Motherhood, Deficiency in

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Motherhood, Deficiency in






Deficiency in mothering is an ideological construction that refers to the ways in which mothering among women of color in the United States has been racialized as inferior. This ideological construction is both supported and negated in the scholarly and popular literature on family, gender, race, and class. Historically framed through discussions of minority group family structure, patterns of intergenerational poverty, and the problems of deviant subcultures, these discussions have more recently taken shape around assertions of problems related to teen pregnancy and the ongoing presence of an urban underclass. Minority women, including African-American women and other women of color, are frequently presented in these discussions as bad mothers, women whose patterns of mothering deviate in significant ways from those of good mothers in ideal families. Alternative viewpoints, presented by feminist scholars beginning in the 1970s, suggest that these ideological constructions posit an idealized image of mothering that reifies the subordinate status of women, the public/private split, and the state-sanctioned family structure (Collins 2000, Neubeck and Cazenave 2001, Moynihan 1965, Wilson 1987).


The deficiency in mothering framework is developed against the backdrop of the ideal family and interpretations of the good mother. The ideal family form, which serves as the norm against which minority family behavior is compared, has been framed by scholars and policymakers alike as a family in which the mother is a heterosexual, white female who is wife to a family wage-earning white-male father and who is responsible for the care of her biological children (Coontz 1992, Collins 2000). The good mother in this ideal is not just a caregiver, but a primary caregiver who remains within the feminine private sphere while leaving the world of work safely framed as public and masculine. Not only is the good mother responsible for the physical care of her children, she is also responsible for their emotional and moral development. She is a natural mother standing ready to guide future generations toward public and private success as individuals, workers, and citizens. In order to accomplish this, the ideal mother must not undertake work in a public arena that would remove her from her children and her role as the guardian of civilization. It is against this normative ideal that racialized images of the bad mother are constructed.


The ideal family and good mother images, based in the public/private split, with women in the home and men in the world of work, have never been viable options for women of color. Yet the experiences of these women have been measured by this standard, have been used as a warning against those who question the standard, and are blamed for the deterioration of social norms, social relations, and social structures in a social system they did not institute. By examining the assumptions of the discourses within which the idealized concept of motherhood is created, it is possible to see how the “bad” mother/“deficient” mother idea has played out over time.

The first assumption of the discourse on deficiency is that real men work and real women care for families. Against this ideal the experience of the enslaved African-American woman or the migrant Latina worker is immediately found to be deficient. For example, the African-American woman’s experience has been shaped by the necessities of a capitalist system that initially required her to perform forced labor, and then segregated labor, before subsequently requiring her to either work in the lower segments of the economic sector or face an often hostile welfare system. Against the idealized criteria of the public/private split these women are immediately found to be deficient both as workers and as mothers. While her presence as a laborer supports the dominant social order, her presence at the work site as a laborer also breaks down the masculinized elements of the public sphere and undermines the ability of African-American men to claim the wage earner status of “real men.” Women of color are nevertheless employed in various sectors of the work world. As chief executive officers of companies, as instructors in schools, on meatpacking lines, or in sweatshops, these women find themselves struggling against stereotypes of the masculinized public sphere. In essence the African-American, Latina, or Asian woman who works outside the home is not a real woman, and her presence in the workplace means that African-American, Latino, or Asian men cannot behave as real men (Collins 2000, Kimmel 2006).

Second, women of color are often labeled deficient because of their status as absent mothers. Immediately deficient as a woman, her presence in the paid workforce and absence from the home labels her family as abandoned and her children as neglected. While propping up the racial status quo by caring for the children of white owners or employers in place of the biological mother (e.g., women of color acting as mammies and nannies), the minority woman’s absence from her own home also means an absence from her children and an abandonment of her duty as mother. The image that emerges from these analyses is one of a self-interested, authoritative abandonment of the traditional family and the authority of men and masculinity.

