Mary Ann Moore was a ‘welfare-to-work heroine’ who had, it seemed, defied all the odds. She had grown up without a father, surrounded by violence, in one of the worst public-housing projects in the United States. A high-school dropout, she had borne four children by three different fathers, become an addict, suffered from depression; her employment record was poor. Yet when New York Times reporter Jason DeParle visited Moore in 1994 she had been working for over a year, ‘up at 3:30 a.m. . . . snapping on lights and bundling up children. She was out the door at 5 and on the job, as a cook, by 6.’ Three years later, however, when DeParle revisited Moore, there had been a total reversal. She was back on drugs, out of work, the apartment was a wreck, and she could barely get her twins off to school. What had happened?

There had been resistance from the father of the twins, who blamed his own relapse on her lack of attention. Addicted relatives moved in and Moore began using drugs again. She worked, on and off. ‘We’d get our paycheques, buy food, go off on a binge and go back to work two days later,’ she said. Moore did receive help: there were sustained efforts from the Salvation Army; she was in and out of drug treatment. She was enrolled in Project Match, a well-known programme to help inner-city women. In the intervening three years, Moore had had eight jobs: ‘She drove a delivery truck; peddled nuts; fried eggs; and guarded a parking lot. She quit because her car died and her baby sitter fell through; because her boyfriends were jealous and she wanted to get high. Because “I was young-minded”. Because “I just got tired”. Because “I just got depressed”.’footnote1

Project Match is considered a good programme. About a third of its clients get stable employment within two years; for another 13 per cent, the process takes longer. More than half do make the transition to work, although almost a quarter (23 per cent) find no formal work, and 28 per cent only work intermittently. Moore fell into the latter category. In many respects, she fits the stereotype that is driving welfare reform in the United States today. Before the current legislation, Moore could continue receiving welfare as long as she was taking care of a child under eighteen; this is no longer the case. AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) has been abolished, and the new welfare programme (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—TANF) has stiff work requirements, enforced by time limits. In most states, recipients must—fairly quickly, if not immediately—get a job, or enroll in a work preparation programme, or be assigned temporarily to community service. If they fail to comply, they are sanctioned—in some states their grants are reduced, in others they are simply dropped from the welfare rolls. Whether or not recipients find employment, they must in any case be off welfare within two years. If they subsequently become unemployed and go back on welfare, there is a cumulative five-year limit on aid. In short, as the current political mantra puts it, ‘welfare will no longer be a way of life’.

The current US welfare reform is being hailed as a fundamental change. Aid is no longer an entitlement. Recipients have to work, and can get welfare only for relatively short periods of time. In some respects, this is a sharp departure: never before have there been legislatively determined time limits; but in a more fundamental sense, emphasis on the duty to work is as old as welfare history in America itself, whose cornerstone has always been the separation of the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor. The distinction is primarily—but not exclusively—defined by participation in the paid labour force. Failure of the ‘able-bodied’ to support themselves and their families is treated as a moral fault—which, in turn, runs deeper than failure to earn, since it implies other forms of ‘deviant’ status or conduct. Within this vision, it is easier to blame the victims of poverty than to address its causes. By and large, this is the outlook that welfare policy in the States has traditionally purported to serve. However, since it is often—especially where single mothers are concerned—administratively less costly and complicated to provide benefits (however meagre) than to impose sanctions, the result has typically been symbolic politics, the affirmation of values that make the established society feel better. At least, that has been the record till now.

When AFDC (popularly known as ‘Mothers’ Pensions’) was first enacted, between 1911–20, it was designed primarily for ‘worthy’, Protestant, white widows. Virtually all other categories were excluded; they belonged to the ‘unworthy poor’. But from the late 1950s and early 1960s, in streamed African-Americans and other minorities, the divorced, the separated, the deserted and, increasingly, the never-married. Over the three decades, the ADC/AFDC rolls exploded from two million to about thirteen million. Expenditures jumped from some $500 million to $23 billion.footnote2 Welfare was declared to be in ‘crisis’. Eligibility was tightened, benefits were cut, but costs and numbers continued to rise. Federal programmes appeared to be out of control. Political alarm focused on African-Americans, out-of-wedlock births, single parenthood and generation-long dependency.footnote3 There was a cry for a return to first principles. In 1967 the Johnson Administration introduced mandatory work requirements. At the time, liberals opposed them, arguing that if married mothers were not obliged to work, it was unjust and punitive to force single poor mothers to do so. Conservatives replied that such women remained, as always, undeserving—morally inferior to mothers who could either rely on their husbands or were economically self-sufficient; they should be made to find jobs. But the work requirements failed to reduce the welfare rolls. They proved too cumbersome and costly to administer, and the vast majority of recipients were excused from them.

Both sides remained unhappy. Conservatives continued to attack the ‘entitlement state’ on the grounds that the social contract involved responsibilities as well as rights, which welfare undermined. Then, in the late 1980s, the liberals changed. Instead of arguing that it was unfair to require AFDC mothers to work, they started to insist that such women should indeed get jobs, since social norms had changed. Now that the majority of non-welfare mothers had entered the paid labour-force, it was reasonable to ask welfare mothers to do likewise; moreover, any family was socially and materially better off when its adults were gainfully employed, rather than perpetually dependent. The upshot has been a new consensus. Since the 1980s, the American political system has been obsessed with welfare reform. Benefit costs could never explain this fixation: at its height, AFDC absorbed $23 billion in Federal and state expenditures—a trifling amount compared with the budget for Social Security (pensions) at more than $300 billion, or Medicare at $280 billion. Welfare has been a lightning rod because the term has operated as a code-word for tensions over race, gender and ethnicity, focused overwhelmingly on young African-American women, allegedly breeding a criminal ‘underclass’.

In the 1990s, reform was finally pushed through. Clinton, who had risen to the White House on a promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’, signed into law the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’—its title a typically unctuous euphemism—in 1996. PRWORA abolished AFDC outright. Federal entitlements have now been converted into block grants to states, graded on their AFDC caseloads in 1994. Individuals may now receive benefits for a maximum of two years at a stretch, with a cumulative five-year limit. Meanwhile states were required to move an increasing percentage of welfare recipients into the workforce within the next six years, starting with 25 per cent of the adults in single-parent families in 1997, and increasing to 50 per cent by 2002: failure to meet these targets will trigger funding cuts. ‘Family values’ are much to the fore, enforced through a variety of further provisions. The Act prohibits Federal assistance to parents under eighteen who are not either in school or living under adult supervision, and slashes by a quarter the grant of any family that fails to cooperate (without ‘good cause’) in efforts to establish paternity. States have the go-ahead to eliminate cash payments altogether, or to provide any mix of cash and in-kind benefits they choose. They can withhold aid to all teenage parents and to any children born to parents receiving aid, and can deny cash assistance for life to anyone convicted of a drug-related offence (which in many states may consist of possession of a small amount of marijuana). PRWORA, moreover, restricts the scope of other programmes. Under the Act, welfare families are no longer automatically eligible for Medicaid: they now have to apply separately, and some proportion will certainly fail to enroll. Legal immigrants were scheduled to lose benefits as of 1 January 1997 (though this was subsequently modified). The Supplementary Security Income (SSI) definition of disability for children has also been narrowed, adversely affecting as many as 300,000 children.footnote4