Vulnerable Aggressors: Demystifying Single Mothers’ Relationship to Welfare


Sixty percent of the births to women under thirty in this country are born out of wedlock,” said former Republican Assistant Majority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate Glenn Grothman, “Obviously this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

According to Grothman, our “culture overwhelmingly encourages single motherhood lifestyle” [“Singling Out”]. He thought it would be a good idea to propose a bill, back in February of 2012, that would explicitly condemn single mothers and categorize them as child abusers.

The resulting Senate Bill 507 is his most directed crusade against motherhood and social services (thus far). The Bill sought to amend the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board legislation to “emphasize non-marital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.”

This plan would employ state power and funds to create public awareness” materials that would emphasize the idea that the primary way to prevent child abuse and neglect is to keep nuclear families intact. The incentive was that it would mean less spending in the long-run because it would mean spending less money on supporting single mothers.

He claims that the state of Wisconsin spends 3 million dollars attempting to prevent child abuse as well a comparable amount on his campaign to restore Wisconsin’s traditional families. In addition, he claims that over $35,000 tax-free benefits are given to single-mothers annually, and categorizes this expenditure as money that the state could be saving if single mothers married men who earned that same amount per year. Believing that “our economy and our freedoms will inevitably decline as long as the number of children born out of wedlock keeps going up,”craftily aligns his goals of saving state funds as well as strengthening the American nuclear family (the very system upon which his power relies as a heterosexual white married man) [Grothman].

His reinforcement of heterosexual monogamy as the only legitimate family structure completely negates the values and invalidates the experiences of alternative family models.

A study called The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing  indicated that single parents are twenty times more likely to expose their children to abuse and neglect than a household with two biological parents.

Of course, out of context, these statistics are overwhelming.

However, they extrapolate to force a causal relationship between child abuse and single mothers by ignoring the social realities and the shortcomings of the welfare system. Many single mothers are discriminated in the workplace, especially those who experience compounded structural oppression related to race, language, immigration status and ability. As a result, Grothman’s analysis conveniently correlates high tax expenditures, the rising number of single mothers and the prevalence of child abuse.

By that logic, it would safer to keep around a potentially dangerous, violent or incapable partner than for a woman to raise children without the presence of their father. And these statistics often overlook that all mothers, especially those in poverty, are at risk of becoming a single parent through divorce, death or accidental pregnancy at any moment. Men in marginalized communities have a higher risk of death, increasing the opportunity for family separation. And residents in poverty-striken areas are more likely to be exposed to substance (ab)use.

Unfortunately for Grothman and his supporters, this bill did not pass the Senate.

Had it all proceeded as planned, Grothman would’ve be a hero in his political community — as saving state money and preserving the nuclear family are two priorities for many American.

Welfare for Whom?

The “family enterprise” is the social unit of the United States. It represents self-reliance and independence through the heroic power of the “family economy”(both formally and informally). Historian Stephanie Coontz explains the significance of the nuclear family as “the moral centerpiece of both liberal capitalism and the ideology of separate spheres for men and women; … a partial revival of Victorian morality” [67].

Politicians frequently play upon this nostalgia, a sort of nostalgia that yearns for a time that never was. But who can deny a myth that embraces both “strong moral values” and a productive “work ethic.” Perhaps the most seductive part of this family model is that it is viewed as “economically self-sufficient” [Coontz 73;67] and, thus, apparently evident of success in a liberal capitalist society.

As a result, the welfare state was designed to support that specific familial arrangement: a marriage between a man and woman (usually presenting as of the same race) who heterosexually reproduce.In fact, the welfare state has always been structured around preserving the American, white, heterosexual, patriotic nuclear family.

Many single mothers have extensive social and economic networks of kin (friends, partners, cousins, sisters, brothers, parents, etc.) who share responsibility in the childrearing process. However, kinship networks are not always recognized as “parents” because they are outside of the “American” definition of the family. Migration patterns and cultural backgrounds also complicate the U.S.’s failure to recognize non-“traditional” family structures.

The welfare state was not meant for single mothers and kinship networks, nor are those communities often the benefactors.

There is a recurring narrative that the direct beneficiaries of the New Deal and social welfare program were, and still are, women and children. But for that to be a reality would be to ignore that, first and foremost, all benefits had to pass through the white male breadwinner. The New Deal effectively employed millions of men, strictly reinforcing the structure of the nuclear family.

