They Think You Ain't Much of Nothing

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"They Think You Ain't Much of Nothing"

The Social Construction of the Welfare Mother

Journal Article

By: Karen Seccombe,

Delores James,

and Kimberly Battle-Walters

Date: November, 1998

Source: Seccombe, Karen, Delores James, and Kimberly Battle-Walters. "'They Think You Ain't Much of Nothing': The Social Construction of the Welfare Mother." Journal of Marriage and the Family. 60, 4 (1998): 849–865.

About the Author: Karen Seccombe is Professor of Sociology at Portland State University. She has authored three books, including "So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?": Welfare Recipients' Perspectives on the System and Its Reform(1999). She recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to research the health insurance needs of families leaving welfare to take up employment and their access to health care services. Delores James is Associate Professor in the Department of Health Sciences Education at the University of Florida. She is the editor-in-chief of the 2003 World Nutrition and Health Encyclopedia and has published numerous articles in the field of health and welfare research. James has also been involved with several research projects for the state of Florida's Department of Health. Kimberly Battle-Walters is Associate Professor of Social Work at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of Sheila's Shop: Working-Class African American Women Talk About Life, Love, Race and Hair (2004) and several articles in the areas of African American issues, women, welfare reform, and international relations. In 2002 she was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Africa.


The creation of the welfare system in the United States was the result of continued political struggle from the 1930s to the 1970s. The efforts of the labor movement during the depression, the push to provide support to GIs returning from the Second World War and Vietnam, and the civil rights and feminist movements all contributed to the creation of old-age insurance, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and a variety of educational and support benefits for military veterans and their families—all programs designed to combat poverty. Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" in the 1960s saw the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, affirmative action programs, and community-based anti-poverty initiatives. Despite these reforms, the American welfare system and political support for it has never been as strong as its European and Canadian counterparts. For example, a system of universal healthcare and subsidies for post-secondary education are only a fraction of what is provided in Canada and many European countries.

Since the 1980s, the welfare system in the United States that was so hard-fought for has been subject to numerous reforms and cutbacks. Critics argue that the American approach to welfare and social benefits has been to make their collection and receipt as difficult to obtain and as punitive as possible, emphasizing individual responsibility for poverty and the moral value of work. Consequently, there is stigma associated with collecting cash benefits from the government and welfare fare recipients are often viewed in a negative light that appears to be linked to stereotypes about the race, gender, marital status, and character of those who collect welfare.



I've had people who didn't know I was receiving assistance, and everything was just fine. But when people find out you're receiving assistance, it's like, why? Why did you get lazy all of the sudden? Leah, a 24-year-old mother

Approximately 39 million people are poor in the U.S., according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1997a). Within this large segment of the population are the approximately 3.5 million families, mostly mothers and their dependent children who receive cash welfare assistance, which until recently was called Aid to Families with Dependent children (AFDC). President Bill Clinton signed monumental welfare reform legislation, which became federal law on July 1, 1997. P.L. 104–193 abolished the AFDC program and replaced it with a new program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Turning many of the details of welfare law over to the states, it sets lifetime welfare payments at a maximum of 5 years, and the majority of adult recipients are required to work after 2 years. Twenty-five percent of recipients in each state must be working by the end of 1997. By the year 2002, 50% must be employed. Other changes under this reform include child-care assistance, at least 1 year of transitional Medicaid, the identification of the children's biological fathers, and the requirement that unmarried recipients who are minors must live at home and stay in school in order to receive benefits.

AFDC and TANF are virtually synonymous with the word "welfare" in the minds of most people. In the larger sense of the word, "welfare" could also encompass schools, parks, police and fire protection, as the term, "welfare state," popular in most of Western Europe, implies. However, in the U.S. welfare generally brings to mind the cash assistance programs of AFDC and TANF, and therefore, "welfare," "AFDC," and "TANF" are used interchangeably here for ease of discussion. Although welfare was originally created to serve primarily White widows and their children, welfare's recipient base has shifted over the years to mostly divorced and never-married women with children. Many people think that cast programs provide benefits to a large number of never-married, young, African American women and their children, a stereotype that has undoubtedly contributed to the growing sentiment against welfare (Pivan & Cloward, 1993; Quadagno, 1994). Yet, African Americans constitute only 36% of recipients (U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, 1996). AFDC is criticized as an extravagant and costly program that is spiraling out of control and is responsible for a sizable component of our federal deficit, but it approximates only 1% of federal spending (Congressional Digest, 1995; U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, 1996). Although money is often cited as the source of these tensions American values of financial independence and hard work are usually at the heart of the hostility toward welfare (Meyer, 1994).

