A Brief History of Welfare Radical Bleeding Heart image

Aid to Families with Dependent Children:
The Welfare Controversy

During the 1930s the architects of the New Deal proposed many different plans to help ordinary people. Conservatives, of course, detested them all. One of them was based on the simple idea that everyone has a right to a job. A job doing constructive work for a living wage. They proposed that the government become the employer of last resort, guaranteeing that anyone who wanted one could have a job at what would effectively be the minimum wage. Conservatives were united in their utter loathing of this idea. But another, companion, idea was that dependent children in a household deprived of a breadwinner should not be allowed to starve. It was harder for conservatives to be against that idea, particularly since it was coupled with the notion that women should stay at home, have babies, and take care of children, which is a concept dear to the conservative heart.

Thus was born the program called Aid to Dependent Children, later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It was strictly limited to single mothers with dependent children. Conservatives insisted that if there were a father in the family, it was his responsibility, not the government's, to provide for the children. Never mind that there were no jobs. Never mind that those same conservatives absolutely insisted that they not be provided with jobs. As they imagined it, ADC was a way to keep widows and divorcees with dependent children at home tending to the nursery where they belonged. It did not occur to them that it would become a disincentive to marriage, a reason for single mothers not to marry and to kick men out of the house.

That naturally is what happened. And just as naturally, the conservatives blamed the liberals. And everyone conveniently forgot that it was the conservatives who insisted on depriving those men of jobs. Now there are still a few diehards who try to revive the idea of the Employer of Last Resort, but that notion is far too sensible for anyone in a position of influence to even consider it. It is sad to think what wonderful changes might have occurred in both black and white families that are still blighted with poverty if only men had been granted productive employment together with the pride and self-confidence that go with it.

Forty years after the Moynihan Report raised the possibility that the provisions of ADFC might contribute to the destruction of families, and with AFDC itself now dead and gone, a casualty of the theoretically liberal but in fact intensely conservative Clinton administration, the hopeless poverty of inner-city black folk was hardly any different. “Welfare” is now universally thought to be an example of failed “liberal” ideas, and welfare reform a triumph of the truth of conservative ideology. (Conservatives have apparently changed their minds about keeping women out of the work force, at least as long as they are black women forced to do the most menial of low-paid work while trying to feed and clothe their children.)

In fact, the original abortive creation of welfare together with its subsequent “reform” is a wonderful example of the amazing ability of conservatives to cripple progressive programs and then blame the progressives for the destruction that they themselves have wrought.