By the mid-1960s the image of the matriarch had been racialized. Patricia Hill Collins (2000) notes that before the 1960s connections between higher rates of African-American female-headed households and persistent poverty had been interpreted as an outcome of poverty, not its cause. Between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, however, the perception of scholars and policymakers had changed. For example, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) and Lawrence Mead (1986, 1992), writing about the experiences of women of color during this period, assert that the African-American matriarchal family no longer ascribed to core American values, including self-discipline, motivation, and perseverance. Since that point, matriarchy has been associated with bad mothering and the causal relationship reversed so that in the new analysis matriarchy causes deviant values and poverty. According to this viewpoint, the new norms of these families support single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births, criminal behavior, and the irresponsibility of men. Dependency scholars assert that because individuals socialized in these families will have low social mobility aspirations, teen pregnancy and intergenerational poverty will persist (Wilson and Neckerman 1986, Jarrett 1994).

Negative stereotypes of women of color and their families posit moral or psychological failure as the cause of numerous social problems. Analysts using this perspective suggest that matriarchal households are part of the underclass and that these households are the key contributors to the growth of this class, a class composed of the long-term poor and those who deviate from societal norms and values (Moynihan 1965, Wilson 1987, McLoyd et al. 2000, Neubeck and Cazenave 2001). From this viewpoint, matriarchs who call on the state for support are not recharacterized as good mothers trying to establish adequate care for their children, but are labeled as irresponsible. The failure to recharacterize these women as good mothers not only is due to a welfare racism interpretation of the matriarch, but is also associated with ideological constructions of the deserving poor. Because welfare is perceived as charity rather than an entitlement, and because the criteria for distribution is based on who is deserving, women of color who receive assistance find themselves labeled as needy and deficient rather than good and caring. Defining welfare as charity immediately places mothers who seek assistance outside the deserving category. As Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon (1994) note, programs that many of these women have relied on, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), emphasize the criteria of “deserving,” which by definition suggests that women who collect AFDC are getting something for nothing. For women of color there are few criteria outside of being self-sufficient or meeting the stereotype of a good (state-) dependent woman (i.e., white and widowed) that provides appropriate grounds for receipt of support or characterization as a good mother. Because under these ideological constructions being a self-sufficient worker is not possible for a person who is defined as a primary parent (i.e., mother), and because a recategorization as white is not feasible, it is impossible by definition for these women to ever meet the good mother criteria.

In the 1980s a new deficiency argument emerged that focused on the African-American, unmarried, teenage mother who is welfare dependent (Fraser and Gordon 1994, Neubeck and Cazenave 2001). Frequently discussed as a new syndrome, these young women are described as baby-making machines who obtain welfare dollars by having more children. Reports by various agencies and national campaigns point to teen pregnancy to explain poverty, welfare dependency, abuse, neglect, incarceration rates, low levels of educational attainment, and future out-of-wedlock births (Wilson and Neckerman 1986, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy 2002). The teen mother is “caught in the ‘welfare trap’ and rendered dronelike and passive” (Fraser and Gordon 1994, p. 327). The new cultural image synthesizes previous stereotypes and establishes a characterization of deficient motherhood as a permanent passivity based in biology, psychology, socialization, and/or poverty (Fraser and Gordon 1994, Mead 1986, Wilson 1987). The beginning of the 1990s found such terms as welfare queen, welfare chiselers, and children having children within the public discourse, further racializing the practice of mothering among women of color in the United States.


Within the deficiency discourse is included a set of solutions meant to reify the existing social structure and maintain the racial status quo. Education programs aimed at “deficient” mothers are historically associated with Americanization programs initially designed during the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to educate and support immigrant women (Hartmann 1967 [1948]). These programs provided English skills, child-care instruction, and housekeeping classes that were intended to improve the immigrant woman’s skills so that she could appropriately fit into American society and could socialize her children to be productive workers and good citizens.

Contemporary approaches to deficient mothers have been based in the constructed problems of matriarchy, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency. Beginning in the 1960s, presented solutions have been based on strengthening the legitimate authority of the traditional family, reasserting the value systems of the dominant culture, increasing job opportunities for men who are racial minorities, and reforming the welfare system.

