Worth Reading: From Welfare to Workfare

In 1996 Congress and President Bill Clinton "ended welfare as we know it," and established "workfare," thereby canceling the sixty-year old guaranteed federal safety net for the poor. An examination of the origins of this legislation, and especially the role liberals played in its history and shifting public perception, is the topic of From Welfare To Workfare, the Unintended Consequences of Liberal Reform, 1945-1965, a new book by Jennifer Mittelstadt, assistant professor of history and women's studies at Penn State.

book cover “from welfare to workfare”

In the 1930s and early 1940s, there was a perceptible shift in how the American public perceived the poor that, Mittelstadt contends, sowed the seeds for current perceptions.

"Up until the middle 1940s, there was a general notion that poverty was caused by general societal factors, that it was not an individual's 'fault,' and there was not a feeling that women on welfare should work," says Mittelstadt. "After the war and especially in the 1950s, there was a move towards 'rehabilitation' of women on welfare. This was a dramatic break with notions of the past."

A coalition of liberal groups wanted to see the welfare program, Aid To Dependent Children (ADC), offer more individualized help in trying to bring people out of poverty and eventually mainstream them back into society. Their efforts were called 'rehabilitative,' with individualized counseling among other tools. But as poverty rates remained stubborn and more and more nonwhite single mothers appeared on welfare roles, reformers increasingly emphasized using rehabilitative efforts to move women from "dependence" on welfare to "independence," largely by encouraging them to work outside the home. A mandatory work law was just a matter of time, Mittelstadt believes.

"Liberals' efforts to help poor women created unintended consequences that played right into conservative hands," she says. "My book examines all the factors by which this happened and how much of our current notions of the welfare poor have been shaped by gendered and racialized assumptions."

Jennifer Mittelstadt, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history and women's studies in the College of the Liberal Arts. She can be reached at jlm71@psu.edu. From Welfare To Workfare, the Unintended Consequences of Liberal Reform, 1945-1965, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in March 2005. This review first appeared in LAzine, the online magazine of the College of the Liberal Arts.

Last Updated March 30, 2005