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Welfare Reform and Economic Freedom: Low-Income Mothers’ Decisions About Work at Home and in the Market (WP-04-02)

Dorothy E. Roberts

While many working professional mothers have the opportunity to “opt out” of the workforce, poor women do not. The primary goal of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is to move mothers from welfare to the paid workforce. Welfare reform eliminated the federal guarantee of a basic income support for all families and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a state-run program combining work requirements and sanctions for nonconforming behavior. This article examines the impact of welfare reform on low-income women’s ability to make decisions about caregiving and paid employment, which the author calls “economic freedom.” Roberts provides a historical context by exploring both welfare policy and feminist theorizing on mothers’ work at home and in the market. She suggests as an alternative approach the welfare rights movement’s rejection of the care/work dichotomy and its advocacy of poor mothers’ freedom to choose between the two. Roberts demonstrates how welfare reform denies economic freedom to low-income women, and how welfare reform’s incentives are lopsided: They devalue and penalize poor mothers’ care work. She concludes that poor mothers require a guaranteed income, education, and subsidized child care to achieve their economic freedom.

Dorothy E. Roberts, Law and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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