Numerous stereotypes of able-bodied persons who receive welfare persist. Women who are without husbands to support them and their children are viewed as suspect and potentially undeserving (Abramovitz, 1996; Gordon, 1994; Miller, 1992). They are "manless women," as Dorothy Miller reveals, a stigmatized group that is "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" (Goffman, 1963, pp. 3–4). Women who receive welfare have been accused of being lazy, unmotivated, of cheating the system or having additional children simply to increase the amount of their benefit check. The underlying belief is that these women are looking for a free ride at the expense of the American taxpayer (Davis & Hagen, 1996). They are criticized for their supposedly long-term dependency, despite evidence that the median length of a welfare stay is 23 months (U.S. House of Representatives, committee on Ways and Means, 1996). Although some of these women have intermittent spells of employment (Ellwood, 1986; Harris, 1993, 1996), only 7% of recipients remain continuously on welfare for 8 years or longer (congressional Digest, 1995). Race, class, and gender stereotypes become intertwined. Our society despises poor women, particularly African American poor women, who are seen as rejecting the traditional nuclear family that contains at least one and possibly two breadwinners and, instead, "choosing" to remain dependent on the public dole. This is in sharp contrast to the considerably less-stigmatized images of welfare recipients and public programs in most of Western Europe (Bergmann, 1996; Kamerman & Kahn, 1978).

Awareness of Societal Attitudes Toward Welfare Recipients

We found respondents cognizant of their stigmatized status. When asked if they ever hear negative comments about people on welfare, they overwhelmingly answered, "Yes," and most claimed that criticism has been directed at them personally. Consistent with research that indicates the popularity of individualist explanations of poverty, most welfare recipients interviewed—African American and White, young and old—reported that they hear considerable personal blame and criticism. For example, asked what kinds of thing she had heard about welfare recipients, Rhonda, a 28-year old White woman with a young son, explained:

I've heard one girl was going to quit working because all the taxes come to us. Plus, you know, they downgrade us in every kind of way there is. They say we look like slobs; we keep our houses this way and that way. And our children, depending on the way they're dressed, we're like bad parents and all sorts of things like that.

The theme of laziness, an image embodied in the individualist perspective, emerged with relative consistency. Lonnie, an African American mother of five who has been on and off of welfare several times and has most recently received benefits for 2 years reported:

They say you lazy. They say you lazy and don't want to work. You want people to take care of you. You want to sit home and watch stories all day, which I don't. And they say that it's a handout. I stood in the welfare line, and I heard what they called me. And I've went in the grocery store, and when you get ready to buy your groceries, people have made nasty little remarks about the groceries you're buying. They'll go, "We're paying for that." Once there was some university students, and I guess they felt like that. They had a small amount in their buggy, and I had large amounts. He started talking, so his girlfriend kept trying to get him to be quiet. And he kept talking and talking. And then he said, "That's why the President is trying to cut off welfare, because of people like that!" I turned to him, and I say, I say, "Well, you know something? I have worked in my time, too. And I will work again. It's not like I'm asking you for anything. And I hope you don't come and ask me for anything 'cause with me and my five kids I couldn't give you none anyway!" And he stomped out of there when I told him that. But I was being honest with him. I have worked. I felt real bad that day. I really did.

Racist overtones are evident, as well.

One of the many reasons that welfare is stigmatized is because it is incorrectly associated with primarily African Americans (Quadagno, 1994). Whites tend to deny that our social structure limits the opportunities for African Americans (Bobo & Smith, 1994; Kluegal & Smith, 1982; National Opinion Research Center, 1993). They sometimes feel that they, themselves, are victimized by policies of "reverse discrimination" and that African Americans reap employment and social welfare benefits. For example, fewer than 40% of Whites support increased social spending to help African Americans, according to data from the General Social Survey (Bobo & Smith, 1994). This view was epitomized in the comments made by a 27-year-old White woman named Beth when she was asked what kinds of things she had heard people say about welfare recipients:

Oh, they say silly stuff, prejudiced stuff: "The Black people are getting it, so we might as well—you might as well go ahead and get it too while you can. They're driving Cadillacs," and this and that.

Dee is an African American woman, aged 24, with three children, 4 years old and younger. She attends school full-time and plans to become an accountant. She told us that the most negative comments she has heard come from White males:

That's mainly who I hear it from. I mean, I hear a couple of things from Black guys, but a lot of Black guys I know grew up on the system. You know, they are trying to get off that system. So you don't really hear it much from them. They have firsthand experience with it. Those who don't have firsthand experience have friends who have. So, the majority of them have come into contact with it sometime in their lifetime. As for the White males, a lot of them grew up in the upper-middle class, you know, above the poverty line, so they never run across it, unless they had friends who were on the system. But there are as many White people on it as Black people.

The grocery store was one social context where negative comments were reported to occur most often. There, stigma symbols, such as food stamps, are in full view and cannot be hidden (Goffman, 1963). Looking for evidence of fraud, cashiers and others closely scrutinize the food that women purchase. The assumption is made that welfare mothers live high on the hog at taxpayers' expense and must be closely monitored in order to prevent irresponsible behavior and abuse of the system. The public looks for women who buy steak with food stamps and feel vindicated when they find them.

