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The following article, which appeared in LBO #61 (December 1993), was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.


Who's poor?

NAFTA under his belt, Clinton is likely to turn to welfare reform as the weather turns colder. At first glance, it's extraordinary that a relatively small portion of public spending is such a hot matter -- $24 billion a year spent on the principal welfare program, AFDC, is what the government pays in interest to its creditors every six weeks, or what the Pentagon spews in four. This isn't how the public sees things. A 1992 survey by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting asked citizens which of three functions the government spent the most money on; 42% picked foreign aid, 30%, welfare, and 22% the military -- an exact inversion of reality.

But "welfare" isn't just about the provision of income to the poor; it's about class, sex, race, and myths of the national identity. Poverty in a land of universal opportunity has to be the result of features outside the realm of the normal. Accordingly, poverty is seen as something concerning nonwhite urban single mother families, hotbeds of social pathology spawned by 1960s libertinism, drug culture, and feminism. These pathologies are then socially transmitted across generations, creating a habit of dependency. (Moral-cultural explanations have replaced genetics as the modern form of scientific racism.) Though the yahoo version of this is most familiar, there are liberal variants as well; for an example, you could pick almost any issue of the New York Times at random, where you would learn that homelesslness is caused by schizophrenia, drug use, and an inability to defer gratification.

Do the poor resemble the cliche? No, as an hour spent with the Census Bureau's recently published annual povery report reveals. While almost two thirds (62.5%) of poor adults are women -- nonwhite urban single-mother families constitute a fraction of the American impoverished, 15.4%. Rural whites of all family types, account for 19.5% of the poor -- well above urban single moms. White suburbanites of all family types -- and they do come in all types -- account for an even larger share (24.1%), though you don't hear much about them.

Studies of the "intergenerational transmission of welfare dependency" reported in the 1992 Green Book (published by the House Ways & Means Committee) do not support the popular "like mother, like daughter" stereotypes. Two long-term studies, for example, found that about one in five daughters of "highly welfare dependent" mothers themselves became highly welfare dependent, with the rest showing only light welfare use or none at all. Other studies show that most single mothers began their spells on welfare because of a divorce or a husband's death. In recent years, there has been a sharp growth in the number of single mothers who