Pitied But Not Entitled

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Linda Gordon. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. New York: The Free Press, 1994. pp.433. $22.95. Hardcover: ISBN 0029124859



Linda Gordon examines the historical transformation of the term welfare between 1890 and 1935. Initially the term welfare was used when you inquired about the “prosperity, good health and good spirits” of a friend or neighbor because you were concerned about their “welfare”. (1) However, over time the term “welfare” became synonymous with “poverty, bad health and fatalism” and grudgingly providing aid to poor and destitute strangers. (1) The welfare system has been shaped by the cultural meanings which have been associated with it over the years. (2) While Gordon discusses a variety of welfare programs, she focuses on those programs which provided relief to “single” mothers and children.

Gordon focuses on single mothers and their children in particular because they have historically been exceptionally poor, leading to the feminization of poverty. (6) The term “single mothers” refers not only to mothers who have never been married, but instead refers to all women who raised children alone including widows, divorced and separated or deserted mothers. (6) “Many Progressive Era reformers were intensely concerned about sexual immorality and women’s sexual victimization” and therefore as they advocated for mother’s aid laws they praised widows as “models of true womanhood” making widows synonymous for the “virtuous mother”. (27-28) Mother’s aid, initially known as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was inconsistent and insufficient providing conditional assistance based upon the mother’s ability to “demonstrate a class – and race-defined standard of maternal success”. (51-52) In 1962, this program was changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and continues to provide assistance to families today.

In addition to ADC/AFDC, Gordon also examined the Social Security Act which encompassed old age pensions, social insurance, unemployment compensation and other forms of public assistance. (145) This study encompasses the federal relief programs enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression known as the “alphabet soup” programs/agencies including Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Public Works Administration (PWA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Youth Administration (NYA), National Recovery Administration (NRA), National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). (189-190) The first of FDR’s federal aid programs, FERA, was initiated two months after his inauguration. (188)

Gordon also discusses the women who advocated for and promoted these aid programs including members of the women’s movement. Many of these women remained single and held high profile, powerful positions within agencies such as the Children’s Bureau, National Women’s Party, National Consumers’ League (NCL), National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL) and the U.S. Women’s Bureau. (70-71) Women’s movement leaders were the leading federal welfare promoters and their perspective determined the shape of the ADC. (67) In doing so, “they ultimately put into place a welfare program that reinforced a conventional, even out-dated gender system and disrespected other women’s preference for such independence.” (67) There was also a group of African American women who coming from “a long and rich tradition of public sphere activism and work” formed their own group dedicated to welfare activism which would benefit African Americans. (111) According to Gordon, “Black women had no reason to identify with the exclusively white definitions of women’s ‘interests’ that dominated in the white women’s welfare network”. (113) These two distinct groups worked independent of each other, each advocating the development of welfare programs to benefit their area of activism.

Of particular note is Gordon's handling of New Deal politics and policies surrounding welfare. The New Deal resulted in a "stratified welfare system."(299) This stratification occurred in three stages after the passage of the Social Security Act: deliberat exclusion of the most needy groups, largely due to racial motivation; the inclusion of some of these groups through a series of "amendments and court cases stretching from 1939 to 1970" (5); and the 1974 inclusion of the OAA and Aid to the Blind and Disabled, which left AFDC as the sole maligned welfare program (4-5). She aptly captures how women were largely marginalized from the social security debate except for the need to provide them a "family wage."(179) Simply put, "... a critique of women's economic dependence was never articulated publicly and did not enter New Deal thinking. And no one discussed single mothers."(251) Similarly, because of their even more marginalized citizenship, black women seeking access to the paltry social services offered to single mothers were summarily excluded despite their agitation for these rights.


Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Linda Gordon began her research with a question, what is welfare? She first examined the term and the ways in which the usage and meaning of this singular term was redefined in only two generations. Initially, around the turn of the twentieth century, the term was a means of inquiring about the health and well-being of a friend, however by 1935 this term was synonymous with poverty and government assistance to survive.

Gordon’s research encompasses women’s history and social history as well as social policy history which occurred during the time period between 1890 and 1935. She focuses on social policies and welfare reform in regard to single mothers, and she also discusses the women who worked to achieve legislation for those policies. While it was good to know who they were, I believe she may have gone too far by implying that many of these women were probably lesbians because they lived in apartments with other women. True or false doesn’t matter, it was not a fact revealed during their lifetimes and is irrelevant to the discussion of social policy regarding welfare reform.

