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Inspired by the political and philosophical interventions of feminist women of color and Foucauldian social theory, Anna Marie Smith explores the scope and structure of the child support enforcement, family cap, marriage promotion, and abstinence education measures that are embedded within contemporary United States welfare policy. Presenting original legal research and drawing from historical sources, social theory, and normative frameworks, the author argues that these measures violate the rights of poor mothers. The author shows that welfare policy has consistently constructed the sexual conduct of the racialized poor mother as one of its primary disciplinary targets. The book concludes with a vigorous and detailed critique of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's support for welfare reform law and an outline of a progressive feminist approach to poverty policy.
At first glance, the diagnosis of the mode of governance expressed in welfare reform seems to be a rather straightforward matter. According to the typical journalistic narrative,1 the State2 has effectively divided the recipient population into two groups: the “most employable” and the “most encumbered.” The “most employable” have been “diverted” or “cut off” from poverty assistance thanks to the impact of welfare reform’s stricter eligibility rules, the workfare requirement, sanctions, and time limits. The type of State-citizen contact that is at work in this account is purely negative and noninterventionary: the recipient has been “expelled” from a program such that she3 has been forced to become self-reliant by entering the wage labor market. The normative character of her “expulsion” is, of course, hotly debated; neoliberal welfare reformers congratulate themselves on the fact that the most employable are no longer coddled by an excessively generous State, whereas progressives condemn the policies that are forcing poor single mothers to fend for themselves in the brutal conditions of the antifamily postindustrial labor market.
If we look closer at the actual structure of welfare reform law, however, a differentimage of power relations comes into view. To be sure, many poor families have been driven from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program;4 the fact that the rolls have been drastically trimmed and remained quite low even during the recession of the early 2000s is beyond dispute. However, the program’s eligibility rules, requirements, and sanctions are complex in nature. Some rules, such as workfare and the time limits, are fairly well understood.5 Other measures, however, are rarely discussed. By their very design, these other measures require poor single mothers to conform to a one-size-fits-all heteropatriarchal model of kinship relations.6 Under the mandatory paternity identification and child support cooperation rules that are established in federal law,7 the poor single mother who receives TANF benefits must name the biological father of her children and assist the state in collecting support payments from him. In practice, these rules, which I will call “paternafare,” impose difficult and enduring demands upon the TANF client. Even when a recipient meets the program requirements in this respect, the precise structure of the paternafare rules creates a situation in which the payer’s obligation typically remains intact for many months after the TANF family exits the program. The paternafare rules are so burdensome, however, that many TANF recipients are sanctioned for failing to make an adequate effort in this regard. Some are even expelled from the program on these same grounds. Many needy mothers may be avoiding the program altogether because of the “paternafare” requirement, especially in cases where they are fleeing from a biological father who has been abusive toward them and their children. A domestic violence survivor in this situation has good reason to believe that if she entered the paternafare system, the biological father would retaliate after being named as the payer in her case.
Gwendolyn Mink argues that welfare reform has severely intensified the moral policing of poor single mothers.
In exchange for welfare, TANF recipients must surrender vocational freedom, sexual privacy, and reproductive choice, as well as the right to make intimate decisions about how to be and raise a family. Ordinarily, these rights are strongly guarded by constitutional doctrine, as they form the core of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of (heterosexual) personhood and family. Not so for a mother who needs welfare.8
The impact of welfare reform upon those needy mothers who are receiving TANF benefits, having their benefits reduced as a result of program sanctions, leaving TANF, or remaining outside the program is multidimensional. We are witnessing the State’s withdrawal from the poor where redistribution is concerned. At the same time, however, the State is intervening quite intensely in the intimate lives of the poor: it is coercing poor single mothers to participate in a precisely calibrated kinship mapping project, and it is embracing both poor women and poor men within a massive tracking and support collection apparatus targeting the biological father.9
The ideological construction of welfare law is quite different where the “most encumbered” are concerned. According to the prevailing journalistic narrative, the “most employable” are being winnowed out of the program; within the residual recipient group, severely antisocial pathologies are supposed to be rampant. These welfare mothers are constructed as racially “other,” slothful, and slovenly work-avoiders who need to be firmly taught how to bring order into their chaotic lives and how to submit themselves to the work ethic.10 The fact that most TANF recipients were already cycling back and forth between low-wage work and poverty assistance programs before welfare reform was introduced in the mid-1990s is suppressed.11 This “hard-core” group is also constructed as grossly deficient where morality and sexual behavior are concerned. They are branded as reckless teen mothers, sly profit-maximizers who deliberately become pregnant in order to increase their benefits, neglectful and abusive parents, and immature marriage-avoiders.12
In this account, welfare reform is depicted as the crown jewel of “compassionate conservatism.” The TANF program will “rescue” the “most encumbered” through intervention: it will embrace them within “rehabilitative” mechanisms, such as workfare, teen pregnancy avoidance projects, abstinence education courses, and marriage promotion programs. In this moment, welfare reform is ideologically constructed such that it appears to be a vehicle for the delivery of therapeutic intervention. It is promised that welfare reform will penetrate the psyche of the wayward recipient and deliver effective behavior modification results. The “most encumbered” will be enveloped within effective corrective treatment schemes that are personally tailored, pedagogical, and dialogical in nature. These schemes will deploy appropriate psychological and moral treatment technologies such as counseling, self-help groups, Bible study classes, and relationship skill-training workshops.
