Why Does US Policy Make Things Hard on Parents?Historians in the News
tags: welfare state, parenting, childcare, social services
On so many measures of family hardship, young children and their parents in the U.S. suffer more than their counterparts in other high-income nations. Babies are more likely to die and children are more likely to grow up in poverty. The U.S. is the only rich country in the world without national paid family leave. And while other wealthy countries spend an average of $14,000 each year per child on early-childhood care, the U.S. spends a miserly $500. Underlying each of these bleak truths appears to be the same, misguided belief: that government support for parents is at odds with parents being responsible for their kids.
About 50 years ago, we could have charted a different course. Women were flooding the workforce and the country hovered one presidential signature away from green-lighting a plan for a universal, publicly funded national child-care system. But at the eleventh hour, President Richard Nixon reckoned that this would lead to “family weakening.” He vetoed the plan.
Decades later, this argument is still commonly used to deny families support. Some people and politicians might sincerely believe that not helping families is a kind of tough-love motivator for parents. But sexism, classism, and, as the sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts writes in Torn Apart, racism have long played an outsize role in the U.S.’s reluctance to help parents. Our country’s first cash-assistance program for single parents—the so-called mothers’ pensions of the early 1900s—was designed for white widows and abandoned mothers to care for their children. Black and other nonwhite women were almost entirely excluded from the program—their neighborhoods were sometimes avoided by the program’s administrators, or their individual cases were rejected arbitrarily, Roberts writes. Mothers’ pensions gave way, in the 1930s, to the New Deal’s Aid to Dependent Children, which also provided cash grants to poor mothers. Yet Black women continued to frequently be denied the money, often on the grounds that they could work.
In the 1960s, civil-rights activists fought to open welfare to more parents, but this turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, according to Roberts. “As more and more Black families began receiving benefits, the image of welfare recipients began to transmute from the worthy white widow to the immoral unwed Black mother,” she writes. Crucial to this shift was an influential government report linking poverty and struggle in Black urban communities not to redlining, or to underfunded schools and neighborhoods, but to Black single motherhood. This tapped into “a widespread desire to believe that blacks had been done in by their own behavior rather than by white racism,” the historian Patricia O’Toole writes in Money & Morals in America.
This stereotype of the Black single mom cemented a new approach to family assistance. Before the 1960s, cash assistance for mothers had recognized the economic and societal value of child-rearing, sometimes expecting recipients to limit paid work to care for kids. As more nonwhite women accessed these benefits and more white women entered the workforce, mothers receiving funds needed to prove their commitment to eventually becoming independent of government support through means such as marriage and, especially, employment.
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