This was an interesting book, but at times seemed repetitive. However, it was much easier to follow the chronological sequence of events in this book than it was in James McGovern’s And A Time For Hope. --Blclark 12:49, 26 August 2008 (UTC)

KA Fall 2009

Gordon begins Pitied But Not Entitled, by noting in just a short "two generations the meaning of 'welfare' has reversed itself. ... Today 'welfare' means grudging aid to the poor, when it once referred to a vision of a good life."(1) Gordon successfully explores this transition in connotation, while also unveiling precisely how a welfare system based on providing subsistence aid rather than a path out of poverty. This is likely the most effective thesis in the book, as Gordon consistently shows how a variety of reasons, ranging from Southern racism, to incompetent family economic models, to patriarchal norms consistently contributed to the perpetuation of poverty among single mothers. As she writes, "The factors that made the welfare law so excluding and so inequitable also contributed to creating the need for welfare, because they shored up the systems of race and sex discrimination and class exploitation that engendered poverty."(285) Gordon truly captures this arc, bringing Reconstruction, the Progressive Movement, and the New Deal to bear on this topic, providing a complete and coherent explanation of the disparaging of the word welfare. Combined with the book's readability, Pitied But Not Entitled makes for an excellent addition to the histories of New Deal policy, particularly with regard to women.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Gordon’s approach to welfare studies tracks the origins and interplay of three competing visions of welfare ideologies that directly influenced the type of welfare and the primary recipients revealing prevailing gender, racial, and labor ideologies. Female social workers of the Progressive Era comprised the first group and found their public voice in the Children’s Bureau under the leadership of Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott. Seeking to create a public sphere niche for themselves, this cohort of women focused on modest goals of individualized mothers’ aid programs for women and children through coordination with local and state organizations. By identifying children as a group with “a unique claim on the state” the Children’s Bureau was looked down upon for seeking small gains rather than more universal entitlements (100). Their insistence on casework and supervision strategies stigmatized relief recipients forced to endure means- and morals-testing before receiving relief. Harry Hopkins’s FERA group focused on federal works projects with massive budgets but focused on the needs of a cohort of primarily middle class employed groups that epitomized family wage ideology rather than groups that entered the depression already unemployed or chronically requiring assistance. The third group, social insurance advocates, were led by academics without political biases who recommended limits for assistance and encouraged promotion of old age pensions for groups that seemed less controversial than single mothers, immigrants, or minorities.

Gordon’s valuable discussion of the changing roles of the Children’s Bureau workers adds to the understanding of female social workers and their goals for welfare and how these goals could not adapt to changing roles for women over time. Early roles as Progressive social workers enabled white women of a certain class and education to combine social action with a moral mission to Americanize immigrant mothers. As experience with casework grew, surveys and statistics initiated a push for professionalization of social work and women formed social networks and working relationships with civic organizations in order to implement needed programs. As New Deal programs offered less jobs to women based on family wage mentality, Progressive ideals of motherhood did not compete with family wage systems, but also did not acknowledge the reality of single mother households or families living in poverty or consider that some families could not rely on a male wage earner. By comparing the experiences of female African American social workers to white social workers, Gordon highlights the goals of the highly educated, yet mostly employed women who worked outside of state or federal programs and more with local communities to provide programs for African American women and children who received significantly less relief than whites. Differences not only in goals between black and white, but also in the relative experiences between urban and rural poverty shaped definitions of welfare need. Discrimination occurred not only based on race, but also on class and on urban/rural geographical employment options as made clear in Gordon’s exploration of welfare policies. Social insurance goals focused on men already employed in middle class, stable, urban jobs rather than looking to the chronically under-employed, unemployed, migrant, minority, or rural men and women for programs to change the nature of poverty. Gordon’s history shows how this vision of “honorable poverty” based on a definition of hardship “derived from disrupted wage earning” shaped welfare structures and continues to influence assumptions about welfare today (185).

Gordon considers arguments of social citizenship and how the family wage ideology with its preference for male employment encouraged a corollary belief in relief for women based on their status as dependents of male wage earners rather than as independent wage earners or heads of households. Likewise, old age pensions became associated as entitlements of social citizenship, while the notion of motherhood as “skilled and socially useful labor” never gained social currency (57). Gordon shows how the division of labor between male breadwinners and female dependents ingrained in the family wage ideology created stratifications in welfare plans leaving Aid to Dependent Children at the (stigmatized) bottom rung of the program. Gordon adds to the historical context of welfare values in her discussion of racial discrimination showing how labor bosses in the South and West influenced officials to create relief policies so biased that African Americans and migrant workers would not be able to leave low wage jobs in agriculture, industry, or domestic service to pursue relief options.

Gordon’s admonishment to be aware of the “hidden assumptions and of the existence of the powerless, the unmobilized, the alienated” when looking the history of cultural assumptions reminds us that “the quietness of some groups makes the demands of others relatively louder” (211). In the case of the history of welfare, understanding the three competing visions of welfare and the changes that the prominent groups of female social workers underwent during the period of 1890 to 1935 reveal much about early goals for public assistance that differ substantially from modern day prejudices about relief programs and their recipients.

