Date: Tue, 28 Mar 1995 18:01:15 GMT
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Fighting Back! Challenging AFDC myths with the facts

By Mimi Abramovitz and Fred Newdom.
28 March, 1995

Quite a few of you have been asking for the fact sheet on welfare, so I'll post it for everybody. It was written by Mimi Abramovitz, Professor of Social Work, Hunter College School of Social Work, and Fred Newdom, ProAct Consulting Services and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Smith College School for Social Work, prepared for the Bertha Capen Reynolds Society (an organization of radical social workers)


Welfare "reform" has become the major focus in the newest "backlash" against government programs and a hot political issue, with the welfare mother replacing Willie Horton as the new code word in racial politics. Coercive new plans have gained wide public support by playing to a host of stereotypes and myths about AFDC and the women who use the program. The following myuths, facts, and comments can be used to undermine the stereotypes that fuel current welfare "reforms" and to build support for more progressive social policies.


In 1988, the Family Support Act transformed the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) from a program to enable single mothers to stay home with their children into a mandatory work and training program. The 1988 legislation, dubbed "welfare reform," was controversial from the start and has remained so as states try to implement welfare-to-work programs, with only modest results. But, the Family Support Act was just the first of a series of "welfare reforms" that use government dollars to dictate the behavior of women on welfare. If work was the first target of the "new paternalism," the second is the family life of AFDC mothers. States are now rushing to offer "marriage bonuses" and to deny additional benefits for children born to women on welfare. The "Wedfare" or "Bridefare" proposals require women on welfare to marry and have fewer children in order to qualify for aid. Other programs cut benefits to families who fail to see a doctor, to keep kids in school, and to pay the rent on time. In the name of monitoring fraud, some states now finterprint welfare mothers.


MYTH: Women on welfare have large families.

FACT: The typical welfare family is a mother and two children, slightly less than the size of the average family in the United States.

COMMENT: AFDC families, like other families in the U.S., are getting smaller.

MYTH: Welfare mothers live "high on the hog."

FACT: The average welfare benefit is $367 a month or $4400 a year. This is almost $9000 less than the federal poverty line for a family of three. The real (after inflaltion) value of the AFDC grant fell 42% from 1972-1990, 27% if Food Stamps are counted. In no state of the union do food stamp and welfare benefits together lift a family of three out of poverty. Meanwhile, during the 1980's, the average pretax income of the richest 20% of all families rose 77%, while that of the poorest 20% declined by nine percent.

COMMENT: Instead of helping poor women and children live high on the hog, AFDC keeps mother-only families living in poverty. But government programs do not have to keep people poor. Cross-national studies show that U.S. income support programs lifted less than 5% of single mothers with children out of poverty in the 1980's, compared to 89% in the Netherlands, 81% in Sweden, 75% in the United Kingdom, 50% in France, 33% in Germany, and 18.3% in Canada.

MYTH: Welfare recipients are lazy and do not want to work.

FACT: Of the 13 million AFDC recipients, only 4 million are adults, 90% of whom are women -- many mothers of young children. In more than half of welfare homes, the youngest child is under 5 years of age. Many adult women on welfare are not able to work due to illness, disability or lack of education and job skills. Many others have worked at some time in their lives and others combine work and welfare. Still other AFDC mothers want to work but cannot find a job (10% of all single mothers are unemployed) or cannot find jobs that pay enough. (The $4.25 an hour minimum wage is $2.75 an hour less than the $7.00 an hour needed to keep a family of four out of poverty.)

COMMENT: If work paid enough, fewer people would need welfare. If taking care of one's own children was defined as "work," all mothers would be considered to be working. According to a recent calculation, their labors would be worth at least $17,000.

MYTH: Few women on welfare are white.

FACT: Of all AFDC mothers, 40% are African-American, 38% are white, 16% are Latina, 2.7% are Asian, 1.3% are Native American, and 1.5% are of unknown race.

COMMENT: Women of color are overrepresented among those on welfare because they are overrepresented 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 divide women from each other, and to make welfare a tool in the politics of race.

MYTH: Once on welfare always on welfare. Welfare is a trap from which few escape.

FACT: More than half of women on welfare stay on the rolls for less than one year. A quarter leave within four months, and only one-third stay more than two years. Research on intergenerational welfare use has not been able to establish that daughters of welfare mothers necessarily end up on welfare too. Some do, some do not.

COMMENT: The biggest cause of welfare seems to be poverty. It is very hard for children of poor women to escape poverty, especially in the current economy with its falling wages and rising unemploymewnt. It's hard to work your way out of poverty. People working at minimum wage jobs earn less than $9000 a year. Employers pay women 65 cents for every dollar earned by men.

MYTH: Women on welfare have "kids for money."

