Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

Welfare Reform 1996 to present
Vehicle to Regress Women to the pre-Roe Dark Ages
& limit their options to marriage or relinquishment of children

Welfare reform never has been about helping people onto their feet and into jobs. Even as they made the pretense of promoting "workfare," Republicans cut job training by 56% in 1996. Right-wing think tanks turned reform into an effort to "restigmatize" single pregnancy, and to punish young, poor women, rather than an impetus to address social justice issues of poverty, education, unemployment and the high reported history of sexual abuse among pregnant teens.

From the beginning, "reform" has been marked by cuts in job training, child care and child support, and essentially exploited as opportunity to reduce women’s real-world options. One of the first provisions of the 1996 bill was the elimination of the 20-year-old mandate for family planning access for recipients. The bill also allocated block grants for abstinence-only sex education, and monetary rewards to states that reduce "illegitimacy ratios" without increasing the rate of abortion (an encouragement of further state-imposed abortion restrictions). In brief, welfare reform became a vehicle for return to the pre-Roe patriarchal order, with its proscriptions against women’s rights and the conviction that a woman’s only recourse short of child relinquishment, should be marriage-for-financial-support. Fundamentalists name women immoral and anti-family for failure to adhere to a strict procreative gender role, and oppose any move toward women’s financial equity, independence or ability to work, including child care.

What Republicans failed to cut in 1996, they slashed in the 2006 budget bill. The catch-22 of the 2006 rewrite of welfare law is that renewed requirements have been imposed upon states to cut welfare roles and move people into jobs, at the same time that huge cuts are made to Medicaid, child care, child support enforcement, foster care, family planning, student loans, and disability insurance. Seventy-five percent of women who resort to welfare never see child support; nevertheless, ultraconservatives balked at inclusion of child support enforcement in the 1996 reform bill, and cut $8 billion from child support in 2006. ("Democracy Now," 12/22/05, Bob Greenstein). Instead, they advance the pre-Roe era prescription of marriage as women’s sole recourse for financial support.

Welfare reform directives have always been punitive to women and children. A woman is penalized a minimum 25% of the family’s cash grant unless she provides the father’s Social Security number, address or driver’s license, regardless of his unavailability. Multiple jeopardies compound risks for vulnerable poor women who are denied access to birth control, abortion and welfare. Thus, a homeless Colorado woman lost all welfare benefits for failing to inform the government the name of her child’s father—an impossibility, since she had been raped by a stranger. Federal reform threatens penalties of loss of millions of dollars of federal funding to states that fail to sanction women for such "non-cooperation."

Rather than addressing poverty, unemployment or corporate welfare, abolishing all social programs, including food stamps, housing and job training, became the right-wing panacea for correction of a deficit augmented by massive military spending, tax breaks for the rich, and corporate subsidies. The Center for Responsive Law reported that Republican budget-balancers left untouched an estimated $167 billion in corporate subsidies and tax breaks — corporate welfare — in 1995 alone, more than twice as much as the $67 billion combination of all social welfare programs.

Also at the time of 1996 welfare reform, ultraconservatives halved funding for the 1993 Violence Against Women Act, further abandoning female victims of abuse, leaving them without recourse. The Bush administration continues to defund the Violence Against Women Act, even as it redirects a minimum $100 million subsidy toward abstinence-only sex education and marriage-promotion, through its "Office of Marriage Initiatives" - a promotion of Paul Weyrich’s Heritage Foundation.