states and transformed poor relief from a discretion into a right.Footnote 121 Whereas other scholars articulated the gendered and raced distinction between needs for the undeserving and rights for the deserving, Tani showed that, by the 1940s, reference to rights was everywhere in the communication of federal agents. Welfare had not been continuously or only scorned; at some point in history, many claimed it.Footnote 122
In fact, according to Tani, the existence of this right prompted the vigorous push to squash it. Cold War era local and state governments waged a backlash against federal public assistance, charging that it violated local control. Wariness of “active, centralized governance” and especially the racialized AFDC eventually eclipsed more expansive visions of rights that emphasized dignity and collectivity.Footnote 123 Increasingly, when states passed laws like “suitable home” legislation that cut benefits of women deemed immoral, the federal government lacked the capacity to enforce its own rules at the local level.Footnote 124
In writing about how state-level revolts paved the way for the further erosion of benefits, Tani charted the roots of welfare’s demise. But Tani also recovered a lost interpretation of a welfare state that provided an administrative capacity and legal paradigm for individuals to claim social rights. Welfare rights protests did not emerge until the 1960s, but claimants in the preceding decades viewed benefits as guaranteed by citizenship; when they thought those rights were being violated, they used state courts to demand fair hearings.Footnote 125 Though constrained by the prejudice of liberal policy makers, welfare was far more empowering than scholars previously claimed. Neoliberalism, Tani did not say directly but implied, emerged to condition the poor anew.
Historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s Getting Tough (2017) similarly suggested that there had been “tentative steps toward a broader economic citizenship” during the mid-twentieth century and traced efforts to undo those gains in the 1970s.Footnote 126 As the Black Lives Matter movement protested mass incarceration and the state’s refusal to value Black life, Kohler-Hausmann highlighted the dehumanizing effects of late twentieth-century welfare policy. She argued that policy makers responded to the bold claims of the welfare rights movement—namely, the demand for a guaranteed income—by “getting tough, or a policy regime of civic degradation.”Footnote 127 Liberal welfare policy had long exposed recipients to rehabilitation, but even such degrading policies treated welfare recipients “as rational economic actors who would respond to economic incentives.”Footnote 128 In contrast these new “tough” policies, first implemented under California Governor Ronald Reagan, abandoned work incentives and embraced “coercive work mandates.”Footnote 129 The state began to paint welfare recipients as criminals who “had forfeited their rights and claims on the state” and subsequently deprived them of the more expansive citizenship they had demanded.Footnote 130 Reagan reduced eligibility, punished fraud, and enforced child support collections. Illinois officials used the trope of the “welfare queen” to “cast the entire welfare program as robbery”; welfare recipients were not only undeserving but criminals who drained public coffers of hardworking Americans’ money.Footnote 131 Nonrecipients imbibed antiwelfare rhetoric and blamed recipients, “widely imagined to be black and Latina women,” as personally responsible for the hardships they faced.Footnote 132 Policy makers cast recipients as cheaters while ignoring structural conditions—inflation, stagnating wages—that, in effect, forced recipients to cheat.Footnote 133 This state-level punitive turn was not about reducing government through consensus, as some have theorized neoliberalism; instead, it used penal tools to quash nonwhite women’s expectations for federal cash support and social citizenship.Footnote 134
Neoliberalism, this work insinuated, emerged to silence poor women’s increasingly robust claims to rights and citizenship.Footnote 135 But it never did. Where many writing about late twentieth-century politics posit consensus, welfare historians charted continuous resistance. (In some cases, their attention to activism may have come from their own participation; there is a long tradition of scholar activism in the field.) Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink’s Ensuring Poverty (2018) traced the contested history of welfare reform, showing how the one-time entitlement came to be eliminated.Footnote 136 They opened the book not with Katz’s indictment of welfare but with a condemnation of the PRWORA: “the 1996 welfare reform law shortens women’s lives.”Footnote 137 Expertly versed in welfare’s coercive history, Kornbluh and Mink foregrounded its life-prolonging potential as well as antipoverty activists’ visions for how to improve the program.
Ensuring Poverty argued that the bipartisan PRWORA was at once “merely the latest in a long series of reforms” and a “major departure”—the culmination of welfare’s familiar history but also emblematic of a new era.Footnote 138 Kornbluh and Mink used a feminist lens to enumerate the gendered, raced, nativist, and ablest provisions of the PRWORA: The law supposed that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”Footnote 139 It penalized childbirth for parents receiving TANF. It restricted benefits for immigrants. And its “most famous promise,” it made work compulsory without providing childcare.Footnote 140 Drawing on the robust body of feminist scholarship, Kornbluh and Mink situated the PRWORA within the longer history of prejudiced welfare policy. But they did not downplay the PRWORA, which eliminated the federal entitlement to aid, empowering states to cut and restrict assistance and undermining their ability to finance it.
