The Mothers Who Fought To Radically Reimagine Welfare

In 1996, the New Republic ran a bright, red cover that perfectly captured the tenor of the contemporary debate over welfare. "DAY OF RECKONING," a cover line read, above a photograph of an unidentified black woman. She was smoking a cigarette in one hand and holding a baby with a bottle in the other. The text beneath that image read "Sign the Welfare Bill Now." The racial optics were not subtle.

The welfare bill in question fundamentally changed the New Deal-era program by putting limits on how long people could draw benefits and placed new restrictions on who was eligible. The goal, its proponents said, was to get millions of people off welfare and into work.

President Clinton ran on a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it," but that bill sat on the back-burner until Congressional Republicans swept the 1994 midterms and decided to hold him to it. Clinton would sign welfare reform into law the summer after that New Republic cover story ran. The bill was enormously controversial; one of Clinton's top economic advisers resigned in protest, saying the plan would cut millions of poor people off from much-needed help.

At the Rose Garden ceremony for that bill's signing, Clinton was flanked by Lillie Harden, a black single mother and former welfare recipient from Arkansas. She said that Bill Clinton's previous efforts to reduce the welfare rolls as governor of that state had set her on the path to work and self-sufficiency.

"Going to work gave me independence to take care of my children and to make sure there was always food on the table and a roof over their heads," Harden said at the signing ceremony. "Having a job gave me a chance to focus on school and getting a good education."

Harden stood on the dais with Penelope Howard, another former welfare recipient, surrounded by powerful, smiling white people, seemingly happy to usher millions like them into a new life of independence from the state. Again, the optics were hard to miss.

Lillie Harden's real story turned out to be much more complicated — unsurprisingly, since life in poverty is complicated. But like the unnamed woman on that magazine cover, she had been flattened into a talking point about welfare. In the case of the unnamed woman, she was an example of urban indolence. In Harden's case, she was an example of paternalistic resilience. But as always, these black women on welfare were presented a problem to be solved.

Premilla Nadasen, a historian at Barnard College, wrote in her book Rethinking The Welfare Rights Movement that arguments for cutting or restricting welfare relied less on data than it did on anecdote and racialized insinuation.

'The Welfare Queen'

The most notorious example of a welfare recipient-turned-caricature was Linda Taylor, the subject of our most recent podcast episode. The media fascination around Taylor, a prolific con artist from Chicago's South Side, gave rise to the term "welfare queen" in the 1970s. In his first failed run for president, Ronald Reagan held her up as an embodiment of welfare fraud and government waste. But her story, too, was much messier — and far darker — than the cartoon Reagan sketched in his stump speeches.

Josh Levin, our podcast guest and the author of a riveting new book about Taylor's life, found that welfare fraud was the least of Taylor's crimes, which were so varied and bizarre that he argues that she couldn't reasonably be said to represent anything beyond herself. Reagan never explicitly referred to Taylor as a black woman — nodding to her as a Cadillac-driving welfare queen from Chicago did most of the heavy lifting there — but it turns out her racial identity was slippery, too. (Her mother was white and her father was suspected to be black and she identified, at various points, as Filipino, Latino, white, and black, depending on what her crimes and aliases required.) But it was her blackness that helped make the "welfare queen" trope stick.

A grim irony around these characterizations is that black women became the face of welfare even as the program had long been closed off to them. The program most of us refer to as "welfare" began as Aid to Dependent Children during the New Deal, and offered financial assistance to women whose husbands could not work, were not around, or were dead.

"When it was started the architects of that program assumed that the beneficiaries would be largely white women who were widows," Premilla Nadasen, the historian, told me. Poor black women were often rejected when they applied for those benefits, and if they did receive them, they might be conditional. In the South, Nadasen said, officials would do things like cut off welfare aid to black women during cotton-picking season.

"It was the assumption that African-American women didn't belong in the home and didn't need to take care of their children, but they actually belonged in the labor force," she said.

As more Black folks moved out of the South during the Great Migration and civil rights activists chipped away at discrimination in welfare policy, it became easier for poor Black women to get welfare. But even though the biggest share of welfare recipients were white (as it is today) the face the public associated with welfare became much browner. Backlash to welfare and aid programs like food stamps began to grow.

"By 1960, a growing percentage of recipients are African-American women and this [caused] alarm among policymakers, among people in the press, and ordinary white Americans," Nadasen said.

Life magazine ran ominous stories about Negro migrants moving from the South to the North and getting on welfare assistance; city officials in declining industrial towns blamed these new recipients for their cities' flagging economic fortunes and sometimes implemented new restrictions on their benefits. Nadasen said that it was this stew of contempt and punishment of black welfare recipients that presaged the "welfare queen" trope to come.

