A History of Gender Discrimination in Social Welfare Policies: From ADC to TANF
From ADC to TANF 2
A nation‟s laws reflect a nation‟s values (Hays, 2003, p.3). The way our society views
poor people is reflected in our social welfare policy. The deserving and undeserving categories
of those in need are highly gendered, and reflect a virgin/whore dichotomy that is present in
many other areas of this society. Since ADC was implemented in 1935, our values concerning
poor women have changed, but not for the better. When conducting a critical evaluation of the
PRWORA policy and TANF program, it is clear to see how sexism, classism, and racism affect
the laws that are passed. There are many gaps in the TANF program, and there is a lot that must
be done to change the system and end poverty, not just end welfare.
Social welfare policies in the United States did not begin developing at the federal level
until President Roosevelt‟s New Deal legislation. The Social Security Act of 1935 established
our federal social welfare system. Although the “deserving” and “undeserving” distinctions
between the poor were present prior to this time, it had not been written into legislation on such a
large scale. This federal policy reflected greater society‟s “deserving” and “undeserving” ways
of thinking about the poor.
In terms of poor women, there has long been a divide between poor women who are
deserving and those who are undeserving. The deserving poor women have been typically been
women who are widowed. Because women have historically relied on men to be the source of
the family‟s income, the destitution of widows has been seen as no fault of their own. These
women did the “right” thing and were married: therefore, they are deserving of public funds to
From ADC to TANF 3
take care of their families. It is assumed that deserving women will use these funds in the way
they were intended.
Women who are unmarried mothers have been seen as undeserving. Their perceived
promiscuity outside of the institution of marriage marks them as irresponsible in the eyes of
society. There are also myriad categories of undeserving poor women: it is a much broader
category than the pristine image of the deserving widow. Undeserving poor women can be those
whose husbands or boyfriends are incarcerated: the question would be, why didn‟t you find a
better man who was fit to support you? Because of institutionalized racism, women of color are
often seen as undeserving, even if they fit into the “deserving” category in other ways. It is
assumed that these undeserving poor women will take public funds and use them in irresponsible
These groups of women who “deserve” assistance and of those who don‟t are closely tied
to patriarchal and sexist attitudes in society. The divide between the deserving and the
undeserving reflects a virgin/whore dichotomy, in which the “virgins” are widows, usually of
Anglo-American or Caucasian descent, and the “whores” are unmarried women and women of
color. This discrimination is gender-based: single fathers are almost always seen as heroes,
whereas single mothers are bad women who failed at finding a good mate, failed at preventing
pregnancy, and failed at being a productive member of society. Because social policy reflects
society‟s attitudes and values, this sexism is translated to past and current social policies that are
in place to help these women and their families. It is important to understand the progression of
these social welfare policies as they moved from ADC to AFDC to TANF. This is why I have
not focused on one single policy, but have moved through the progression of the three.
From ADC to TANF 4
ADC to AFDC
The Social Security Act of 1935 established the Aid for Dependent Children (ADC)
program. ADC (henceforth referred to as “welfare”) was the first time that funding was given to
women besides widows.Women who were abandoned, divorced, or never married could now
receive funding to help their families (Cauthen & Amenta, 1996, p. 427). Welfare was originally
modeled after earlier mother‟s pensions programs: it was intended to keep women home with
their children, because it was assumed that staying home with the children was where a woman
should be, instead of working outside the home (Hays, 2003, p. 14). This reflected the sexist
attitudes of society during this time period: good women stayed at home and took care of the
household. Of course, poor women could never afford to stay at home with their children, so
they were bad women by default. ADC was designed to continue this domestic ideal of women
as housewives. Women who were on welfare during the years of ADC and its later iteration, Aid
to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC), were using it for its intended purpose, which was
to keep women at home with children.
Although ADC was groundbreaking in that it provided money for women who had not
previously been able to access these funds, it was clear that there was a demarcation between the
ADC program for the undeserving and the Old Age Assistance program for more deserving
members of society.
