Decades of Distortion - Page 2

The Deserving Poor

The United States has always been ambivalent about assisting the poor, unsure whether the poor are good people facing difficult times and circumstances or bad people who cannot fit into society. Public welfare programs in the United States originated as discretionary programs for the "worthy" poor. Local asylums or poorhouses separated the deserving poor, such as the blind, deaf, insane, and eventually the orphaned, from the undeserving, comprising all other paupers including children in families, with wide variation and broad local administrative discretion.27 "Traditional" family values have always been part of the discourse. They were part of the debate in the early 20th century about the undermining of initiative and dignity by outdoor relief, the aspect of the reformists' movements that tried to control the behavior and "better" immigrant poor women, and in the 1971 Supreme Court discussion of the plaintiff welfare recipient in Wyman v. James.28 There have always been those who thought poverty was caused by individual fault and that the receipt of any governmental assistance was debilitating.

The Social Security Act of 1935 emerged from the Great Depression, when the massive unemployment of previously employed, white male voters made it politically impossible to dismiss the poor as responsible for their own situation.29 The AFDC program, only a small part of the Social Security Act, covered children living with their mothers.30 The legislative history of the Social Security Act allowed the states, which administered the AFDC program, to condition eligibility upon the sexual morality of AFDC mothers through suitable-home or "man-in-the-house" rules.31 These behavioral rules were often intentionally used to exclude African Americans and children of unwed mothers from the rolls.32 One Southern field supervisor reported:

The number of Negro cases is few due to the unanimous feeling on the part of the staff and board that there are more work opportunities for Negro women and to their intense desire not to interfere with local labor conditions. The attitude that "they have always gotten along," and that "all they'll do is have more children" is definite....There is hesitancy on the part of lay boards to advance too rapidly over the thinking of their own communities, which see no reason why the employable Negro mother should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.33

However, in the 1960s, the civil rights and welfare rights movements resulted in the inclusion of many who had been excluded from the original AFDC program.34 Aggressive lawyering on behalf of poor people removed many of the systemic administrative barriers used to keep African American women off the welfare rolls.35 As a result, the number of African Americans on the AFDC rolls increased dramatically, by approximately 15% between 1965 to 1971, although the vast majority of those receiving welfare continued to be white.36

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Decades of Distortion

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