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Like slavery, welfare's history informs "family values" rhetoric. While conservatives promote family values, their policies ultimately help few low-income families of color and employ racialized rhetoric. One initial goal of federal housing programs, for instance, was to encourage morality in families.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) favors heterosexual married couples. Marriage promotion as welfare policy is a modern reincarnation of the “civilization” of “unruly” slaves.1 Just as slave marriage was promoted at masters’ convenience, marriage was used post-bellum to privatize freed blacks’ economic mobility, minimizing government responsibility.
Post-emancipation, states used marriage as a so-called “civilization” tool, which forced African-Americans to conform to white family constructs and which regulated black behaviors. Some slaveowners had disregarded slave families, but now whites suddenly wanted black couples to marry—only within their race. With black husbands working, there would ostensibly be no need for black women and children to seek government assistance. This assumption persists today: if black women and children were part of a traditional family, welfare demand would decrease.
Modern aid for women with children began in the 1920’s, but only for women deemed "deserving." Participants were 96% white and 3% black.2 Under the 1935 New Deal “Aid to Dependent Children,” the first formal welfare program, white widows were considered most entitled to support, while immigrants, unmarried women, and women of color were reluctantly included. In 1937, 85% of recipients were white women, while 13% were black women.3
Women of color now comprise the majority of those on welfare. Thus, a stereotype of the typical welfare recipient emerged: “a lazy, promiscuous black woman who lives in luxury at taxpayers’ expense.”4
Melissa Harris Perry, on the Colbert Report, recently discussed stereotypes of black women, one of which is a "Jezebel." This stereotype, around since the antebellum area, is similar to the welfare queen and pigeonholes black women as sexually promiscuous, having children with several different fathers. Meanwhile, a thrice-married white man runs for president nearly with impunity.
With the majority of welfare recipients no longer white, whites' sympathy level has dropped. States with larger minority populations on welfare impose harsher restrictions.5 And using law to promote an ideal of family, similar to post-bellum attempts, has produced a racialized discourse hostile to unmarried black parents. Debates especially portray women of color as bad mothers, just as in the antebellum period.
Although 33.3% of TANF recipients are black, 31% white, and 28.8% Hispanic, the image of a “welfare queen” is a black single mother. No longer focused on “worthy" white widows, TANF discourse casts judgment onto unmarried black women who allegedly won't work and “won’t use birth control.6
Candidates rail against those supposedly unwilling to work with a wink, knowing whites are in on the shared understanding of whom is really being referenced. (see Gingrich's "really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have nobody around them who works" in the above video).
Rather than prophetically critique it, many U.S. white evangelicals buy into this code-speak hook, line, and sinker. Evangelicals view lack of personal responsibility as the reason black single mothers use TANF. Grace, in an excellent series on race and gender, discussed some telling data from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided by Faith. White evangelicals blame racial disparity on poor choices, such as "having too many children." Emerson writes:
In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).
1 Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Return of the Ring: Welfare Reform's Marriage Cure as the Revival of Post-Bellum Control, 93 Cal. L. Rev. 1647, 1653 (2005).
4 Madeline Howard, Subsidized Housing Policy: Defining the Family, 22 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 97, 124-5 (2007).
5 Elena Christine Acevedo, The Latina Paradox: Cultural Barriers to the Equitable Receipt of Welfare Services under Modern Welfare Reform, 20 Berkeley J. Gender L. & Just. 199, 208 (2005).
6 Martha L. Fineman, Images of Mothers in Poverty Discourses, 1991 Duke L.J. 274, 282 (1991).