|Project Self Sufficiency
General Information - English
The federal Family Support Act of 1988 sought to transform Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) from a program that makes it possible for single mothers to stay home with their children into a mandatory work and training program. The controvers ial legislation was just the first of a series of welfare reforms that seek to dictate the behavior of women on public assistance. Some states now deny additional benefits for children born to women on welfare. Others cut benefits to families who fail t o see a doctor, keep kids in school or pay rent on time. In the name of fraud prevention, some states now fingerprint welfare mothers. And in the White House and the Capitol, the current welfare debate centers around how best to impose a two-year limit on participation in the program.
As a candidate, Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it." Advocates and women on public assistance would also like to change the system "as we know it" so that AFDC could be both a decent safety net and a means of escaping poverty. But it is clear that the current reform debate has less to do with practical improvements and more to do with limiting the length of time a client can be in the program, and making that period as difficult as possible.
Frequently, these coercive plans gain wide public support by playing to a host of stereotypes and myths about AFDC and the women who use the program. The following myths, facts, and comments can be used to undermine the stereotypes -- and to build suppor t for more legitimate social policies based in fact, not fiction.
-- 1 --
MYTH: Women on welfare have large families
FACT: The typical welfare family is comprised
of a mother and two children, slightly less than the size
of the average family in the United States. Forty-two
percent of AFDC families have only one child, 30 percent
have two. AFDC families, like o ther families in the
United States are getting smaller.
-- 2 --
MYTH: Welfare mothers live "high on the
FACT: The average combined state AFDC and food
stamp benefit in 1993 was only 65 percent of the poverty
level, or less than $7600 for a family of three. In no
state in the union do food stamps and welfare benefits
together lift a family of three o ut of poverty, and most
AFDC families are worse off today than their counterparts
were in the 1970s: the real after-inflation value of the
AFDC grant fell 45 percent from 1972 to 1993, 26 percent
if food stamps are counted. Meanwhile, during the 1980s,
the average pre-tax income of the richest 20 percent of
all families rose 77 percent while that of the poorest 20
percent declined by 9 percent.
COMMENT: Instead of helping poor women and
children live high on the hog, AFDC keeps mother-only
families living in poverty.
-- 3 --
MYTH: Welfare recipients are lazy and do not
want to work.
FACT: Of the 14 million AFDC recipients, only
4.5 million are adults, 90 percent of whom are women. In
nearly 60 percent of welfare homes, the youngest child is
under six years of age; in 30 percent, the youngest is
under age two. Many mothers on public assistance combine
work with welfare, or receive AFDC benefits in the
interim between jobs. Still others want to work and can't
find jobs (10 percent of all single mothers are
unemployed) or cannot find jobs that pay enough. The
$4.25 an h our minimum wage is considerably less than the
$6.00 an hour needed to keep a family of three out of
poverty. On average, employers pay women 70 cents for
every dollar earned by men.
COMMENT: If work was available and paid enough,
fewer people would need welfare. If taking care of one's
own children was defined as "work," all mothers
would be working.
-- 4 --
MYTH: Few women on welfare are white.
FACT: Of all AFDC mothers, 39 percent are
African American, 38 percent are white, 17 percent are
Latina, 3 percent are Asian, 1 percent are Native
American, and 2 percent are of unknown race.
COMMENT: Women of color are over-represented
among those on welfare because they are over represented
among the poor. The idea that AFDC is a program primarily
for women of color is used to mask the fact that so many
AFDC mothers are white, to div ide women from each other,
and to make welfare a tool in the politics of race.
-- 5 --
MYTH: Once on welfare, always on welfare.
Welfare is a trap from which few escape.
FACT: More than 70 percent of women on welfare
stay on the rolls for less than two years and only 8
percent stay for more than eight years. While many return
to AFDC for a period of time within five years due to a
renewed family crisis or job loss , research on
intergenerational welfare dependency has not established
that daughters of welfare mothers necessarily end up on
welfare, too. Some do. Some do not.
