Single Black Mothers and Poverty Term Paper

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¶ … African-American Mothers and Poverty

The Social Welfare Aspects of the Great Society and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996

The Great Society: Goals and Implementation

Background and Purpose of the Great Society

Actual implementation

The Social Challenge: Needed Assistance Wasn't Available

Welfare Reform Act, 1996

Concerns about TANF and current welfare programs

This paper reviews two approaches in social work to single African-American mothers and poverty. The first approach, practiced during the "Great Society" era of the 1960's and 1970's, focused on state-provided welfare, housing and other assistance for single African-American mothers and their families. The second era, starting with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, focused on integrating poor African-American mothers into the workforce, and providing support services to insure that those mothers could support their children, learn a trade, and become self-supporting.

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It is easy to inject political or moral arguments into such an exposition, or to expound on legal and social policy. That is not the intention of this paper. Rather, this is a sociologically-oriented study of both approaches, establishing what works and why, and what elements can be improved. This paper will discuss the two programs in three parts: (1) explain the goals and implementation of the Great Society program, (2) explain the goals and implementation of the Welfare Reform Act, and (3) compare and contrast the two programs, with a sociological analysis of the outcomes and consequences for social workers.

The Great Society: Goals and Implementation

Background and Purpose of the Great Society

Term Paper on Single Black Mothers and Poverty Assignment

Prior and during World War II, the rate of single motherhood amongst African-American women was similar to the rest of the population. During the post-slavery period from 1890 to 1960, two-parent African-American households were the norm in 78-80% of the time (Bush, 2000). The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's led to a closer examination of African-Americans and poverty, and demonstrated the need for support of African-Americans, who had previously been neglected by the welfare system.

President Kennedy proposed a reform of the welfare program, but Lyndon Johnson was able to put it in place during his administration. Johnson focused on lifting children from poverty, and giving them the chance to participate in broader American prosperity:

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time...The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.... It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community (Johnson, 1964).

Johnson's program included a series of initiatives. The most relevant for this paper were a revamped welfare system, the Community Action Program (CAP) and Head Start. The welfare program was an offshoot of the CAP philosophy, which was not only to provide income assistance, but to provide a series of programs which would involve the poor in designing and implementing programs which helped to propel them out of the cycle of poverty.

Actual implementation

The fundamental theory of the CAP's was assistance, not a "handout." Abraham Ribicoff, Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, relied on a committee of 24 experts, 23 of whom were professional social workers (Steiner, 1974). The ambitious programs called on a significant increase in social workers. At the time, there were only 2,000 social workers in HEW, but the need was estimated at 35,000 in order to implement the imperatives of the CAP and the "War on Poverty." The predictable result was that many of the new hires had no experience, academic or working, in social work.

By the time of the renewal of the act, in 1967, Congress attempted to modify the AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, portion of the act in order to address concerns about absent fathers. The perverse effect was that those who had a father present were penalized, while those who were single mothers without an actual, even common-law, husband found their welfare payments reduced. In addition, AFDC provisions paid single mothers additional monthly amounts for each new child. The result was that, by 1970, poverty had been reduced, but the rate of single-parent families increased substantially.

Other aspects of the CAP may have worked better if more social workers had been involved. While the intention of the CAP was to lift mothers and their children out of poverty by preparing them for the workforce, few qualified for the services. Of those on the welfare rolls, only 20% qualified for job training, only ae of those were referred to actual job training, and only 10% of those on welfare actually took jobs.

There were three major discouraging factors for mothers in this program:

There was no incentive to go to work. 100% of wages earned were deducted from welfare payments, meaning that working poor ended up with no net income benefit from working.

There was a disincentive for two-parent families; women risked losing some of their welfare benefits if there were a man in the house.

The lack of child care infrastructure made it difficult for women to spend time away from home for training or jobs (Haskins, 1989).

Far from being a social worker-led "lifting from poverty," the CAP and associated programs became rules-based, bureaucratic and discouraged the welfare recipients to work. In addition, the strict interpretation of CAP rules meant that mothers were rewarded to stay out of work, to have more children, and not to have a man in the house.

At the same time, many poor were lifted from utter poverty. This was particularly true for African-Americans, whose rate of poverty declined by 50% during the 1960's (Lampman, 1974), even before adding in new social benefits, such as publicly-subsidized housing, Food Stamps, Head Start and welfare payments.

The Social Challenge: Needed Assistance Wasn't Available

The nuclear African-American family was a shambles in the 1970's. One can certainly include the Great Society programs as contributors to this decline, but other demographic factors may have also played a role. Those who criticize the Great Society reforms ignore the reality that social workers were not available to put a 'human face' on programs. In addition, congressional changes in 1967 and 1972 gutted many of the "helping hand, not a handout" nature of the programs, which inhibited their ability to support the poor with specific social programs.

The result of the Great Society programs and related demographic changes was a dramatic worsening of the status of African-American families: the number of illegitimate births to African-American women grew from 23% to 69% from 1960 to 1991, criminal incarceration increased threefold, and the number of single mother heads of household tripled during the same period (Kennedy, 1997).

Welfare Reform Act, 1996


The name of the 1996 act was the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act." This act represented a fundamental shift in America's approach to welfare. By 1996, it was commonly believed that the welfare reforms of the Great Society had been major contributors to the breakdown of the nuclear African-American family. There was a widespread belief, supported by data, that an underclass of poor, single African-American women was perpetuated by the welfare system.

The number of African-American children living with one parent had grown for both African-Americans and Caucasians, but the rate of increase had been much greater for African-Americans:

Percentage of Children under 18 Living with One Parent




The primary tradeoff of the bill was to impose mandatory work requirements on single mothers, by replacing AFDC and related programs and compel women to join the workforce. The primary program was the "WorkFirst" provision, supported for an interim period by a replacement for welfare known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

The fundamental effect of the program was to improve women's participation in the workforce, not to eliminate poverty. While poverty did decline from 1996 to 2000, from 14.5% of families to 12.8%, the primary effect was to increase single mothers' workforce participation from 25% in 1996 to 50% in 2001.

As compared to the 1962/1967 CAP program, social work was a primary focus of the program. Although welfare expenditures were substantially reduced as single mothers left the welfare rolls, the primary goal was to allocate adequate resources to child care, actual job training, and other social support services. As compared to the 1962/1967 programs, the states had a stronger role in the implementation of the program (and a greater financial participation). Some states chose to relax the requirements of TANF, which has provided a useful measure of its effectiveness in reducing unemployment among single African-American mothers. In California, for example, the TANF requirement of 24 months maximum assistance and 60 months' total assistance was eliminated. One has not seen the concomitant reduction in African-American female head-of-household unemployment, nor has there been a significant reduction in TANF participation as has been seen in other states.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Single Black Mothers and Poverty.  (2007, October 17).  Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Single Black Mothers and Poverty."  17 October 2007.  Web.  27 February 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Single Black Mothers and Poverty."  October 17, 2007.  Accessed February 27, 2020.