chapter  7
Welfare as We [Don’t] Know It: A Review and Feminist Critique of Welfare Reform Research in the United States
Pages 30

In the latter years of the twentieth century, welfare states across Western, affluent nations revamped their social assistance packages for lone mothers. Many of these states effectively ended their decades-long practices of allowing lone mothers to care for children at home by implementing policies that required or strongly encouraged employment for lone mothers receiving social assistance. In the United States, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), commonly referred to as ‘‘welfare reform,’’1 overhauled social assistance for poor families with children (most of which are headed by a lone mother). Under PRWORA, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

(TANF), a system of block grants to individual states, replaced the federallevel Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Hundreds of empirical studies have assessed how current and former US

welfare recipients fared after the implementation of PRWORA. However, because state-level TANF rules vary considerably, most of these studies have been carried out at the local or state level. Unfortunately, much of this research cannot be generalized to the larger US population. National-level research is less common, but essential to ascertain macro-level effects of welfare program changes. Moreover, compared to local or state level studies, national-level research can better inform federal policy responses and, by design, can reliably include a wide range of racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups. This paper emphasizes empirical research that uses nationally representative datasets as well as empirical studies that aggregate individuals across several states or cities. After a brief overview of TANF’s provisions, this paper reviews several

national-level studies on four main subjects of interest – caseload reduction, labor force participation, income/poverty/hardships, and family formation (following Rebecca Blank 2002). The review finds that caseloads did indeed drop, and that the economic well-being of many lone mothers improved after PRWORA’s passage. But many lone mothers’ ongoing experience of poverty and material hardships – particularly during the midst of an economic boom – caution against drawing rosy conclusions from such evidence. A more rounded assessment of the impact of welfare reform requires a feminist perspective. The main thrust of this paper is to identify the characteristics of research in this area, to demonstrate its advantages over mainstream research, and to speculate about why there is comparatively little feminist research on welfare reform to date. It concludes by addressing ways to promote feminist research on this pressing topic. This paper focuses on the experience of lone mothers under welfare

reform, adopting a similar definition of lone motherhood to the one used for TANF eligibility – unmarried mothers with children living at home. While lone mothers may be cohabiting with or have other relationships with partners, among the population of interest considered here, partners’ incomes are generally not sufficient to keep lone mothers from needing cash assistance. For decades, widows have not been eligible for AFDC/ TANF. While married couples, single fathers, and grandfathers are eligible to receive TANF, they make up only a small percentage of adult TANF recipients. For example, in 2000, only 4 percent of TANF families included two or more adult recipients and 90 percent of all adult TANF recipients were female. The vast majority of those receiving TANF are single-parent households headed by women (US Department of Health and Human Services 2001). Therefore, this paper treats low-income lone mothers as the group most affected by welfare reform.2