Money  /  Q&A

The Welfare Rights Movement Wanted Society to Value the Work of Child-Rearing

The welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s resisted invasive policies. Their animating vision: that society treat every mother and child with dignity.

Sasha Lilley:

What was the welfare system like in Nevada in the 1960s?

Annelise Orleck:

It had some of the lowest benefits in the country, second only to Mississippi and maybe Alabama. Part of that was the libertarian culture of the state — you know, you don’t take handouts from anybody. But after a while, as the casino and hotel business began to develop, the state officials and hotel owners both realized that the Las Vegas tourist industry in its early years was very much seasonal. They didn’t want to pay workers when there were not enough people coming to stay in the hotels or play on the slot machines and the craps tables, but they didn’t want the workers to leave town either because they wanted them to be able to be called up at a moment’s notice.

They began to realize that if people could apply for public assistance, then they might have just enough to feed their children and keep roofs over their heads, no matter how inadequate those roofs were. And so the welfare system developed as something that served the hotel and casino industry and the state at least as much, if not more, as it served the poor people who received welfare.

Sasha Lilley:

Can you remind us, since this is a big part of this story, about the history of what has come to be known as welfare — that is, Aid to Families with Dependent Children?

Annelise Orleck:

The program has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which said that there’s some floor below which we won’t let the poorest mothers and kids fall, as an entitlement of citizenship. In its initial years, it had a positive gloss: we’re going to give this money to women whose husbands were killed in World War I or disappeared looking for work and never came back during the Depression. But increasingly, it came to be seen — and this was especially true during and after the civil rights movement — as something that disproportionately benefited black women and Latino women.

To get the law passed, and to get it reauthorized from time to time, the Roosevelt administration was willing to allow each state to make its own rules. So you got fifty different welfare systems, and states had laws like “employable mother” clauses, which said that you could kick everybody off, for example, during the agricultural season when employers wanted pickers in the fields. And that didn’t only happen in the South — it happened in New Jersey, it happened in the West.

So this is the system that the women entered when they began as hotel workers. Many of them became injured because the work was brutal on their bodies, and also because some had more children than they wanted to, sometimes because they couldn’t access birth control.