In August 1935, the Social Security Act established ADC as a federal-state
grant-in-aid program. To receive federal funding, states had to make benefits
available statewide and to designate a single agency to administer the program or
supervise local administration. The legislation defined "dependency" more
From ADC to TANF 5
broadly than did mothers' pensions— it included children "deprived of parental
support or care by reason of the death, continued absence from the home, or
physical or mental incapacity of a parent" (U.S. Social Security Administration
1991:80). The Act specified that states would be reimbursed for one-third of
their expenditures up to $18 per month for the first child and $12 for each
additional child (Witte 1962:162- 65). This compared unfavorably to the one-
half reimbursement level for Old-Age Assistance (OAA), Title I of the Social
Security Act. Moreover, ADC provided no grant for caretakers (Cauthen &
Amenta, 1996, p. 431).
A number of small revisions were made to the original ADC program in the next
fifteen years. Finally, in 1950, caretakers became eligible for benefits. By this point,
there were 1.6 million recipients of the program. ADC did have a much broader racial
mix than did mother‟s pensions. It was clear that the ADC program did a better job of
serving those in need, because it was a federally run program instead of a municipality-
run program. However, there were wide fluctuations in the amount of money given by
the states. (Cathuen & Amenta, 1996, p. 433-440). While more people were being
served, they were not being served equally or adequately.
There were other vast problems in the ADC policy before it was revised to AFDC.
According to Batlan & Gordon (2004), there was a provision in the ADC law that only allowed
moneys to go towards “suitable” families. This provision allowed caseworkers to rule out
families with illegitimate children or children of color, two of the marginalized undeserving
groups mentioned before (¶ 4). Other sexist policies included a state policy that allowed
termination of benefits if a caregiver “cohabitated with a man,” also known as the man-in-the-
From ADC to TANF 6
house law. Cohabitation was loosely defined, and could include any male visitor that frequently
visited, including a family member. This provision resulted in tens of thousands of children
being dropped from the program.
ADC became AFDC in 1962, during Lyndon Johnson‟s Great Society. With the
renaming of the program came new changes, some spurred by court cases that ruled things like
the “man-in-the-house” rule unconstitutional. The focus changed from wanting women to stay
home and take care of their families to wanting women to work and be the sole caretakers of
their families. This was the start of “workfare” programs, and a number of other federal and state
amendments to encourage, or force, women on welfare to enter the job force. Unfortunately,
workfare jobs were mostly unpaid. Other jobs available to these women were so low-paying that
they couldn‟t afford to take care of their families any better when working than they could on
welfare. With AFDC also came the advent of family caps, which did not provide any additional
funds when a new child was born. These have proven to be ineffective, but are still in place
today (Donovan, 1995).
There were other supplemental programs implemented, such as food stamps, but if a
family was on food stamps their already meager welfare check was cut. Women who worked
outside of the home now had to find childcare, which took a huge chunk of their salaries. The
negative stereotype of the lazy, entitled “welfare queen” began to gain traction as the shift moved
from staying home to working.
It is impossible to understand the change in the public perception of welfare without
understanding the political and social movements of the time. This was in the middle of the
feminist revolution of the 1960‟s and 1970‟s. Middle-class white women were bucking the
From ADC to TANF 7
stereotype of the 1950‟s housewife, and declaring their right to work outside of the home. With
the shedding of the sexist belief that women are only good as housewives came a new, equally
problematic sexist belief that was reflected in the changes to AFDC.
The policy makers of the time were almost all white men, few of whom understand the
nuances of the burgeoning feminist movement. Feminists did not want poverty-stricken women
with young children forced to work long hours for virtually no pay: this was not what they were
fighting for in marches and rallies for equal opportunity and wages. However, I hypothesize that
those who crafted these policies perverted this message of equality to punish the undeserving
poor women on welfare for their perceived transgressions against society.