COMMENT:It is not welfare that is so hard to
escape, it is poverty. Those who follow their parents
onto the welfare rolls do so because it is very difficult
for children of poor women to work their way out of
poverty, especially in the current eco nomy. Inadequate
education and job skills are significant hurdles for
children in poor families. Again, the minimum wage does
-- 6 --
MYTH: Women on welfare have kids for money.
Eliminating AFDC will put an end to nonmarital birth.
FACT: On average, the states provide about $79
a month per additional child. Yet despite years of
research, studies have found no link between AFDC grant
levels and births outside of marriage. Indeed, nonmarital
births are no more frequent in hig h-benefit states and
states with rising grant levels than in states with flat
or falling AFDC grants.
COMMENT: Like the AFDC mother, the average
taxpayer also receives an annual grant for children --
the tax deduction for dependents. Yet no one claims that
taxpayers have larger families just to reduce their
taxes. Neither AFDC nor the tax deducti on for dependents
are rewards for having children. Rather, these income
supplements recognize the high cost of raising children
and their value to society. Moreover, pregnancies reflect
complex human factors, not calculated economic decisions.
-- 7 --
MYTH: The AFDC program is costly and bloated,
has enlarged the deficit and threatens the economy.
FACT: The federal and state governments
together spent $24.9 billion on welfare in 1992. The
federal share amounted to 1 percent of the entire federal
budget. The state share equaled 3.4 percent of the
average state budget. Ninety percent of the AFDC budget
is spent on benefits, 10 percent on administrative costs.
COMMENT: The costs of AFDC can be compared to
the roughly $300 billion in tax dollars received annually
by the Department of Defense and the billions spent on
the savings and loan bailout.
-- 8 --
MYTH:Mandatory programs such as time limits and
workfare are needed to get the welfare poor to behave
FACT: Mandatory programs do not work very well.
Workfare has produced only modest, if any, increases in
employment and earnings, and mandatory programs do not
have any greater success than voluntary ones. A recent
study of California's GAIN progr am found that workfare
participants earned an average of $271 more per year than
non-participants -- while receiving $281 a year less in
welfare. A University of Wisconsin study found that
Learnfare (the program that docks $200 a month from a
welfare mot her's check if her children miss school
without an acceptable excuse) failed to improve the
school attendance of welfare children but did exacerbate
preexisting family problems.
COMMENT: Mandatory programs imply that the poor
will not work, marry, plan their families, send their
children to school, or take them to the doctor unless the
government makes them do so. Supporters of mandatory
programs are often the same people who argue that the
government should "get off people's backs." But
when it comes to the poor, they support government
telling people what to do and how to live.
-- 9 --
MYTH: If poor women only married, they would
not be poor.
FACT: Family composition does not cause
poverty. Although two incomes are clearly better than
one, the poor tend to be poor before, during and after
they tie the knot. The majority of the poor live in
households with workers employed full year, f ull time.
COMMENT: Marriage is not an effective
antipoverty strategy for women.
-- 10 --
MYTH: Female-headed households are responsible
for rising poverty rates.
FACT: The percentage of all poor families that
are headed by women has declined since 1990. Yet at the
same time, the poverty rate for families has increased
from 10.7 percent in 1990 to 11.7 percent in 1992.
COMMENT: Gender does not make people poor.
Rather, the treatment of women based on gender has
contributed to the impoverishment of women. Blaming women
for rising poverty rates does, however, mask its real
-- 11 --
MYTH: Those who work are not poor.
FACT: Nearly 7 percent of the workforce, or 9.2
million workers, remain poor despite being employed.
Almost 60 percent of all poor people live in families
where someone works. Until the mid-1970s, the minimum
wage lifted those who worked full-tim e, year-round, out
of poverty. Today, it leaves a three-person family $3,862
below the poverty line.
COMMENT: For a large segment of the population,
the promise of the American dream -- that if you work you
will not be poor -- has not been kept for the last 15
-- 12 --
MYTH: The poor are freeloaders.
FACT: Five percent of the population receives
AFDC. Forty-seven percent of the population receives some
kind of direct government benefit such as social
security, Medicare or veterans' benefits. In addition,
the tax code provides numerous health, education and
welfare benefits to the rich and middle class, and
another set of subsidies to corporations.
COMMENT: Everyone is on welfare.