FACT: Despite years of research, studies have found no link between the AFDC grant and births outside of marriage. Those births are no more frequent in high benefit states and no greater in states with rising grant levels than in states with flat or falling AFDC payments. The states provide somewhere between $40 and $65 a month per additional child. In contrast, the average taxpayer receives a $2300 (about $190 a month) tax deduction for dependents. No one claims that taxpayers have more children just to get a larger tax deduction.

COMMENT: Neither AFDC nor the tax deduction for dependent children are rewards for having children. Rather, these income supplements recognize the value of children to society and the high cost of raising children. The U.S. is the only industrial nation other than South Africa and Japan that does not provide families with an automatic grant for every child.

MYTH: AFDC encourages family break up and out of wedlock births.

FACT: Single-parent households are on the rise but it is not due to AFDC. While the value of the AFDC benefit fell during the last twenty years, the number of mother-only households rose. Meanwhile, the number of married- couple households in the U.S. fell from 40% in 1980 to 26% in 1990. Of all the women who are eligible for AFDC (poor unmarried women with children under age 18), the proportion who actually used AFDC fell from 60% in 1970 to 45% in 1988. The number of all poor children on AFDC fell from 75 out of every 100 (1972-78) to 59 out of every 100 in 1988.

COMMENT: Unwed motherhood predated AFDC and is on the rise due to divorce delayed marriage, changing sexual norms, the falling standard of living, and other social conditions. AFDC does not cause families to break up, but does give women an alternative to unsafe and insecure marriages. The country would be better served by an income support program that served individuals regardless of work effort or marital status.

MYTH: The AFDC program is costly and bloated, has enlarged the deficit and deepened the recession.

FACT: The federral and state governments together spent $23 billion on welfare in 1991. The federal share amounted to 1% of the $1.3 trillion Federal budget. The state share equaled 3.4% of the average state budget. Ninety percent of the AFDC budget is spent on benefits; 10% on administrative costs.

COMMENT: The costs of AFDC can be compared to the $300 billion in tax dollars received by the Department of Defense and the $130 billion spent in 1991 alone on the savings and loan bail out.

MYTH: Mandatory programs are needed to get the welfare poor to behave properly.

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 fare any better than voluntary ones. A recent study of California's GAIN program found that workfare participants averaged only $1902 a year in earned income. The participants earned an average of $271 more per year than non-participants and received $281 a year less in welfare. A University of Wisconsin study found that Learnfare (the program which docks up to $200 a month from a welfare mother's check if her children miss school without an acceptable excuse) failed to improve the school attendance of welfare children, but did exacerbate pre-existing family problems.

COMMENT: Mandatory programs imply that the poor will not work, marry, plan their families, send their children to school, or tke them to the doctor unless the government makes them do so. Supporters of mandatory programs for the poor are often the same people who argue that the government should "get off people's backs." But, when it comes to the poor, especially poor women, they support government telling people what to do and how to live.

MYTH: Female headed households are responsible for rising poverty rates.

FACT: The number of female headed households has grown only slightly in recent years, but poverty rates have soared.

COMMENT: Gender does not make people poor. Rather, the differential treatment of women based on gender has contributed to the povertization of women. Blaming women for rising poverty rates does, however, mask its real cuases.

MYTH: If poor women only married, they would not the poor.

FACT: Family composition does not affect poverty. Although two incomes are clearly better than one, the poor tend to be poor before, during, and after they tie the knot. The two-parent household is the fastest growing poverty group in the United States. The majority of the poor live in households with workers employed full year, full time. Sixty-four percent of all poor children live in families with one or more workers.

COMMENT: Marriage is not an effective anti-poverty strategy for women.

MYTH: Those who work are not poor.

FACT: Eight million workers, or seven percent of the work force, work but are poor. Sixty percent of all poor families contain someone who works part or full time. Until the mid-1970's, the minimum wage lifted those who worked full-time, year round, out of poverty. Today, it leaves a three person family $2300 below the poverty line. Average hourly pay rates for non-supervisory workers were lower in 1990 than in any year since 1964. Poverty rates declined less during the 1980's recovery than during the 1960's recovery, even though low-income households increased their employment levels more in the 1980's than in the 1960's. The main reason for this was that, in the 1980's, the decline in wages canceled out some of the gains from increased work. In addition, unemployment rose from 5.5% of the labor force in 1990 to 6.7% in 1991.

COMMENT: For a 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 past 15 years.

MYTH: The poor are freeloaders on government programs.

FACT: Forty-seven percent of the population receives some kind of direct government benefit, with 5.1% of the population receiving AFDC. In addition, the tax code provides numerous health, education, and welfare benefits to the rich and the middle class and another set of subsidies to corporations.

COMMENT: Everyone's on welfare.

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