The Movement To Redefine Welfare

We've mostly forgotten, though, the black women on welfare who fought to change how people understood aid to the poor. Instead of a necessary evil, they maintained that it should be a guaranteed right, much more expansive and far less punitive to the people who needed it.

Johnnie Tillmon was one such woman. A divorced mother of six, Tillmon left Arkansas in 1959 to head to Los Angeles, but reluctantly applied for welfare rolls after she became too sick to keep working. She was humiliated after a welfare caseworker showed up at her home and rifled through her belongings to look for evidence of unreported income or a man in the home — either of which would have been grounds to cancel her welfare benefits — and so she began organizing the women in her Watts housing project to demand better treatment from their caseworkers.

As it happened, poor black women in other cities across the country were doing the same thing Tillmon was: marching, suing and staging sit-ins at local welfare office for increased benefits, for simple dignities like being addressed with honorifics, for the right to move from state to state while still maintaining their benefits.

By the mid-1960s, President Johnson's war on poverty helped push those disparate welfare rights groups into a more coherent, organized movement. Felicia Kornbluh, a historian at the University of Vermont and the author of The Battle for Welfare Rights, said that while the mainstream women's liberation movement was made up of younger, middle-class white women, the welfare rights movement looked decidedly different — mostly black but with organizers in Puerto Rican neighborhoods and on Native American reservations — and its participants brought with them a different set of concerns.

For example, welfare rights activists' fight for reproductive and sexual freedom began with different premises than mainstream feminists: since the government could cancel or alter their benefits if they had more children or if a male partner moved in with them, they argued that the rules of welfare programs had to change so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to have sex or have children. What's more, some welfare mothers were forcibly sterilized to keep them from having more children, something college-educated mainstream feminists didn't have to worry about.

Welfare rights organizers wanted to treat poverty as a women's issue; they fought to make welfare a guaranteed right, and even called for a universal basic income. Their radical idea was that poor mothers should be provided the means to raise their children regardless of whether they worked or were looking for work. They wanted to live their lives on their own terms.

"It was a matter of equality, so that poor women and nonwhite women would have the same access to bonding with their kids and raising their kids, that middle class mothers had and white mothers had," Kornbluh said.

By the late 1960s, the National Welfare Rights Organization, made up of hundreds of smaller local welfare rights groups, had nearly 25,000 dues-paying members, and Johnnie Tillmon was its chairperson.

"Some people have called it the largest black feminist organization in U.S. history," Kornbluh said.

But their outspokenness and heterodox goals rankled white feminists and liberals, while their particular brand of feminism, centered on autonomy and determination for poor black mothers, rejected the masculine posture of the black power movement. Even their ostensible allies didn't quite know what to make of them.

Meanwhile, working-class whites resented looking at images of these unabashed black welfare recipients pushing for more — more benefits, more dignity, more personal autonomy. By the mid-1970s, the welfare rights movement was in broad decline, racked by internal fights over its priorities and a growing public distaste for broad government help to the poor. Even some of the politicians who had previously been sympathetic to the movement saw which way the wind was blowing, and began distanced themselves from it. It was at this very moment that Linda Taylor, the scammer who became the "welfare queen," stepped onto the national stage.

By the time Bill Clinton "ended welfare as we know it" in 1996, there was opposition from the left and black lawmakers, but not nearly enough to stop it from being passed. (Felicia Kornbluh, the historian at Vermont, told me that whiter, mainstream women's groups had long been invested in the idea that women should work, and so didn't put up too much of a fight.) That law's effects are complicated and still debated to this day, and while it did little to reduce poverty, it has dramatically reduced the number of poor, unemployed people who receive welfare benefits.

The welfare rights movement that would have almost certainly opposed his bill was mostly gone. The National Welfare Rights Organization had disbanded in the mid-1970s, And Johnnie Tillmon, who argued that being treated with dignity shouldn't be contingent on either her chastity or wage labor, died at the age of 69, the year before Clinton's new welfare law was enacted. There was no one to make the argument that she and the thousands of women like her did: that poor women on welfare were the most equipped, by experience, to know how it needed to be reformed and to know whether they should seek employment outside of the home.

"I'm a black woman. I'm a poor woman. I'm a fat woman. I'm a middle-aged woman. And I'm on welfare," Tillmon once wrote. "In this country, if you're any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you're all those things, you don't count at all."

When poor Black women like Tillmon enter the nation's field of vision, they're either flat statistics or inflated symbols. But more often, we don't see them in the first place.

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