Lacking legitimacy: Race, gender and the social construction of African American women in welfare policy 1935--2006

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Grant Reeher


African-American women, Welfare, Social construction, Public policy, Race, Gender

Subject Categories

Inequality and Stratification | Political Science | Race and Ethnicity | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


This project analyzes how African American women were constructed in welfare policy during three critical points in welfare state history: the 1935 Social Security Act, the 1965 Great Society, and the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act. Specifically, this project examines three functions of welfare policy, its use as an assimilatory mechanism for marginalized ethnic/racial groups, its use as a policing device over the "undesirable" poor, and its role of providing assistance to needy women and children.

At its core are three interrelated questions: what role has welfare policy played in shaping and constructing race, gender and class beliefs in the United States, how has welfare policy been influenced by beliefs regarding race, class, gender, and citizenship, and how does welfare policy shape or construct citizenship in the United States?

I analyze this by examining the relationship of African American women with the U.S. welfare state and asking: what were the dominant constructions of African American women that emerged in welfare policy during three key periods of welfare formation, and how did these constructions influence welfare policy?


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