In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare, Race, and the American Imagination

  • Introduction
  • Perspectives on the History of Poverty, Race, and the US Welfare State
  • How Racism Shaped Pre-Reform Welfare
  • Race, Poverty, and the Underclass Debate
  • Key Texts in Opposition to Relief
  • Public Opinion, Discourse, Race and the American Dream
  • Perspectives and Discourse among Poor People and Welfare Recipients
  • Experiences of Welfare Recipients
  • Welfare Reform/PRWORA, Race, and Opinion
  • Welfare Rights Activism
  • Welfare Reform: Consequences and Criticisms
  • Post-PRWORA Welfare, Welfare Alternatives, and Survival Strategies

Sociology Welfare, Race, and the American Imagination
Joan Maya Mazelis, Stephen Pimpare
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0234


This entry includes a variety of sources on American beliefs about welfare and race. There is a much larger literature on poverty and race not included here, including the important topics of residential segregation, employment inequality, mass incarceration, and housing discrimination. Welfare here is defined narrowly, mostly to include Mothers’ Pensions/Aid to Families with Dependent Children that welfare reform changed to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Perceptions of Blackness in particular shape welfare policy and opinion, so the focus on racism herein is on anti-Black racism, essential to making sense of the development of US social welfare policies and programs and how they function. Ideas of work, of the “proper” roles for women, and of opportunity all shape opinion and policy. Notions of the “Welfare Queen” still dominate American thinking. The first section focuses on the history of poverty and welfare and the second specifically focuses on the role of racism in welfare. The third section focuses on the use of the term ‘underclass’ and its racist undertones. In the fourth section the sources are the main texts by key authors who assert negative consequences for society of having welfare and who advocate reducing or eliminating benefits. These first four sections focus on welfare’s early days, including the earliest relevant history of the colonial period and the Revolutionary War but through the New Deal of the 1930s and the War on Poverty of the 1960s. In the fifth section the sources detail issues of public opinion and discourse regarding race, welfare, and the “American Dream.” The sixth section examines the Perspectives and Discourse among Poor People and Welfare Recipients, while the seventh section includes sources on the Experiences of Welfare Recipients before welfare reform. The eighth section is the first section in the article to engage with the topic of the 1996 welfare reform, the law which overhauled welfare and spelled its demise as an entitlement, transforming welfare for the decades that have followed. The ninth section focuses on Welfare Rights Activism, both before and after welfare reform. The tenth section’s sources examine the causes and consequences of welfare reform. Finally, the eleventh section contains sources that present information about the experiences of poor people in the years after welfare reform.

Perspectives on the History of Poverty, Race, and the US Welfare State

We cannot make productive sense of the ways in which race affects US social welfare programs today without a keen understanding of the ways in which race, racial politics, gender, and public policy have played out in the past. These texts offer readers a grounding in that history. Colby 1985 and Pimpare 2007 lay out that history for African Americans, Gordon 1994 and Mink 1995 trace out key moments in women’s history, while Katz 1996 and Mink and Solinger 2003 offer longer, broader overviews. Abramovitz 1996 is a historical analysis that puts gender at the forefront. Gans 1971 upends our thinking about the history and functions of poverty itself, while Harrington 1962 provides insight into understandings of poverty in the 1960s. Michener 2018 helps put all of these dynamics into the context of American federalism and state power—essential features of the US political system—to help explain, in particular, geographic and historical variation in how poverty and welfare are experienced and understood.

  • Abramovitz, Mimi. 1996. Regulating the lives of women: Social welfare policy from colonial times to the present. Boston: South End Press.

    A comprehensive history of the ways in which poor women in the United States have experienced poverty and programs purportedly designed to relieve it. The title and approach echo that of Piven and Cloward 1993 (see Welfare Rights Activism) in their classic text, extending their argument about the economic functions of relief policy to the ways in which, among other consequences, they generate and enforce gendered hierarchies.

  • Colby, Ira C. 1985. The Freedman’s Bureau: From social welfare to segregation. Phylon 46.3: 219–230.

    DOI: 10.2307/274830

    Colby shows how the Freedman’s Bureau, arguably the first national social welfare program designed to benefit former slaves, came to function “as a primary vehicle for the development of segregated social relations” (p. 220). This analysis reveals the long history of how US social welfare programs, especially those targeting African Americans, have caused harm, regulated behavior, and altered social relations and political power—even as they sought to offer assistance. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Gans, Herbert J. 1971. The uses of poverty: The poor pay all. Social Policy (July/August): 20–24.

    Too much discussion and analysis of need and relief in the United States can begin with an unstated premise that poverty is universally condemned and that relief programs are designed to offer aid. In this seminal article, Gans shows readers the ways in which poverty can be functional, and notes the groups who might benefit from it.

  • Gordon, Linda. 1994. Pitied but not entitled: Single mothers and the history of welfare. New York: Free Press.

    This book traces the history of welfare, including the use of the word “welfare,” and argues that its use to describe public assistance to poor single mothers did not become common until the 1960s. Gordon describes the history of unwed mothers and the role of sexism in creating a stratified welfare system during the Great Depression, in which men would be eligible for social insurance and women for public assistance.

  • Harrington, Michael. 1962. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

    This book (and a 1963 New Yorker review of it) is credited with inspiring John F. Kennedy and spurring Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. It shed light on what was largely invisible to suburbanites: That perhaps 25 percent of Americans, or 40 to 50 million people at the time, were living in dire poverty, including members of groups such as the elderly, farmers, migrant workers, and African Americans.

  • Katz, Michael B. 1996. In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America, 10th anniversary rev’d and updated ed. New York: Basic Books.

    This book explores the history and motivations of US welfare programs from the era of the poorhouse through the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and the demise of welfare as an entitlement. Originally published in 1986, this edition analyzes the politics motivating 1996’s welfare reform. This text has been influential in how historians think about the operation of 19th-century relief policy and how it affected more recent interventions.

  • Michener, Jamila. 2018. Fragmented democracy: Medicaid, federalism, and unequal politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108224987

    With a focus specifically on Medicaid, this volume chronicles the widespread variations in how this program functions in different states and how that affects clients’ political efficacy and engagement. Drawing on original research and the extant literature on how relief programs affect beneficiaries’ (and would-be beneficiaries’) attitudes about aid programs, their own value as citizens, and their civic participation, this is an important text for understanding how attitudes about relief are generated and propagated.

  • Mink, Gwendolyn. 1995. The wages of motherhood: Inequality in the welfare state, 1917–1942. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    This book analyzes the development of welfare policies between World War I and World War II, with attention to gender and race and the stigma built into the welfare system. The author argues that many reform efforts in the beginning of the century were racist and attempted to reinforce traditional gender roles. During the New Deal period, welfare was also administered in a racist manner.

  • Mink, Gwendolyn, and Rickie Solinger, eds. 2003. Welfare: A documentary history of U.S. policy and politics. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    This edited volume is a comprehensive resource that uses government documents, activists’ accounts, and newspaper editorials, among other sources, to provide a history of public opinion, the Experiences of Welfare Recipients, and policies. It is organized chronologically, with sections on 1900–1940, the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990–2002.

  • Pimpare, Stephen. 2007. An African American welfare state. New Political Science 29.3: 313–331.

    DOI: 10.1080/07393140701523643

    This article asks how our understanding of the shape, development, and functions of the US welfare state changes if we include slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison system among its core programs: that is, should we expand the definition of social welfare to include social illfare?

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