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A New Benefit Raises an Old Question: Which Mothers Should Work?

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“The right has dropped the ball on family policy,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, in a recent panel at A.E.I. where the divisions on the right were on full display. “I’m not looking for more measures that will put parents into the labor force than spend time with their kids. We need less workism and more familyism.”

This is also why social conservatives generally do not support government funding for child care, while some economic conservatives do — child care makes it easier for mothers to work.

Debates over American motherhood, amplified by the pandemic, have deep roots. “It really does go back to this idea that there’s this assumption that certain women should work, and that Black women in particular should work,” said Elisa Minoff, a senior policy analyst with the Center for the Study of Social Policy who has researched the history of work requirements.

Slavery laid the groundwork for the stereotype that Black people don’t want to work, Ms. Minoff said, and helped establish a narrow conception of work: as servants, domestics and field hands. Throughout this history, Black women have been viewed more as laborers than as mothers, said the Cornell historian Louis Hyman (any virtue attached to the title of “mother,” he adds, invariably vanishes when a Black woman is a “single mother”).

Black mothers were largely excluded from the earliest experiments in welfare after the Civil War, with widow’s pensions specifically designed to keep women at home with their children. (If they were found to be working, they lost the benefit.)

In the 1930s, a federal program, Aid to Dependent Children, extended help to more mothers and replaced those pensions. But Southern Democrats demanded that states run the program, allowing them to set rules effectively barring Black mothers from benefits. State caseworkers would spot-check whether women were keeping their homes clean enough, or keeping a man around. Some states automatically kicked women and children off benefit rolls during picking seasons when they were needed in the fields.

Such standards, many enduring until the 1960s, weren’t applied to white women. And it was only after they were struck down, and more Black mothers began to rely on the aid, that political momentum grew to attach work requirements.

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