When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About”

No. No. No. No. Ah, hell YEAH! So, this is what I missed the day I was late for grad school. Thank you. Very much.

My comprehension on reading this article. From a woman of color, non-african american woman.

“The fight isn’t just about race.” So, let me see now, if “race” being the smoke screen is kept up, there would be no seeing the trees (wages and workers) for the fog (race), keeping the focus on the fog, as “the real fight of welfare is over workers and wages.”

“This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial.” The key word in this sentence being “noncontroversial.” After all the recipient is “white.”

“But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.” Two keys words “interfered” and “super exploitation”.

Now here comes the clincher for me! This created a controversial situation for the non-controversial, because the super-exploitation of Black women, (which worked as wet-nurses, nannies, housekeepers, you name it, that women of color had to undertake due to the exclusion as human beings), perhaps began saw an opportunity to request the same welfare, decreasing the work force labor of what many southerner’s referenced as “their girls”, allowing the black woman to get out from under such poor wages, and limitations of choices. Correct?

These exploited Black women, making wages unequal to their skills, with long hours of inflexibility, fearing for the future of their daughters, began to view the 1935 AFDC, as a means of relief. (it’s 1935, and the abolition of neo-slavery is not until 1948, 13 years later). This gave the white women household and family 13 years ahead of the eight ball.

When the black women (or women of color) were made aware of of AFDC, it must have looked like an opportunity, as to the analogy, of taking the “blinders off the horses”. Yet obstacles prevailed. As a result the conservatives, strategy of recourse was to label the black “race” as lazy, creating surrounding stigma which carries on today?

And just this morning, on Pandora radio, Romney states, welfare is a privilege! Could it be because “that so-called privilege as it is stated, is because he views it as those who it was designed for had to share part and parcel of that privilege. Anyone outside of the grand scheme is now privileged. Wow!! At least this is how I interpret it.

“A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down.” This sounds like “have” and “have not”.

“Keeping up the threat of poverty”, and what is termed as the “have not” numbers stay in even lower wages to the cost of living.

“Keep up the drive for a robust social safety net, drive up wages”, which may just include those coined as “having not” can possibly improve their lifestyle.

Today, gaining further knowledge on welfare and its undercurrents, clarifies why the conservatives are at large on the matter.

Black Women, take note of your value as a human being, a reckoning force.
An education for some that think welfare initiated because of a lazy, black race, as it is so often coined today, along with other descriptions which I choose not to repeat.

Thank you the article on this subject’s origin, shedding light of how events have evolved.

P.S. Another Interesting read: American in Disguise by Daniel I. Okimoto (1971)

This is great. I’m grateful you commented. Another oft heard comment is “a rising tide raises all boats.” But, if you don’t have a boat, a rising tide is just a flood. Until we address the enduring power of racism and sexism, efforts to deal with persistent poverty will never truly reach people of color.

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