Welfare Is *Still* a Woman’s Issue

A guaranteed income program would empower Black families, especially Black women.

A federal guaranteed income program would empower low-income parents, especially Black mothers, and end cycles of poverty for poor families. Cajania Brown is a member of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a guaranteed income in Jackson, Miss., that gives $1,000 per month for 12 months to 100 families headed by Black women living in federally subsidized housing. (Sarah Stripp / Springboard to Opportunities)

I first experienced how inherently flawed our so-called “child welfare” system was during my time as a public interest lawyer. There were a number of infuriating cases my colleagues and I encountered on the job—including a family who had just had a baby. What should have been an immensely joyful time for them turned into a nightmare. These parents struggled economically. They could barely afford running water. That’s when the Child and Family Services Agency came onto the scene. 

The agency examined the housing situation and removed the child from the parent’s care. It struck me that the first instinct of the Child and Family Services Agency wasn’t to try and help the family improve their circumstances to keep the family together, but to remove the baby altogether, which is traumatizing for both the parents and the child. 

I wish I could say that this case was an outlier—that my other cases ended fairly with the system choosing to help parents keep their families together instead of casting them out. But the truth is, this case was just one example of the many ways in which the system has falsely equated symptoms of poverty with child abuse and neglect. And the ways in which the system’s policies are steeped in racial prejudice. 

We as a society have been taught to believe that asking for support implies some sort of moral flaw. The system has somehow led us to believe that to have the bravery to ask for support to provide for your kids means you are a bad person. We at Mother’s Outreach Network say, that’s not true. 

In the richest nation in the world, it shouldn’t be this difficult to make ends meet for yourself and your family. No one should ever have to work two or three jobs and still wonder if they can make rent, put food on the table or afford childcare. As a society, we can choose to prioritize parents and their families. And that starts by implementing a guaranteed income program that will empower Black families and women everywhere.

The National Welfare Rights Organization marching to end hunger. Tillmon, who wrote an article in the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, was a founder and executive director of the National Welfare Rights Organization. (Jack Rottier Collection / George Mason University Libraries)

The fight for guaranteed income has deep roots in the civil rights movement. Black women activists were early trailblazers advocating for the social and economic liberation of women. They joined forces and founded the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Together, they challenged the system and its prejudice, especially against Black women who faced double standards, prejudice and higher barriers to even get a glimpse of a fair shot at success. 

Over 50 years ago, a former chairperson of the NWRO, Johnnie Tillmon, penned a pivotal op-ed in Ms. declaring welfare as a women’s issue. She argued, 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.” 

Tillmon’s words ring just as true today as they did in 1971. Unjust policies have stacked the deck against women, and especially Black women, for far too long. A 2018 D.C. City Council study found that a parent with one child must make just over $30 an hour at a full-time position to barely make ends meet for their household—with inflation, the figure is even higher today. 

Society needs women on welfare as ‘examples’ to let every woman—factory workers and housewife workers alike—know what will happen if she lets up, if she’s laid off, if she tries to go it alone without a man.

Johnnie Tillmon

Through Mother’s Outreach Network, I’ve met mothers who are forced to choose between working several jobs to provide for their child or getting to spend time at home with them. I’ve met mothers struggling to find stable housing and employment after their names were permanently placed on the child protection register, despite the fact that their cases ended with them keeping their children in the home. Too often, the system has charged parents of neglect without pausing for a second to consider the role that poverty plays in these situations. 

That’s why Mother’s Outreach Network is dedicated to changing laws and family programs from being punitive to being supportive—and we’re working to empower mothers to be a part of that process as well. Our work is centered on empowering mothers to know their rights and to tell their stories in rooms where decisions are made. We continue to fight for guaranteed income as a way to target support towards the families who need it the most.

As we straddle Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it’s time for us to reengage in and recommit to the fight that trailblazers like Miss Johnnie Tillmon and the NWRO started: the fight for true equality—not just for the survival of women, but the opportunity to build a foundation for generations of their families to come.

You may also like: Ms.‘ Front and Center series—first-person accounts of Black women taking part in the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, which gives recipients a guaranteed income of $1,000 per month for 12 months. In their essays, these mothers speak on their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships, and their dreams for the future, and how a federal guaranteed income program could change their lives.

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Melody Webb is the executive director and founder of Mother’s Outreach Network (MON), an advocacy organization that promotes the inclusion and empowerment of Black mothers in the struggle for family preservation. She is also founder and co-lead of the DC Guaranteed Income Coalition. A graduate of Harvard College and Law School, she is a career-long public interest attorney.