A second context where frequent negative comments were heard was the welfare office itself. Rather than seeing the welfare office as a place for help, recipients view it with suspicion and distrust. They suggest that the people who run it are self-serving and have contempt for their clients. "They think you ain't much of nothing…," "they try to make you feel bad and say little mean things…," "some of them talk to you like dirt…" were frequent comments. Respondents felt that the administrative culture of AFDC is more concerned with enforcement of eligibility and compliance than with actually helping clients. "They act like it's their money they're giving away," one woman told us.

Ten women, African Americans, and Whites, said that neither they nor their children have ever experienced stigma or discrimination because of being on welfare, although several followed up this claim with statements such as, "and I don't listen to it anyhow." Three women suggested that people have been especially kind to them when they revealed that they were on welfare. Several other women said that they had not experienced problems because they do not let other people know that they are on welfare: "I tell people I receive aid from the state." I was told that dressing in name-brand clothing and shoes to appear middle class was an important strategy to keep sons away from drug dealers, who offer young children these items as a way to entice them to sell drugs for them. Other respondents said that they try to buck the stereotype and pass as members of the middle class. One young White mother said:

I think it's all in how you carry yourself. I don't want my children looking any kind of way. I don't want them to think that they're no less, that everybody is better than them, and they're not. So my kids wear name-brand shoes just like anybody else…So I mean, I try not to make them want for nothing.

In sum, it appears that most welfare recipients in our sample are aware of the popular, individualistic stratifications of beliefs in our society. They know that, as a group, welfare recipients are considered largely responsible for their own economic circumstances and their use of welfare. The majority of the women interviewed said that they, personally, have experienced stigma and discrimination.


In a famous speech, former president Ronald Reagan contributed to the stereotype of the "welfare queen …[who] has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve social security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands…her tax free cash income alone is over $150,000." While his description was found to be fabricated, the common perception of welfare recipients as people who take advantage of the system and live off of the hard work of others remained and has persisted in the decades since Reagan's administration. This negative social and political construction of welfare recipients contributes to public discontent with the concept of welfare and justifies more restricted policies around welfare eligibility and benefits.

During the Reagan and Bush (Sr.) administrations, congress approved major budget cuts to such programs as Social Security Insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, school food programs, AFDC, energy assistance grants, community development grants, and subsidized housing programs. From 1970 to 1996, there were drastic reductions in the amounts of welfare grants given out in many states and in the number of individuals who were permitted to collect welfare. Under the 1996 welfare reforms, cash aid from the government became linked to work efforts. No longer were women and their families to be given assistance simply because they were poor. The TANF program was a concerted effort to push "lazy" welfare recipients off of public assistance and into paid employment. By putting welfare recipients to work for their benefits, the belief is that welfare will be viewed as a less desirable lifestyle and individuals will be motivated to find employment. Unfortunately, the reality is that many welfare recipients are not educated and do not have many marketable skills, meaning that menial, minimum-wage service and retail jobs are all that is available to them. Given the added costs of childcare, transportation, and the loss of health insurance benefits that accompany paid employment, many single mothers find that when they calculate the costs and benefits of employment, it is more economically practical and better for their children if they remain on welfare. Many women find that they cannot pay their bills and provide adequately for their children on full-time minimum wage, so they choose to remain on welfare, despite the work regulations, thus calling into question the initial motivation for welfare cuts and restrictions.

Another highly controversial aspect of welfare reform is the emphasis on minimizing out-of-wedlock childbirth. The 1996 legislation placed caps on welfare grants, and limited the amount of time that an individual can collect welfare in a lifetime, ostensibly to discourage women from having more children in order to collect a larger welfare benefit. The federal government also offers cash bonuses to states that can reduce the number of "illegitimate" births without increasing the rate of abortion. This approach endeavors to encourage planned, two-parent, self-sufficient families, which is not, on its own, a negative ideal. However, there is little evidence to suggest that welfare policy has any "real" effect on trends in marriage, cohabitation and family planning, and the impact of the legislation is to stigmatize and negatively effect single mothers and their families.

Under President George W. Bush, there continues to be cuts to federal welfare budgets and a trend toward increasing the involvement of religious organizations in the provision of programs and assistance to low-income families. Through expanded tax cuts for charitable donations and the transfer of federal welfare funding to churches and religious charities, welfare services in the United States are becoming increasingly privatized. While many religious groups have traditionally been involved in charity work, the state download of responsibility to private organizations is potentially problematic. The administration of social services by religious organizations opens up the possibility of discrimination against certain groups, such as gays and lesbians and unwed mothers, on religious and moral grounds, all the while protected by the right of religious freedom.

Stereotypes of gender, race, and morality legitimize the continued reduction of welfare spending and the imposition of severe restrictions on the receipt of cash assistance. Current welfare policies in the United States appear to be based on flawed assumptions of individuals' motivations for collecting welfare. Those who stop collecting welfare—by choice or force—often have difficulty obtaining adequate employment and making ends meet on minimum wage. Critics argue that improved access to job training, education, and adequate child and health care would prove more beneficial than cuts to welfare benefits in motivating single mothers to improve their economic position and get off of social assistance.



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