At its inception, the climate of the welfare state discouraged women from taking the few jobs available. This social maneuver was meant to help American men regain the breadwinning position of family authority after the Great Depression. The system aimed to strengthen the nuclear family through empowering male breadwinners. Associated legislation such as the Wagner Act, the Federal Housing Authority and the G. I. Bill “permitted a whole generation of men to expand their education and improve their job prospects without foregoing marriage and children” [Coontz 76].

The focus on economic opportunities for men left “single, pregnant girls and women… particularly vulnerable…in the post World War II era” [Solinger 3], because they did not have the same access and opportunity to the workplace that they had during the boom in women’s work during the war.

Federal money went towards creating maternity homesto teach single mothers how to be more feminine, so as to attract a man to marry, and hence save their reputations [Solinger]. The aim was to reintegrate single mothers into the nuclear family structure and, as a result, reinforce the white male breadwinner economy.

By the 1950s and 1960s, laws were created to hinder the lifestyle of single mothers. Preventative measures were taken, such as “suitable home” laws in an attempt to discourage single mothers who did not have the economic resources to stay at home and invest their efforts in the domestic sphere. According to Solinger, “legislatures were more interested in threatening and subduing these women than in accomplishing their expressed aim: improving the moral environment in which these children lived” [194].

Those measures eerily parallel the contents of Grothman’s proposed bill. Both of these regulations shame single mothers for “moral delinquency” instead of addressing or approaching the conversation about that population’s social and economic needs.

And, we must not forget, there seems to be a denial of America’s (very recent) history of compulsory sterilization of welfare recipients and women of color to prevent them from having children. The said goal was to prevent “feeble-minded children” from being born when the reality was that they hoped it would protect future generations from the burden of supporting these mothers by “reducing both general relief and AFDC payments” [Morrison].

Welfare Queens & the AFDC

Senator Grothman has made the point that the growth of single motherhood has mostly been “the choice of the women” [Terkel]. There is truth in this statement. With greater access to birth control than there was in the 19th century, many women can choose whether or not to have children out of wedlock.

His canon exploits the trope of the “welfare queen” and its surrounding rhetoric to evoke stigma. Instead of reevaluating the welfare system to provide more social mobility and support, Grothman recommends that, “we should educate women that this is a mistake.”

So, where does the cultural myth of the “welfare queen” come from anyway?

This very dangerous cultural myth serves to shame and punish the shifting roles of the postmodern woman; she who has more economic and social agency than ever before. Mostly driven folks from positions of privilege, the propagation of this myth negates the economy of inequality.

Like all myths, there used to be a grain of truth somewhere at its conception. But the art of storytelling, wrapped up with historical authority and power has a tendency to take creative license with history, re-writing truths and erasing critical moments. As a result, there are many explanations, other than the welfare state, for the rise of (the visibility of) single mothers.

Single mothers began to represent rebellion against the archetypical nuclear family. Having children without husbands symbolized the dissolution of the building block of American society. This instilled fear in tax-payers.

Single mothers were believed to lack sexual restraint and blamed for their situations. This was especially directed towards those living in poverty, at once stigmatized as increasing the welfare burden and all the while chastised for not staying at home with their children (despite the fact that stay-at-home-single-motherhood is not a feasible working-class reality).

Once they were constructed as entity to be feared, the public’s attitude towards single mothers changed. Single mothers no longer represented a type of vulnerability in need of protection, but, rather, a serious threat to both the American nuclear family and the economy (both were founded and relied on the division of social spheres and the concept of the male breadwinning-female caregiving binary).

The majority of social welfare programs that followed the Great Depression directly benefitted fathers. There was one program, however, under Roosevelt’s Social Security Act that was designed to help single mothers.  The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), from 1935 to 1996 (“Brief History”), was reliant on local funding and mostly support efforts were directed towards widows.

As time went on, the AFDC expanded to other women but due to a limited amount of funding, it tightened restrictions on the amount of compensation and required unemployment or incapacitation in order to receive certain benefits. It created intersections with food assistance programs, child support, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Social Security reductions and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Grothman has argued that legislative remnants of these programs still provide excessive state funding to single mothers.

The AFDC received a lot of criticism for allegedly giving an incentive for women to have children out of wedlock. Even though these programs provided many assets and aid to single mothers, they still did not provide many women with the socioeconomic mobility necessary to escape poverty.