Ensuring Poverty recovered the bipartisan policy decisions that led to the PRWORA. As Arkansas governor and on the campaign trail, New Democrat Bill Clinton “rehearsed many of the arguments that would ultimately shape the bill he signed while in the White House.”Footnote 141 Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council deployed raced and gendered rhetoric to garner the support of white middle-class voters. As president, Clinton proposed reforms focused on restoring the family and reducing rolls. Reforms proposed after the 1994 Republican landslide into Congress “changed the tenor, but not the overall shape, of the welfare reform debate,” Kornbluh and Mink proffered.Footnote 142
Kornbluh and Mink also chronicled social justice feminist opposition to welfare reform during the 1990s and 2000s—efforts in which the authors were deeply involved. Democratic lawmakers including Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink (Gwendolyn Mink’s mother) proposed progressive reforms, such as the Job Start for America and later the Family Stability and Work Act, which proposed to compensate parents’ work as caregivers and to create jobs for those who wanted them. Welfare rights groups organized. After Republicans proposed their own bill in 1995, seven hundred feminist scholars, activists, and artists formed the Women’s Committee of 100 to lobby Congress, many using their scholarship.Footnote 143 Resistance continued in the early 2000s, with low-income activists testifying in Washington about the hardships TANF caused. The Women’s Committee of 100 recommended a federal, nondiscretionary “caregivers’ allowance.” Activists offered an alternative vision of welfare: a right to the economic support required to parent one’s children. But they lost. Kornbluh and Mink argued that in the years since, public debates about poverty “suffered because they were starved of progressive feminist ideas.”Footnote 144 Neoliberal social policy stamped out welfare—with ripple effects on historical scholarship on neoliberalism.
Welfare for Our Moment
In recent years, we usually hear the word “welfare” in reference not to TANF but other safety-net programs. As journalist Bryce Covert argued in 2018, Trump and the conservative Congress intentionally broadened what was popularly understood to be “welfare” to gut other programs. They described plans to implement Medicaid and SNAP work requirements and penalties against immigrants who relied on benefits as “reform of the welfare system,” part of a renewed commitment to “personal responsibility.”Footnote 145 The reticence of moderate and even progressive politicians to embrace and defend (or even talk about) welfare suggests that they too deem it an outdated and unrealistic political possibility, part of history.Footnote 146
The coronavirus pandemic and its crushing economic effects energized public discourse around cash assistance in a way not seen in decades. In 2020, the CARES Act disbursed cash payments to individuals (except “any nonresident alien individual”) whose annual income fell below a certain threshold.Footnote 147 More recently (and more monumentally) the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan (ARPA) meted out additional stimulus payments, expanded the EITC, and instituted an unprecedented expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) to families earning up to $150,000. The bill also significantly boosted SNAP and WIC and provided cash vouchers to people needing to escape domestic violence.Footnote 148 Research showed that the ARPA reduced poverty considerably.Footnote 149
The expanded CTC was particularly notable and as some journalists have pointed out, temporarily reversed the course welfare policy has taken in recent history.Footnote 150 By not requiring parents to earn wages, it better resembled AFDC or even a guaranteed income than a tax credit. And, though it was technically means tested, the program’s high income cap helped it avoid the stigma of programs that only serve the very poor. Neoliberal social policy increasingly restricted cash support and for several decades it also wiped welfare from the minds of many. For a moment, the coronavirus and shifting political winds brought it back—to great effect. Six months after it was implemented, the expanded CTC was keeping 3.7 million children out of poverty. Many called to extend the expansion or to make it permanent.Footnote 151 But Congress let the benefit expire in January 2022 and the gains immediately reversed.Footnote 152
Welfare histories help us remember welfare and understand the political climate that eradicated it. Rarely at the center of US political historiography, this mostly leftist, feminist scholarly corpus shows how this relatively minor part of the welfare state was at the core of high-stakes debates over what constituted work and who deserved government support. During the 1970s, Piven and Cloward commented on how a means-tested, federalist welfare system functioned to control the poor. This was part of an argument for universal benefits and dignity. In the fifty years since, scholars have built on Regulating the Poor’s insights, recognizing the pitfalls of this controlling welfare system that in ways supported caretakers and on which many of the most vulnerable people desperately relied. When more nonwhite, unmarried women insisted that the state help bear their burden of care, policy makers changed course. Regulating labor and policing deservingness had always been part of welfare policy, but now policy makers deployed penal tools and more severe interpretations of personal responsibility—and eventually removed federal safety nets altogether. Welfare recipients and their advocates continuously fought for government support, but they often lost.
Welfare scholars, often informed by their participation in antipoverty struggles led by women of color, help us understand the gendered and raced dimensions of the political realignments that brought us to this moment, when welfare is hardly discussed. Welfare scholarship helps us see neoliberalism’s liberal roots and its motivation to squash antiracist, feminist demands for universal support detached from productive labor as well as dignity and more meaningful citizenship. In muffling discussion of welfare, neoliberalism was successful. But welfare scholars, in their work and by their example, also show us that neoliberalism remained contested, even as it permeated much of our political imagination. Their insights about the importance of state support as a social right can be heard in calls for the expanded CTC, universal programs like Medicare for All, even demands to defund the police and invest in social institutions. By taking greater interest in the insights of welfare historiography at this pivotal time, historians can and should refuse to accept ours as a “postwelfare” moment.