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Reforming Welfare

A participant in the voter registration drives and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Gwendolyn Mink, X’74, has chosen scholarship as her latest means of political action. Mink’s new book, Welfare’s End, published by Cornell, traces the evolution of the nation’s federal welfare program and warns that recent changes could hurt poor women and their families.

Mink, a professor of politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, asserts that welfare grew out of early 20th-century calls for the federal government to help poor women achieve middle-class status. Welfare was intended, she says, to help women without breadwinners in the family stay at home and care for their children, at the time a preferable option to working outside the home. After the eradication in the 1960s of social controls that kept blacks from receiving welfare, the number of blacks on welfare began to expand. This coincided, she continues, with a dramatic decrease in the number of whites receiving welfare. Since that time, Mink argues, welfare reform has often been wrongfully viewed more as an issue of race than as a women’s or a class issue. Mink further asserts that the latest welfare reforms unfairly burden poor mothers, who, she says, are not unwilling to work. Rather, they cannot afford to stay off welfare, she concludes, because to survive off the welfare rolls, these women need a minimum wage high enough to provide child care, after-school care, and health care.

Mink criticizes the efforts of feminists to assist poor women, saying their efforts to back rules in the new welfare program that require fathers to pay child support are misguided. Feminists have failed to consider, she says, that these rules are rooted in middle-class assumptions that a husband has divorced his wife and can support his family. “For poor women, there is no such alternative,” says Mink. “Poor women are affiliated with poor men.”

The requirement to pay child support, she further argues, can also provide men with an incentive to cease all contact with the family, while the rules invade the privacy of the women by forcing them to provide the name of the children’s father and other personal information. Mink also criticizes middle-class feminists for what she views as a hostility toward stay-at-home mothers. They want poor women to forsake raising their children for the sake of wage earning, she says.

Mink plans to continue her work on behalf of poor women by looking at other issues that affect them, such as public housing: “I want to alert people to the needs of these women and contribute to the changing discourse.”—Q.J.

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