The Job of Being a Parent

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SSA Magazine (Archive)


When lawmakers revamped welfare a decade and a half ago, they did more than change the rules. They redefined the way we think about parenting, work, and citizenship. 

Jessica Toft, a professor of social work at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., analyzed the debate in Congress over Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, federal legislation that passed with bipartisan support in 1996. TANF imposed stricter limits on welfare benefits and placed new emphasis on moving recipients quickly into the workforce.

Toft says the debate over the bill also marked an historic shift, exalting paid work over parenting. “If it was discussed at all, it was discussed in a pejorative way,” she says. “Parenting was not real work.”

Toft describes her findings in the December 2010 issue of Social Service Review in an article titled “The Political Act of Public Talk: How Legislators Justified Welfare Reform.” Before TANF, she says, Americans were ambivalent about parenting. But ideals of citizenship still accommodated it. Men occupied a public sphere of paid work and politics; for them citizenship meant economic independence. Women were assigned the private sphere of caregivers, a legitimate task. During the Revolutionary War period, Americans glorified what one scholar calls “Republican Motherhood.” Progressive-era reformers like Jane Addams promoted public financial support for mothers. The Social Security Act of 1935, and with it, Aid to Dependent Children, confirmed parenting as worthy of the state’s support.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 90 percent of adults who receive welfare benefits are women. But while parenting, and welfare’s role in supporting it, was seldom discussed, lawmakers repeatedly glorified paid work. “I saw one of my American heroes this morning,” said Rep. John Kasich. “He sells newspapers. He runs from one car to another car to another car. He is out there when it is raining, he is out there when it is snowing….He does his job.”

How did this shift happen? Toft can only speculate. The economy was poor. Among middle- and working-class families, more women were going to work. People were feeling pinched; they wanted lower taxes. She also sees an element of racial prejudice in the denigration of parenting. One surprise for Toft was the degree of unanimity between Democrats and Republicans—a sign of just how thoroughly the new ideas had triumphed.

And these ideas implicate all parenting, not just among the poor, Toft says. “I look at some of my friends who are stay-at-home moms. While they value their work as parents, it’s a precarious place to be when Congress mandates paid work and disregards parenting as work. We talk about low income mothers, but it’s really about the work of all mothers.” 

Toft’s study shows how policy makers use language to define groups, in this case citizens and mothers, and then use these definitions to justify policy. One implication, she says, is that people who work in social services for welfare recipients, including researchers, teachers, policymakers and case workers, should use language that defines these groups differently. It can do this by reviving the old ideal of democratic citizenship that animated the founders of social work. “We need to talk with our clients,” she says, “in a way that makes them understand they are citizens.” 

Toft, Jessica. 2010. “The Political Act of Public Talk: How Legislators Justified Welfare Reform.” Social Service Review 84 (4): 563-96.