Welfare as a Women’s Issue (1972)

Title (as given to the record by the creator):  Welfare as a Women’s Issue
Date(s) of creation:  February 26, 1972
Creator / author / publisher:  Johnnie Tillmon, Liberation News Service
Location: US
Physical description:
PDF article, 4 pages
Reference #: Tillmon-1972-LNS
Links:   [ PDF ] [ Ms. Magazine version ] [ Español ]

Archivist’s note: This article was distributed by Liberation News Service to the press in February, 1972. Ms. Magazine published an edited version in the first issue in Spring, 1972.


Welfare as a Women’s Issue

Johnnie Tillmon

Via Liberation News Service, no. 415 (February 26 1972).

I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare.

In this country, if you’re any one of those things⎯poor, black, fat, female, middle-aged, on welfare⎯you count less as a human being. If you’re all those things, you don’t count at all. Except as a statistic.

I am a statistic.

I am 45 years old. I have raised six children.

I grew up in Arkansas, and I worked there for fifteen years in a laundry, making about $20 or $30 a week, picking cotton on the side for carfare. I moved to California in 1959 and worked in a laundry there for nearly four years. In 1963 I got too sick to work anymore. Friends helped me to go on welfare.

They didn’t call it welfare. They called it A.F.D.C.⎯Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Each month I got $363 for my kids and me. I pay $128 a month rent; $30 for utilities, which include gas, electricity, and water; $120 for food and nonedible household essentials; $50 for school lunches for the three children in junior and senior high school who are not eligible for reduced-cost meal programs.

There are millions of statistics like me. Some on welfare. Some not. And some, really poor, who don’t even know they’re entitled to welfare. Not all of them are black. Not at all. In fact, the majority⎯about two-thirds⎯of all the poor families in the country are white.

Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.

And that is why welfare is a women’s issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women’s Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it’s a matter of survival.

Forty-four percent of all poor families are headed by women. That’s bad enough. But the families on A.F.D.C. aren’t really families. Because 99 percent of them are headed by women. That means there is no man around. In half the states there really can’t be men around because A.F.D.C. says if there is an “able-bodied” man around, then you can’t be on welfare. If the kids are going to eat, and the man can’t get a job, then he’s got to go. So his kids can eat.

The truth is that A.F.D.C. is like a supersexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you.

The man runs everything. In ordinary marriage, sex is supposed to be for your husband. On A.F.D.C., you’re not supposed to have any sex at all. You give up control of your own body. It’s a condition of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can never have more children just to avoid being off welfare.

The man, the welfare system, controls your money. He tells you what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy it, and how much things cost. If things⎯rent, for instance⎯really cost more than he says they do, it’s just too bad for you.

There are other welfare programs, other kinds of people on welfare⎯the blind, the disabled, the aged. (Many of them are women too, especially the aged.) Those others make up just over a third of all the welfare caseloads. We A.F.D.C. are two-thirds.

But when the politicians talk about the “welfare cancer eating at our vitals,” they’re not talking about the aged, blind, and disabled. Nobody minds them. They’re the “deserving poor.” Politicians are talking about A.F.D.C. Politicians are talking about us⎯the women who head up 99 percent of the A.F.D.C. families⎯and our kids. We’re the “cancer,” the “undeserving poor.” Mothers and children.

In this country we believe in something called the “work ethic.” That means that your work is what gives you human worth. But the work ethic itself is a double standard. It applies to men and to women on welfare. It doesn’t apply to all women. If you’re a society lady from Scarsdale and you spend all your time sitting on your prosperity paring your nails, well, that’s okay.

The truth is a job doesn’t necessarily mean an adequate income. A woman with three kids⎯not twelve kids, mind you, just three kids⎯that woman earning the full federal minimum wage of $2.00 an hour, is still stuck in poverty. She is below the Government’s own official poverty line. There are some ten million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you’re a woman, you’ve got the best chance of getting one.

The President keeps repeating the “dignity of work” idea. What dignity? Wages are the measure of dignity that society puts on a job. Wages and nothing else. There is no dignity in starvation. Nobody denies, least of all poor women, that there is dignity and satisfaction in being able to support your kids through honest labor.

We wish we could do it.

The problem is that our country’s economic policies deny the dignity and satisfaction of self-sufficiency to millions of people⎯the millions who suffer everyday in underpaid dirty jobs⎯and still don’t have enough to survive.

People still believe that old lie that A.F.D.C. mothers keep on having kids just to get a bigger welfare check. On the average, another baby means another $35 a month⎯barely enough for food and clothing. Having babies for profit is a lie that only men could make up, and only men could believe. Men, who never have to bear the babies or have to raise them and maybe send them to war.

There are a lot of other lies that male society tells about welfare mothers; that A.F.D.C. mothers are immoral, that A.F.D.C. mothers are lazy, misuse their welfare checks, spend it all on booze and are stupid and incompetent.

If people are willing to believe these lies, it’s partly because they’re just special versions of the lies that society tells about all women.

On TV, a woman learns that human worth means beauty and that beauty means being thin, white, young and rich.

She learns that her body is really disgusting the way it is, and that she needs all kinds of expensive cosmetics to cover it up.

She learns that a “real woman” spends her time worrying about how her bathroom bowl smells; that being important means being middle class, having two cars, a house in the suburbs, and a minidress under your maxicoat. In other words, an A.F.D.C. mother learns that being a “real woman” means being all the things she isn’t and having all the things she can’t have.

Either it breaks you, and you start hating yourself, or you break it.

There’s one good thing about welfare. It kills your illusions about yourself, and about where this society is really at. It’s laid out for you straight. You have to learn to fight, to be aggressive, or you just don’t make it. If you can survive being on welfare, you can survive anything. It gives you a kind of freedom, a sense of your own power and togetherness with other women.

Maybe it is we poor welfare women who will really liberate women in this country. We’ve already started on our welfare plan.

Along with other welfare recipients, we have organized together so we can have some voice. Our group is called the National Welfare Rights Organization (N.W.R.O.). We put together our own welfare plan, called Guaranteed Adequate Income (G.A.I.), which would eliminate sexism from welfare.

There would be no “categories”⎯men, women, children, single, married, kids, no kids⎯just poor people who need aid. You’d get paid according to need and family size only⎯$6,500 for a family of four (which is the Department of Labor’s estimate of what’s adequate), and that would be upped as the cost of living goes up.

If I were president, I would solve this so-called welfare crisis in a minute and go a long way toward liberating every woman. I’d just issue a proclamation that “women’s” work is real work.

In other words, I’d start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing⎯child-raising and house-keeping. And the welfare crisis would be over, just like that. Housewives would be getting wages, too⎯a legally determined percentage of their husband’s salary⎯instead of having to ask for and account for money they’ve already earned.

For me, Women’s Liberation is simple. No woman in this country can feel dignified, no woman can be liberated, until all women get off their knees. That’s what N.W.R.O. is all about⎯women standing together, on their feet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.