Where We Are Now: TANF
Public resentment against so-called welfare queens and the undeserving poor steadily
grew into the 1980‟s, heartily encouraged by President Reagan. The image of a welfare queen
took the all-too-familiar stereotype of a promiscuous, lascivious woman of color, who kept
having children to increase her welfare check, which she indubitably spent on crack and, in the
words of President Reagan, Cadillacs and t-bone steaks (Krugman, 2007, ¶ 10). This resentment
continued into the 1990‟s. President Bill Clinton used welfare reform as a platform on his
presidential campaigns. Welfare reform was enacted in 1996, through the Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA). A central part of PRWORA was
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.
TANF was the most restrictive welfare policy passed in the history of the United States.
It “firmly established the absolute demand that mothers participate in the paid labor force,
offering no exceptions to the more „virtuous‟ or more vulnerable women among them” (Hays,
From ADC to TANF 8
2003, p. 15). The program also ended all entitlements to welfare benefits, signifying that women
and children were all undeserving of protection from the state. The nation had shifted into an
individualistic, conservative frame of mind: your well-being and your children‟s well-being is
your problem, not ours.
The federal policy of PRWORA has four goals. These goals are: to provide assistance to
needy families so that children can be cared for in their home or the home of relatives; end the
dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job training, work, and
marriage; to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and to encourage
the formulation and maintenance of two-parent families (Hays, 2003, p. 17). States get bonus
money if they prove that they have reached these goals. PRWORA is federal legislation, but it
gives a great deal of autonomy in administration of the programs to individual states. There
were federal guidelines, but states were allowed to make access to the programs more difficult
to obtain if they so chose. There were block grants given to states, which got to decide how to
distribute the funds.
The eligibility for TANF has not changed since it switched over from AFDC. The
program is only open to women or men who have children under the age of eighteen. The
income cutoff depends on the individual states. The states use a percentage of the federal
poverty line in determining eligibility. The federal poverty line is currently $22,050 for a family
of four (Roth, 2010a). If a state allows eligibility at 30% of the poverty line, a family of four
must make no more than $6615 a year. If that family makes $6616 a year, it is ineligible for
From ADC to TANF 9
TANF has two major requirements. The first requirement is time limits. A person cannot
be on TANF for more than five years in her adult lifetime. Additionally, she cannot be on the
program for more than two consecutive years. People on TANF must work, or they lose their
benefits. The work must equal thirty hours a week, though 20% may be exempted. There are
also strict limitations on teenagers and legal immigrants: teenagers must live with a parent or
relative in order to receive benefits. Legal immigrants must be legally in the country for at least
five years before receiving benefits (Roth, 2010b).
TANF is paid for mostly through federal money. States get block grants, and have full
discretion in how much to add to them. According to 2003 statistics, the state of Mississippi has
the lowest TANF benefits, and gave $170 a month to a family of three. The state of Alaska has
the highest, giving $923 a month to a family of three. This is because of Alaska‟s high federal
subsidies for oil pipelines, which allows it to be more generous with welfare distribution. The
average welfare payout at this time, for a family of three, was $444 a month. TANF is not an
entitlement program, so its funds are not adjusted for inflation. In fact, the budget has not
changed in the fourteen years since it was established. Due to this, TANF recipients are
currently receiving less money than they did ten years ago (Maximum AFDC/TANF Benefit,
When critically evaluating TANF and PRWORA, I will start with a critique of its main
goals. These four goals are entrenched both sexism and heterosexism. First of all, it puts the
institution of marriage at a premium, on par with jobs at pulling families out of poverty. This
plays into the old sexist assumption that women have to be married, and need men to save them
from their weak little selves. It also assumes that men‟s work is valued higher than women‟s
work, a view that is unfortunately shared by society (Groskind, 1991, p.452). Marriage is a
From ADC to TANF 10
privileged institution, not available to all members of society. Members of the LGBT
community who are on TANF cannot benefit from this ultimate goal of marriage, because they
are not even allowed to marry. Additionally, marriages can be wrought with serious problems,
including intimate partner violence. Should we encourage women to stay in abusive
relationships just because they happen to be married to their abusers?
