As the turbulent 1960s came to an end, California Governor Ronald Reagan convened a welfare summit. He was hoping to test one of his new ideas: that poor single mothers were increasingly living idly and defrauding government assistance programs in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.
George Miller, then the welfare director in neighboring Nevada, volunteered to do a trial run for Reagan, proposing to purge alleged welfare cheats from his smaller state’s welfare rolls. It would be the country’s first effort of its kind, he said.
Miller reduced Nevada’s aid program by nearly 75%, depriving thousands of mothers and children of critical survival assistance.
Ruby Duncan, a self-described “welfare mother” on the Westside of Las Vegas, was incensed. Duncan grew up on a cotton plantation in Tallulah, Louisiana, in the 1930s, chopping and picking cotton. When her uncles left the South to work on New Deal projects like the Hoover Dam, she followed, working as a maid in still-segregated casino hotels and as a house cleaner for wealthy entertainers at the height of the city’s Rat Pack glory days.
She worked from dawn to dusk for decades and only reluctantly received government assistance after she literally broke her back on the job.
In response to Miller’s welfare cuts, Duncan organized a series of marches down the Las Vegas Strip in March 1971, dubbed “Operation Nevada.” Thousands of welfare mothers, children, priests and nuns, union members, students, and well-known activists such as Jane Fonda and Ralph Abernathy succeeded in blocking access to Caesars Palace and other casinos, threatening the city’s wealthiest.
The marches drew widespread coverage in the media. Duncan followed them up with a series of “eat-ins,” in which she and her fellow organizers instructed dozens of children left hungry by welfare cuts to walk into opulent casino dining rooms, order steaks, and then walk out without paying, instructing restaurant managers to bill the state welfare department instead.
Within weeks, a federal judge ordered that the benefits of the mothers and children who had been cut by Nevada be reinstated.
In the years since, Duncan has expanded her political activism and won more victories, including convincing Nevada to provide food stamps (the state was the last in the country to do so) and popularizing the concept of a universal basic income, which guarantees a minimum level of income for all.
Duncan is less optimistic today, months away from turning 90 and largely unable to walk as a result of that workplace injury so many decades ago. She is still living in West Las Vegas and has the opportunity to interact with young single mothers on occasion. And she’s still hoping that President Joe Biden’s child tax credit will become law in the new year, providing a stronger safety net for Nevada’s families, though it faces a tough road to passage in the U.S. Senate.
Duncan, on the other hand, has a long history with cash assistance in the United States, and she has been pessimistic about its prospects since Reagan took office and elevated Nevada’s revanchist attitude toward the working poor into national politics.
Welfare as we knew it has ended in the 25 years since, but not because the reform has lifted people out of poverty as promised. Federal welfare funding, which was frozen at 1996 levels by the law, was quickly decimated by inflation and demographic shifts, with rapidly growing Nevada faring the worst of all, now less able to help poor children than ever. States were also given broad leeway in deciding how to spend the money, and many have used it to fill budget gaps rather than help families, allowing them to keep tax breaks for the wealthy.
In the process, welfare, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, has shrunk from serving 4.4 million families in 1996 to just 1 million today, despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown by 60 million over the same time period. However, child poverty has not decreased: just as it was when the legislation was passed, nearly one in every five American children now lives in poverty, which is twice the average rate in other developed countries.