Sheri A. Huerta 04:55, 16 September 2012 (UTC)

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Gordon's analysis of twentieth century welfare through the emergence of the ADC reveals the ways in which the gendered ideas of the male breadwinner husband/female domestic wife family structure permeated the formation of New Deal programs. She argues that the period from 1890-1935 marked the pivotal transformation of the word welfare to a pejorative, "although the word itself did not come into common use in its current meaning until the 1960s" (1). Throughout the text, she constantly refers to the connection between this transitional period and the point that these notions of welfare, that are neither universal nor timeless, have nevertheless endured and proved highly resistant to change. Although her primary attention is on single mothers, Gordon argues persuasively that understanding the degraded status of the ADC recipients stems from understanding the kinds of claims to assistance (rights, earnings, and needs) and how those were gendered. As Gordon claims, "Needs have often been feminine, while earnings and rights, speaking of power in the economy and state, have more often been masculine...The better welfare strata, like old-age and unemployment insurance, are rights and earnings or contribution-based; the worse, like AFDC, are only needs-based" (8).

She also argues for a more holistic approach by bringing to light the efforts beyond the formal legislation of the Social Security Act; her point is that the less successful alternative forms of organizing or thinking about welfare are no less valid to understanding how New Deal programs were enacted and the ways that they were viewed. Here she particularly highlights the organization and views of African American women, who differed from their white peers largely in their closer proximity to the poor, greater attention to universal needs like education and health, higher regard for women's economic independence, and a claim to equal leadership with men (127-128). Gordon takes an even-handed approach to the race and class divisions among women reformers by acknowledging those that wanted to bridge racial differences and the structural and de facto segregation of organizations. The white women reformers are not merely racists wanting nothing to do with minority women; they were a mixed group that often preferred to segregate activities and who were even further removed from the needs and concerns of minority women than poorer white women.

Gordon paints a far less rosy picture of the role of Progressive Era reform like the initial mother's-aid programs: she argues that the limitations of mother's aid coupled with the leadership of an older generation of reformers like Frances Perkins stifled the effectiveness and implementation of relief programs for women by denying 1930s realities. This diverges considerably in tone from Daniel Rodgers' and Neil Maher's work that tend to emphasize the positive foundation of Progressive Era ideas from which the New Dealers drew and improved. She does temper this criticism with the acknowledgment that the feminist and welfarist vision did help some women and children while more crucially "installing their program within the foundational legislation of the welfare state" (290).

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

In Pitied But Not Entitled, Gordon offers a detailed account and one possible explanation of how the concept of welfare in the United States underwent a radical reversal from a positive, wellness-inducing social activity to a shameful, lazy drain on government and taxpayer resources. Gordon has found one of the few topics in current debates that not only has a rich history, but also necessitates a study thereof in order to understand its current state. Although the twenty years between its publication in 1994 and 2014 have not shown great promise in welfare reform, perhaps her conclusion, that the designers of the Aid for Dependent Children chose unhealthy alliances (304), would be a helpful reminder to policymakers when they write or revise laws that affect marginal groups. At very least, her book serves to demonstrate the difficulty of accomplishing social justice through government bureaucracy.

Although Gordon’s evidence and narrative are compelling, her organization falls into the trap of attempting to be multilinear and chronological simultaneously. Despite being promised to see the unfolding of a change, readers encounter 1933 and other years repeatedly within different, intertwined narratives. Personally, I blame the restrictive nature of time and perception, but the chain of events essential to Gordon’s argument might have been better served by chapters composed of finer grains and more tightly woven structures.

Additionally, Gordon’s use of statistics and her personal analysis of women’s association members are thorough and bring powerful observations to support her argument. Their presentation, however, does not do justice to their importance. Some might claim that presentation is secondary to composition, but the rhetorical potency of a well-constructed image or series cannot be overestimated. Considering that various portions of her text describe women using quantitative data to construct their welfare reform policy (see pages 169–172), close attention to use of data would be fitting in Gordon’s text.

The most redeeming and noteworthy aspect of Gordon’s study is her refusal to duplicate the mistakes of those she studies. Her chapters include the perspectives and experiences of elite, middle-class, working, and poor women (and men) of white and black ancestry, and she acknowledges her lack of other minority perspectives. She tries to include their efforts as related to the welfare issues throughout the early 20th century, whether they were trying to reform the lower classes or carve out a better existence for themselves. In writing her history of the welfare system in America, Gordon consciously avoided making the same mistakes as those who built the ADC and set welfare down a troubled road.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In her work Linda Gordon focuses on the transformation of the definition of the meaning of welfare from a friendly inquiry into the well being of a friend (at the turn of the century) to being synonymous with poverty and government assistance to survive (by 1935). She examines two themes in depth- the stigmatization of single mothers and subsequently their poor treatment and the complicity of maternalistic welfare workers in creating a welfare state that reinforced women’s second class citizenship.

She argues that the New Deal failed in terms welfare available to poor women. The New Deal provided “social insurance” to those people (mostly white men) employed in regular work (through Social Security, unemployment, an early version of workers compensation, etc.) while women and minorities who tended to be irregularly employed were awarded “pity points” or welfare. Even the scarce aid they were given could be limited by social workers and case workers who demanded certain behaviors and attitudes of the welfare recipients. Unfortunately, it was these welfare promoters (often leaders of the women’s movement) that “put into place a welfare program that reinforced a convention outdated gender system and disrespected other women’s preferences for such independence” (67). Gordon also refreshingly examines African American women who were leaders of the welfare movement aimed toward their own communities.

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