The goal of reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies seems noble on paper. However, our
nation is hesitant to provide any form of comprehensive sex education, contraception or
condoms. If a poor woman becomes pregnant, legislators have made sure that she is unable to
obtain an abortion. The sentiment seems to be that “we‟ll call you irresponsible for having
children, but you won‟t learn about safe sex, won‟t be able to obtain contraception, and
certainly cannot have an abortion if you don‟t want to have children.” Abstinence-only
education for welfare recipients treats them as insolent, stupid teenagers, when in reality they
are adults who have as much right to have sex as any other, non-welfare-recipient adult.
I cannot honestly say that TANF serves any population well. There are some good points,
such as childcare vouchers, but these are overshadowed by the deep pitfalls of the program.
Often, it is more difficult for a family to survive on TANF than it is to work a minimum-wage
job. I am not naïve enough to think that there is not a reason for this: it is clearly designed to be
a disincentive program. The individuals who are not well served are poor women and their
children who are on the program. Families of color are also disproportionally underserved.
Additionally, families who are technically above the threshold for TANF or even the federal
poverty line have no resources available for them, and cannot be served by this program. Other
groups that are poorly served are victims of intimate partner violence and legal immigrants.
From ADC to TANF 11
The only area of TANF that I would describe of as partly well-served is childcare. I say
this because the childcare vouchers provide some relief for mothers with young children.
However, if mothers have to work before or after their older children are in school, there is no
assistance for them. This would be an example of a gap in the program. Other examples of gaps
in the program would be circumstances where women need assistance for more than five years
in their lifetimes and transportation costs.
The most important proposed pending change to TANF would be its reauthorization,
which is due at the end of this year. Congress will examine the funding of the program, as well
as the rules states must adhere to when administering funds (Schott, 2009, ¶ 21). The current
recession and high unemployment will undoubtedly have an effect on this reauthorization.
Numerous feminist and social justice groups, such as Legal Momentum, the ACLU, and the
Institute for Women‟s Policy Research, are lobbying for comprehensive TANF reform, and an
end to poverty instead of welfare.
I definitely see a number of gaps in the policy area of general social welfare. Other
means-tested programs do not benefit poor people. Even entitlement programs do not provide
enough for poor people: some elderly people are on SSI, OAI, Medicaid, and Medicare and still
are devastatingly poor. The broad change that has to happen is the end of poverty. This may not
be able to be completely accomplished through policy alone, but policy makers should examine
why people are so poor, and enact policy to effectively help them. There are innumerable gaps
in the disincentive program of TANF, and these gaps allow millions to fall through the cracks.
I believe that a good way to begin ending poverty through policy would be to adapt a
system of social welfare that is more closely related to those of European countries. Scores of
From ADC to TANF 12
data show that the quality of life is much higher in these countries: although taxes are higher,
poor people do not have to worry about dying without having health insurance, or not feeding
their children. I agree with many of Washington, Sullivan, & Washington‟s ideas, including that
there must be comprehensive review of the unintended consequences of welfare reform (2006).
From a feminist perspective, we should stop having our focus be on marrying off poor
women. We need to provide accurate sex education as well as improve the accessibility of
contraception and elective abortions. We also need to end all the old sexist assumptions that
women are whores, that they are weak, and that their only hope is to have a man save them.
Unfortunately, I do not see these changes taking place at any time in the near future. There is a
deep, unfounded fear that if we actually treat TANF recipients as human beings, imaginary
welfare queens will drive their Cadillacs to the program in droves, while munching on T-Bone
steaks, trailing their twelve babies behind them. This fear clouds the original stated intent of the
program, which is to provide for children. For a nation that seems to be based on “family
values,” we are doing a tragically horrendous job of helping our most vulnerable citizens: poor
From ADC to TANF 13
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From ADC to TANF 14
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