Posted by: clunythescourge | November 6, 2007

Is Welfare a Right?

In Johnnie Tillmon’s 1972 declaration of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWR), “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue”, her analysis of the way women’s rights have been subverted in the struggle over welfare rights has been defined by the history of race, class, gender and sexuality and the subsequent hierarchical relationships which emerged. A year prior and another continent away, in her 1971 essay “Women and the Subversion of the Community”, Maria Rosa Dalla Costa speaks about the women’s roles within revolutionary Marxism in Italy, and describes the contradictions in how feminism as a movement has been subsumed by, seen as in opposition to, Marxism as a movement against class and labor oppression, when the role of women and the family are the fundamental core on which the structure of capitalistic oppression lies. Dalla Costa outlines women’s roles within the family, and details how the structure of hetero-normative nuclear family itself facilitates and perpetuates the organization and division of labor for the success and profitability of the capitalistic system.

According to Dalla Costa, when dismantling hierarchical systems, such as capitalism, we must see who is at the bottom of the structure of inequality and deconstruct their role as natural and inherent, and in these seeing fundamental contradictions which keep women in this role, we must forefront women’s ideas and goals in order for the revolution to succeed. Therefore, to overthrow capitalism and hierarchy, we must look at the root of the problem, i.e., who’s at the bottom of the hierarchy and who is subordinated under domination and oppression, or who is excluded from social production.

Tillmon reveals how women on welfare serve as the bottom of this system by being used as examples, stigmatized and devalued, “to let every woman, factory workers and housewife workers alike, know what will happen if she lets up, if she’s laid off, if she tried to go at it alone without a man” (375). In Tillmon’s analysis, this is how our society keeps women in place, in their expected, proper, and productively functioning role, as women’s productivity in capitalistic terms is derived from how “she acts as a safety valve for the social tensions caused by [capitalistic organization]” (Dalla Costa 16). This enforced passivity of women by the State, by men, by husbands and children, bosses, and by other women is what Tillmon decries as “a super-sexist marriage” (374). This can be evidenced by the policing and punishment of women and their children as dependents, for their daily lives and needs are determined by what the welfare system says the women and children need based on statistics not on personal, humanizing interactions.

Constructed as the “undeserving poor” by the 1935 Mother’s Pension Laws, women and their dependent children (deemed no longer “needy” by the linguistic switch from Temporary Assistance for Families with Needy Children (TANF to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)) are personally vilified for the structural and institutional inequalities which maintain and perpetuate poverty. Their lives are regulated, decisions sanctioned, their few choices laid out for them, autonomy limited, as if the welfare state exists as a punishment apparatus of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal dominant culture. By reinforcing values of dependency as okay for some and bad for others, punishing some women for not working, but not allowing them to choose a livable wage and imposing forced welfare-to-work laws on some but not on others, this sends strong messages to both these welfare women and to the rest of society that poor working women-of-color are on welfare due to their own personal inadequacies. Welfare women, in short, are being punished by the state for not meeting the standards of what it takes to be a “real” woman, for not having and/or keeping a man in their lives to financially support them, acting the role of the man in a super-sexist marriage between the welfare woman and the state (Tillmon 375). Yet, if women on welfare find a man it is assumed that he doesn’t experience barriers himself in being able to support a family, for example racism, classism, and imperialism.

Welfare policy thus acts as a regulator of our ideological and social norms and structures by perpetuating unequal access to resources, rights and human dignity. By punishing and stigmatizing those who fail in dominant culture’s terms, welfare has been designed to be a type of aid which is not stable nor promotes self-sufficiency and is barely enough to survive on even if one swallows their pride and succumbs to this “handout” for those who are deemed undeserving of “dependency”, creating a state of enforced dependency by its strict regulation of individual behavior and lifestyle. Thereby, in its current state, the welfare system is not doing enough to help the poor overcome poverty and succeed, nor is it doing anything for the right reasons. Relying on assumptions about the poor, the working class, people-of-color, and women, unless drastic changes are made welfare reforms will continue to be directed at the individual rather than at the dynamics which maintain, perpetuate, and benefit from institutionalized inequality. In the words of Mariarosa Dalla Costa:

