Momma Welfare Roll

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Momma Welfare Roll


By: Maya Angelou

Date: 1994

Source: Angelou, Maya. "Momma Welfare Roll." In The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.

About the Author: Maya Angelou (1928–), perhaps best known as an African-American poet, and the first poet laureate in three decades—also the first female and African-American poet laureate in the nation's history—is also a playwright, actress, author, singer, dancer, political and social activist, teacher, and scholar. She is a prolific writer, and has published nearly three dozen volumes, among which are numerous books of poetry and a six-volume autobiography, as well as two children's books. Among her best known works are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, and All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. She also wrote a poem entitledOn the Pulse of Morning, commissioned by former President Bill Clinton, which was read by her at his 1993 inauguration.


The initial welfare program created in the United States of America was part of then-President Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs, and was implemented in 1935. It was originally entitled "Aid to Dependent Children" (ADC), and it was part of the Social Security Act. ADC was administrated through the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

In 1960, the program's name was changed to "Aid to Families with Dependent Children," or AFDC. Throughout the course of the program's existence—it was ended by the passage of the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act" developed by the Clinton Administration—it was intended to serve as a fail-safe for families in crisis or transition. The program was jointly funded by state and federal government but was administered programmatically by each individual state under the auspices of federal guidelines and program requirements. Each state, based on its unique population mix and demographic characteristics, was responsible for developing, creating, implementing, and administering specific programs based on state and local needs assessments. In addition to developing their own programs, the states each had to set up their own benefit packages, eligibility requirements, and financial need standards. The states generally used an eligibility and benefit determination formula based on the available resources and income of the recipient, as well as the number and type of dependents (ages, disabilities, special medical or behavioral health needs, etc.), and measured those variables against the state's own need standards in order to make determinations.

AFDC required that the household contain at least one dependent child below the age of eighteen years or who has turned eighteen and is still in the process of completing a secondary school education. That dependent child had to be experiencing loss or deprivation of parental care and support as the result of parental absence (death, incarceration, other long-term absence from the home), significant disability, or lack of employment of the head of the household. The dependent child did not need to be living with a parent, but could be in the home of someone acting as a parent and head of household such as a close relative, adult sibling, foster parent, legal guardian, or someone similar.

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The AFDC benefit application was in the name of the dependent child and the eligible parent or legal guardian (to include foster or adoptive parents), as well as any applicable siblings who lived within the household. In essence, one dependent child could generate AFDC benefits for an entire large household. A standardized formula was used for the calculation of each state's need standard, which varied by the size and make-up of the household. The benefit amount was determined based on a comparison against the need standard, and took into consideration minimal assets, income from employment minus work-related expenses, living expenses, and other specific items. Families were paid a monthly stipend and could be eligible for other financial assistance, such as food stamps and government-funded medical care. In the early stages of program development, thee were no specific work requirements.

In 1988, new legislation created the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program, along with new state-overseen welfare-to-work programs. Every state was required to have JOBS programs, providing educational and job-training opportunities, onthe-job training, and work-study experiences. The goal of all of these experiences, academic programs, and work opportunities was to provide a framework for future-oriented employment opportunities— meaning that they were geared toward gainful employment with potential advancement opportunities aimed at instilling self-sufficiency.

Published research and census data indicate that people who sought government financial assistance in the form of AFDC were typically young and female, were often the teenaged parents of one or more very young children, and were generally poorly educated or undereducated. As a group, their prospects for gainful employment were minimal. Even if they were to obtain jobs, it was likely that they would not earn sufficient income so as to be able to afford childcare, pay for health and medical expenses, and purchase healthy and nourishing food for the family. By providing an avenue to personal empowerment via education and job training, AFDC recipients were offered a realistic opportunity for improving the quality of their lives and attaining the skills necessary for moving out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. JOBS participation was mandatory for all persons who were not exempted for specific conditions, such as parenting an infant below the age of twelve months, chronic and debilitating illness, or disability of such a nature and severity as to render education or job training untenable. Although participation in the JOBS program was mandatory, there were no time limits placed on completion of education or training. As a result, those who engaged in JOBS and were motivated to complete their educational or job training were able to leave the system when they felt fully prepared to do so, rather than at an arbitrary cut-off point.

There were no time limits for AFDC participation; if the stated applicant was an infant, it would ostensibly be possible for the entire household to receive benefits until that child graduated from high school. If there were succeeding younger children, it would be possible to continue until the youngest child turned eighteen. Although there were many successes in which families were able to move beyond poverty into genuine and permanent self-sufficiency as a result of supported opportunities, there were also a large number of families that never left the program. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became apparent that the American welfare system, as it was also called, had become an enormous financial burden on the nation's economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ended the AFDC program and completely reorganized the federal cash assistance (welfare) programs throughout the country. A new program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was created in its stead. TANF is a strictly time-limited program that includes a lifetime benefit limit of five years or sixty months, with a two-year maximum per eligible benefit period. The rules and requirements for the TANF program are far more stringent than those for AFDC and are enforcing rapid movement from government cash assistance programs. However, the available data have not supported the notion that the new program is more effective than AFDC at moving people out of poverty and into financial self-sufficiency.



Burke, V. Welfare Reform: TANF Trends and Data. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2000.

Loprest, P. How are Families that Left Welfare Doing? A Comparison of Early and Recent Welfare Leavers. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2001.

Rodgers, Harrell R., Jr. American Poverty in a New Era of Reform. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Stein, Theodore J. Social Policy and Policy Making by the Branches of Government and the Public-At-Large. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

The Transition from Welfare to Work: Processes, Challenges, and Outcomes, edited by Sharon Telleen and Judith V. Sayad. New York: The Hayworth Press, 2002.

United States General Accounting Office. Welfare reform: States Provide TANF-funded Work Support Services to Many Low-income Families Who do Not Receive Cash Assistance. Washington, D.C.: United States General Accounting Office, 2002.

Welfare Reform, 1996–2000: Is There A Safety Net?, edited by John E. Hansan and Robert Morris. Westport, Connecticut: Auburn House, 1999.


Burn, Timothy. "Welfare-to-Work Forum Touts Successes, Hurdles." The Washington Times November 19, 1998: 7.

Cancian, M. and D. R. Meyer. "Work after Welfare: Women's Work Effort, Occupation, and Economic Well-being." Social Work Research24 (2000): 69–96.

Wetzstein, Cheryl. "Welfare-to-Work Gains Strong, Two Studies Find." The Washington Times (August 3, 2000): 3.

Web sites

Academy of Achievement. "Biography: Maya Angelou." August 29, 2005. <> (accessed June 11, 2006).

Administration for Children and Families. "ACF Healthy Marriage Mission." <> (accessed June 11, 2006).