By Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, Barbara Smith, and Gloria Steinem, eds.
The organization of public assistance has had particular import for women because women have been overrepresented among the poor and because public welfare systems have enforced and constructed particular family and gender systems. For centuries public assistance has been stigmatized; hostility toward the poor, toward relief, toward women without male support, and more recently toward racial/ethnic minorities created an escalating spiral of ill will. That stigma has been so embedded in language that the history of welfare cannot be understood without examining its terms.
Welfare is stigmatized only when it is given to the poor. The U.S. government was constructed around "giveaways"--starting with land grants to European settlers and developing into massive tax deductions and aid to corporations. The idea of a welfare state developed in the mid-twentieth century as governments became more active in promoting public health, safety, education, and well-being. But by the 1960s in the United States, "welfare" referred only to stigmatized forms of assistance--primarily Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which provided support for poor single mothers and their children and was the main program people meant when they spoke of "welfare" until the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 repealed the program. By contrast, aid programs which benefit the nonpoor, such as Social Security old-age insurance, are not considered "welfare." Yet 80 percent of direct government aid goes to citizens who are not poor.
In the early British North American colonies, relief for the poor was governed by the traditions of the English poor laws dating from 1597. Poor relief was the responsibility of local governments, usually towns or cities, which might provide both "indoor" (institutional) and "outdoor" (aiding the poor in their own... [continues]
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