Racist welfare discourse, promoted by eugenicists such as William Shockley, spoke out against the “retrogressive evolution” of society through the support of welfare children.  Shockley even believed that children out of wedlock were inherently less intelligent than children born in wedlock (“Mixed Legacy”). Historian Rickie Solinger calls this “the white taxpaying public’s hostile identification of AFDC as a program to support black unwed mothers and their unwanted babies” (39).  Single mothers are entangled in negative minority stereotypes, especially in Wisconsin where the population Grotham targeted is identifiable at 66% Black [Rawlings].

In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, an extension to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, passed in Congress. It arose out of a demand of lobbyists to support childcare for working parents regardless of their social or economic needs. It would have provided a national daycare institution that would particularly help single parents to work and raise children at the same time. This would have removed the strain on the welfare system to support these single parents. However, Nixon immediately vetoed the bill, claiming that it promoted a communistic society. A communal approach to childrearing would inspire a movement away from the coveted American nuclear family.

The AFDC was eventually replaced by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1966 (PRWORA). Bill Clinton campaigned to “end welfare as we know it.” This act discouraged welfare assistance and required recipients to work in order to receive any benefits. Therefore, this act had a huge “emphasis on employment” but left “open the question of child well-being” [Welfare Reform and Expenditure]. It ignores how unemployment is a prerequisite for capitalism’s self-sustainment, and how cycles of growth and recession are endemic to capitalism.

The economic boom of the 1990s, riding the wave of 80s materialism, masked the shortcomings of this program’s limited scope.

The specific requirements of a low-income job and a nontraditional family do not motivate single women to escape the false security of the welfare system, as they were designed to do. A study done outside Chicago by Carol B. Stack summarizes the idea that “Those living in poverty have little or no chance to escape from the economic situation into which they were born.”

The system does not provide adequate childcare or encourage education. It does, however, caution single parents not to make too much money, because it would cut their already meager benefits. Without access to social mobility, many single mothers have been trapped in an endless cycle of political shaming and exclusion.

And while Grothman’ proposed Bill 507 is a specific example, it represents a much larger (still prevalent and lively) ideology in the way we talk about appropriate family structures, which births are legitimate and which are illicit.

By Chanelle Adams, Co-Managing Blog Editor


Works Cited

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York, NY: Basic, 1992. Print.

Glenn Grothman, Wisconsin State Senator, District 20. Web. 14 May 2012.

Goldberg, Michelle. “Wisconsin’s Repeal of Equal Pay Rights Adds to Battles for Women.” Daily Beast. 7 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 May 2012.

Grall, Timothy S. Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2007. Rep. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2009. Print.

Grothman, Glenn. “Singling Out Single Parents?” Interview by Alan Colmes. Fox News. 2 Mar 2012.

2012. Web. 12 May 2013. < Fox news>.

Hertz, Rosanna. Single By Chance, Mothers By Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Jayson, Sharon. “USA Today.” USA Today. Gannett, 9 Nov. 2008. Web. 14 May 2012.

Meyer, Bruce D., and Dan T. Rosenbaum. Welfare, The Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Labor Supply of Single Mothers. Working paper no. 7363. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999. Print. NBER Working Paper.

“Mixed Legacy of William Shockley.” Chicago Tribune 15 Aug. 1989, Editorial sec.: 16. Print.

Morrison, Joseph L. “Illegitimacy, Sterilization, and Racism in North Carolina Case History.” Social Service Review 39.1 (1965): 1-10. JSTOR. Web. 15 May 2012.

Rawlings, Steve W. “Population Profile of the United States.” Population Profile of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Mar. 1994. Web. 15 May 2012.

Rosenbaum, Dan T., and Bruce D. Meyer. Making Single Mothers Work: Recent Tax and Welfare Policy and Its Effects. Working paper no. 7491. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2000. Print. NBER Working Paper.

Scafidi, Benjamin. The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: The First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States. Rep. New York: Georgia Family Council and Institute for American Values, 2008. Print.

Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Solinger, Rickie. Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Spatz, Diana. “The End of Welfare As I Knew It.” The Nation. 14 Dec. 2011. Web. 15 May 2012.

Stack, Carol B. All Our Kin. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.

Terkel, Amanda. “Glenn Grothman, Wisconsin Pol Who Sponsored Equal Pay Repeal, Turns Down Women’s Issues Debate.” The Huffington Post. 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012.

United States. Human Services Policy. Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

United States. Human Services Policy. Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. A Brief History of the AFDC Program. Comp. Patricia Ruggles. Washington, D.C., 1998. 31 Jan. 2001. Web. 15 May 2012.

Winkler, Celia. Single Mothers and the State: The Politics of Care in Sweden and the United States. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.

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