Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement
American Social & Political Movements of the Twentieth Century Series
New York: Routledge, 2012.
Hardback. 202 p. ISBN 978-0415800853. $26.95
Reviewed by Hélène Quanquin
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3
Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement is the third book to be published in the Routledge series “American Social & Political Movements of the Twentieth Century.” The goal of the series is to give students a clearer picture of the history of American citizenship and democracy through the study of political movements. Premilla Nadasen is the author of an acclaimed monograph on the American welfare rights movement (Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States, New York, Routledge, 2004).
The book recounts the history of the welfare rights movement from the 1950s to the 1970s, in eight chapters arranged chronologically and thematically. The first chapter deals with the origins of welfare and the welfare rights movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of African American women benefiting from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) increased, which accounts for the dominance of race in the debate over welfare since then: “Increasingly,” Nadasen argues, “the politics of welfare converged on the stereotypical image of a black unmarried welfare mother who was lazy and dishonest” .
The mobilization for welfare rights, which started in the late 1950s, was both local and national. Chapter 2 investigates the creation of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which was founded in 1967, as well as its dual organization, “which included both middle-class staff and grassroots welfare recipient activists” . This structure accounts for the struggles and tensions within the welfare rights movement evoked in chapter 6, and thus explains the complexities inherent in an interracial movement – in 1972, women recipients took control of the NWRO. In chapters 3 and 4, Nadasen examines the welfare rights movement’s ideological contributions. In chapter 3, she describes how ‘[m]othering is work’ became a rallying cry of the welfare rights movement”  in the discussions over mandatory work. In chapter 4, she recounts the construction of a “right to welfare”  as opposed to the notion of charity. Chapter 5 deals with the issue of a guaranteed annual income, which culminated in President Nixon’s 1969 proposal of FAP (Family Assistance Plan), which “reflected most clearly the consensus around poverty and welfare in the 1960s” . The proposal was opposed by NWRO and was eventually abandoned, which was followed by a “backlash”  against welfare rights in the 1970s, described in chapter 7. The economic crisis, the increasing resentment of the middle class against welfare recipients, and the growing popularity of conservatism account for the flagging influence of welfare rights. Nadasen, however, also shows that welfare rights activists were up against a stronger and lasting undercurrent: “[w]ithin the US welfare state African Americans have always been categorized as undeserving” , she writes.
In the last chapter, entitled “A Radical Black Feminist Movement” [125-140], Nadasen develops her central thesis announced in the introduction: “[t]hrough their organizing, women in the welfare rights movement formulated a distinctive radical black feminism that saw gender as linked to and shaped by class, race, culture, and sexuality” . She thus examines the specificity of black women’s welfare rights ideology and its emphasis on such issues as motherhood and reproductive rights. This chapter, however, fell short of our expectations. The place of welfare rights activists in both black and white feminist movements as well as the interaction between the welfare rights movement and feminist organizations are insufficiently developed. The use of the term “radical” to describe their thought would also have needed some explanation: Were their ideas as such radical? Was it their unique position as a disenfranchised group that made their ideas “radical”?
That criticism aside and despite a few repetitions throughout the book, Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement is a rather well-organized introduction to the welfare rights movement, which will give students a good overview of the movement’s complexities and contributions. The bibliography, which includes primary and secondary sources, is very thorough and will be very useful to both students and scholars. Finally, the activists’ short biographies throughout the book are particularly illuminating as they allow us to have a better insight into their motivations and the diversity of the movement.
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