Since the 1960s suggestions for strengthening the African-American family have included encouraging the reduction of black male unemployment and reestablishing patriarchy in African-American families. In the 1960s and 1970s many scholars and policymakers thought that by engaging the structural issues of opportunity and employment for ethnic and racial minority men, and by reasserting a male-dominant authority structure for the family, dependency problems and motherhood deficiency issues could be alleviated. By the 1980s these changes had not occurred, and new ideological constructions suggesting deficiency in the form of teen pregnancy and the underclass took their place. Subsequent responses to these deficiency problems suggest eliminating women’s independent income acquired through programs such as AFDC, and relying on retraining programs that eliminate state dependency and instill dominant values and norms associated with ideal family forms.

Since 1996, programs designed to meet the requirements of that year’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act have been put in place to provide incentives to mothers to get off welfare and become self-sufficient. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is implemented at the state level with various regulations that are tied to receiving temporary assistance. In many instances mothers who were previously on AFDC and are still in need of state assistance are either required to receive a short period of training (i.e., twenty-four months) linked to employment or they must find immediate employment or volunteering opportunities. Women who do not participate will not receive assistance (Collins 2000, Jennings and Santiago 2004, Seccombe 2007). In addition to this self-sufficiency solution, women of color have also been encouraged to rely more directly on the fathers of their children for support. Both the self-sufficiency model and the reliance on fathers model emphasize the ideological constructions of motherhood deficiency and dependence, and they posit solutions that racialize and genderize both the problem and the solution.


Feminist responses to motherhood deficiency arguments turn the tables on both structural and cultural understandings used by dependency scholars and policymakers alike. They assert that proposed solutions that accept the deficiency interpretation fail to adequately interpret structural problems associated with ghettoization, industrial flight, mechanization, school segregation, and other macro factors that affect female and male economic vulnerability. In addition, dependency interpretations that reinsert a patriarchal structure as a solution fail to recognize the subordinate place of minority men in the racial power structure and the implications of this fact for the lives of racial minorities. When a privileged white form of legitimacy within the family is the proposed solution, alternative family forms are undermined and dismissed. Establishing a system in which there is an adequate income may be more important to the well-being of the family than reshaping the family around patriarchal patterns of power. The welfare reform practices of the early twenty-first century have also racialized poverty and its solutions. By ignoring the fact that the majority of people on welfare are white, and by instituting programs that fail to establish long-term self-sufficiency for poor families, proposed solutions continue to label women of color as deficient and dependent, and problematize them and their families (Glenn, Chang, and Forcey 1994; Collins 2000; Jennings and Santiago 2004).

SEE ALSO Adolescent Female Sexuality; Families; Sexuality.


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Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic.

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Gordon. 1994. “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State.” Signs 19 (2): 309–336.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey. 1994. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York: Routledge.

Hartmann, Edward George. 1967 (1948). The Movement to Americanize the Immigrant. New York: AMS Press.

Jarrett, Robin. 1994. “Living Poor: Family Life among Single Parent, African American Women.” Social Problems 41: 30–49.

Jennings, James, and Jorge Santiago. 2004. “Welfare Reform and ‘Welfare to Work’ as Non-Sequitur: A Case Study of the Experiences of Latina Women in Massachusetts.” Journal of Poverty 8 (1): 23–42.

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Mead, Lawrence M. 1986. Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Free Press.

_____. 1992. The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America. New York: Basic.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. 2002. Not Just Another Single Issue: Teen Pregnancy Prevention’s Link to Other Critical Social Issues. Washington, DC: Author.

Neubeck, Kenneth J., and Noel A. Cazenave. 2001. Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card against America’s Poor. New York: Routledge.

Seccombe, Karen. 2007. Families in Poverty. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____, and Kathryn M. Neckerman. 1986. “Poverty and Family Structure: The Widening Gap between Evidence and Public Policy Issues.” In Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t, edited by Sheldon H. Danziger and Daniel H. Weinberg, 232–259. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Colleen Greer