We are dealing here with the revolt of those who have been excluded, who have been separated by the system of production, and who express in action their need to destroy the forces that stand in the way of their social existence, but who this time are coming together…The revolt of the one against exploitation through exclusion is an index of the revolt of the other. (6)



  1. For me, reading this article hit close to home. There was a time in my life as a child when my family was on public assistance and shared many of the experiences that Tillmon identified. For this reason, I can see why many of her ideas as well as those of Dalla Costa would be benificial to many women. Unfortunately many times there are structural reasons for women needing to seek public assistance, it is not simply a choice or something of their own doing, as it is often precieved. The whole social stigma surrounding Welfare as well as the difficult and often embarassing process of applying and recieving assistance further marginalizes recipients, who are nearly all female.

    If Welfare were opened up and made more available to both mothers and other poor people of differing genders, ages, and parental status, I don’t necessarily think that the stigma would completely disappear, however, it would no longer be associated with “irresponcible sexuality” or “irresponsible” parenting as it is now. Rather, it is many of the underlying social structures which need to change before we can start to fight poverty in our society.

  2. I also really liked reading this article on welfare and how it gave me a better perspective on the system that is all around us. It is really disgusting to understand the workings of our government in order to set up “public assistance” programs that in reality are not helping someone out at all but keeping them down. How frustrating it is to talk with people about the stigma that is set up around the welfare system. People have this preconcieved set of ideas that the recipients of this program are all “moochers.” The problem lies in the set of rules that are put into place for the people on welfare. Only getting a very miniscule amount a month. Having to give up your rights to let people into your personal life whenever. Being forced to work in order to get you off of welfare but then not offered any way to take care of your children let alone the money that it will take to get there and back and the food that you will be buying while there. It usually ends up with these women making less then they would on welfare which sets them back up to go back on it. This is such a messed up system that needs some pretty severe revising. This has helped me to speak up when someone starts ragging on the people on welfare when in actuality it is the system, our government, that needs to be ragged on.

  3. I too liked reading the articles about Dalla Costa and Tillmon. Both of these articles were passionate, informative and eye-opening for me. I can’t believe how bad we treat people on welfare and how the public assistance is a vicious circle so no one can get out. I liked how we got to hear her point of view because she was on it for so long. I thought that the fact that she has suffered in this system and explained the system to everyone that is not on it was great.
    I think that nataliap has a great idea about opening up welfare to more people in different situations, then maybe it wouldn’t be as stigmatized. That is a great start to reconstruction the Welfare system that we have now. Hopefully things will change for the future.

  4. “Is Welfare a Right?”

    Well I suppose the anwser to this is really subjective depending on ultimate what a person values…

    At this time in the spur of the moment I am writing this I would have to anwser, yes. There needs to be some social safety net for when people fall on hard times. Generally speaking the social fabric of society is incredibly unstable unless there exists a means for people to provide for themselves and move up the economic ladder.

    However, I would suggest a lot more needs to be done for people who recieve public assistance. Something more needs to be done to help people get an education or a vocational skill that can give them a living wage job that can support a an adult and one or several kids.

    In taking Family Studies as a Sophmore inquiry I found it interesting how families who are very low income will network with friends, family and other people they know to pool resources. While it does not insulate against all economic and social problems, it is a strategy used to keep things going. So I guess I’m kinda wondering if part of the solution to welfare could be strengthening families, keeping families together and strengthening the bonds people have to other people in their community.

    Anyway these are my thoughts.

  5. I also feel that welfare is a necessary system. However, it seems so outdated to me, like something that only exists because the government is too lazy to abolish it. No, I’m not saying that it should be abolished. I’m saying that it really is something that needs to be completely dismantled and put back together with a better, stronger support. It is like an old house that is the home to millions, and it is in desperate need of being remodeled. The scary thing is that it will likely be ignored until it completely collapses onto itself and the poor people supported by it will be the only one’s hurt.

    I appreciated Della Costa and Tillman’s essays, but what I was really interested in is a solution. I guess I am just one of those people who sees a problem, looks for a solution and puts together a game plan. I think that a lot of people on welfare are probably in a hopeless state, and therefore a solution is not something they can see directly. Hopefullly, before the welfare system inevitably collapses, someone has come up with a well informed, attainable solution. I’m sure they are out there, and they need to be seen and heard.

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