MegaphoneBoyI learned something interesting from Krissy Clark at public radio’s Marketplace yesterday: the modern usage of the word “welfare” has its roots in children’s policy. As her story details, it was the Depression-era Aid to Dependent Children initiative that popularized “welfare” as a shorthand for an investment in the well-being of America’s children.

Of greater concern to kids’ advocates is how the term’s meaning – and especially its connotations – changed as a result of political pressure and public debate. During the 1960s, Congress responded to public concerns that ADC discouraged marriage by changing its structure and renaming it Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That linguistic subtlety changed the initiative’s connotations from a laser focus on children to a broader emphasis on adults, as well as kids. This laid the groundwork for President Ronald Reagan’s politically devastating “welfare queen” story during the 1970s.

That narrative, and its less hateful welfare-to-work variants, dominated the public debate over AFDC until the mid-1990s. In 1996, when Congress voted to replace it with today’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the word “work” appears more times during the final House floor debate than the word “children.”

And voila: over the course of two generations, a critical anti-poverty was transformed in the public consciousness and the political arena from an investment in the well-being of children to a boondoggle that denies adults the dignity of work.

This is not just a historical lesson, but a struggle that goes on around us every day. Today, one of the most important debates is over the meaning of the word “flexibility,” which is uttered by a new generation of “welfare” reformers as a near-magical incantation that validates their Medicaid schemes. As Voices for Utah Children’s Lincoln Nehring shows us, advocates for kids don’t have to sit on the sidelines.

And it’s important that we stay in the game. Otherwise, we might find ourselves 30 years from now wondering how a war of words cost so many children so much.