Government Aid for Families

An advertisement against welfare cuts.

“Why Every Woman in America Should Beware of Welfare Cuts” Advertisement

“Why Every Woman in America Should Beware of Welfare Cuts,” The New York Times, August 8, 1995.

Document Text

Why every woman in America should beware of welfare cuts.

Welfare is the ultimate security policy for every woman in America. Like accident or life insurance, you hope you’ll never need it. But for yourself and your family, sisters, daughters and friends, you need to know it’s there. Without it, we have no real escape from brutal relationships or any protection in a job market hostile to women with children. Why is Congress trying to take it away?

Imagine the worst. You’re laid off from your job. You lose your health insurance. Your marriage falls apart. Your young children need child care. And you have no family close enough to help.

This is the kind of thing that “happens to someone else.” Someone we like to think is “different.” And to underline the difference, we usually figure the woman is somehow at fault.

“Why did she have kids if she can’t support them?” we ask. “What’s the matter with her?”

But, at heart, we know how uncomfortably close we are, ourselves, to being without support, without savings. All it takes is a few strokes of hard luck. Hard luck so common, it strikes millions of women with children every year. Women with no job security, in unstable or abusive relationships, with nowhere to turn but welfare (see stories at right).

Would you let your employer take away your health insurance? Would you let the government cancel your social security? Of course not. But the problem program that benefits struggling women most—Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—is now considered fair game in Washington. And women are supposed to be quiet about it.

What myths underlie the attack on welfare?

The welfare “reform” proposal in Congress is based on myths about women and about welfare. Even the phrase describing the bill—the “Personal Responsibility Act,” taken from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America—exploits these myths.

It implies that impoverished women with children, unlike people who get VA benefits or retirees on Social Security, are responsible for their own troubles and need a whack from a morality paddle to get back in line.

This is not only insulting, but dangerous.



By the 1990s, government assistance for poor families had become a political issue strongly connected to race. President Ronald Reagan first introduced the idea of the “welfare queen” during his 1976 primary campaign. The term was used to describe women, primarily Black and Latina, who supposedly took advantage of public aid programs and lived in wealth on government assistance. The term was a racist stereotype not based on the realities of recipients of need-based financial support who were always predominantly white. However, it became a popular talking point for conservatives, who argued for restrictions in government aid provided to low-income Americans. 

In turn, this pressured Democrats to weaken support for government assistance programs to poor mothers and expand programs that provided assistance to recipients many voters considered to be more “deserving” like older Americans and people with disabilities. They also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helped low-income working people and families.  

Concern about women who “abused” government assistance came to a head during debates over the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The Social Security Act of 1935 established AFDC, which provided financial assistance to children of low-income families. Conservative politicians targeted AFDC, which disproportionately supported single mothers of color (although the majority of recipients were white). Congress started work on revising the AFDC in 1995, when Republicans held majorities in both houses. Members of the Democratic Party, including President Bill Clinton (who was up for reelection), feared that supporting progressive welfare programs would limit their ability to attract voters.

About the Resources

A group of feminist scholars studying the impact of welfare on women and families formed the Women’s Committee of One Hundred in response to Congress’s review of AFDC. This document is an advertisement the group placed in the New York Times on August 8, 1995. In it, they encourage citizens to contact their representatives to oppose welfare reform and urge President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to veto a bill that repeals AFDC.

President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law in 1996, just months before he was up for reelection. It ended AFDC after 61 years and replaced it with temporary assistance. It also excluded immigrants who had been in the United States for less than five years from receiving government aid. This particular point was in response to incorrect claims that Mexican immigrants were abusing AFDC.

PRWORA reduced government aid from 4.5 million families in 1996 to 2.1 million families six years later. However, families still needed help, so they turned instead to shelters and food pantries. Single mothers who struggled to work and take care of their children at the same time were more likely to lose custody after they no longer had access to government aid.

Discussion Questions

  • How did AFDC support women? How did the repeal of AFDC affect them?
  • Why would the Women’s Committee of One Hundred encourage readers to “imagine the worst”? What would “the worst” look like?
  • Why did the public support the repeal of government aid for low-income families? How does the advertisement address misunderstandings about welfare?
  • Why do you think the Women’s Committee of One Hundred took out a full-page ad in the New York Times specifically? Which audience did they intend to reach?

Suggested Activities

  • Pair this resource with a hearing about music censorship to consider the impact of neoliberalism and the conservative shift in politics on the policies of the Democratic Party. How did both political parties implement a neoliberal perspective that embraced the free market and criticized government programs?
  • Combine this resource with Year of the Woman and the testimony of Anita Hill. What influences might the lack of gender equity in Congress have had on this law?
  • For a larger lesson on the effects of government policies on women during this period, teach this resource alongside U.S. v. Virginia, Nursing Relief Act, and Title IX.



Source Notes