Once again, this ideological construction of welfare reform is misleading. If we closely examine the family cap law that has been adopted by almost half of the states, we find a crude and anonymous financial sanction rather than therapeutic intervention. Under the terms of a family cap, the state is prohibited from increasing the welfare cash benefit after the welfare mother gives birth. The measure is clearly intended to discourage the demon figure of the sly profit-maximizer from having more children. But the family cap measure relies on a very blunt instrument, namely an economic disincentive. The state simply freezes the benefit level of the TANF family; it does not draw the welfare mother into a counseling program. As we will see, the capacity of the family cap to limit cash benefits is quite significant; the family cap is one of the primary mechanisms that the states are using to restrict their expenditures on cash benefits. But the family cap is agnostic on a wide range of moral concerns. Being precisely tailored to punish the welfare mother when she gives birth, it is indifferent on virtually every other aspect of her sexual practices and intimate behavior. The abstinence education courses and marriage promotion workshops that are being supported with TANF allocations are supposed to be profoundly interventionary. In actuality, they are quite superficial, and the initial data suggest that they are having little impact, if any, on the behavior of their graduates.
In this respect, I am picking up a theme that is present, in an implicit form, in Dorothy Roberts’s work. In her study of sterilization abuse, the family cap, and the prosecution of women who expose their fetuses to illegal drugs,13 Roberts depicts contemporary State power as an impersonal, deductive, and nontherapeutic force. Roberts demonstrates that the rights of poor women of color are being flagrantly violated by State agencies as they seek to advance various social control projects. An explicit discussion of the boundaries that separate the various paradigms that social theorists have constructed to interpret power relations lies beyond the scope of Roberts’s project. Her account nevertheless reveals that these human rights violations are not accompanied by the recruitment of the targeted women into rehabilitative schemes. Official discourse pays lip service to moral instruction, uplift, and correction, but its actual material investment in what Foucault would call “discipline” remains relatively minimal. Roberts’s narrative foregrounds exclusion, degradation, deprivation, and the infliction of corporeal punishment. By coming into contact with the State in these contexts, the targeted citizen experiences a severe restriction of her reproductive rights, the invasion of her privacy and bodily integrity, arbitrary detainment, and the withholding of relief from herself and her destitute family, even though they are already extremely vulnerable where food insecurity and housing crises are concerned.
In this study, I attempt to bring the concealed structure of welfare reform’s sexual regulation to light. I focus on the following measures: paternafare, the family cap, the promotion of family planning and child relinquishment within the context of the TANF program, marriage promotion, fatherhood programs, and abstinence education. Because welfare reform has greatly enhanced state autonomy, my analysis encompasses readings of statutes and regulations at both the federal and state levels. I situate this legal material within broader contexts by referring to theories of State power, Supreme Court decisions, and, to a lesser extent, the history of influential ideological traditions. I move far beyond the boundaries that are usually observed by feminist political theory in this study. In my view, the Gramscian and Foucauldian analysis of historical institutions and State power necessitates the violation of traditional disciplinary limits. We can gain valuable insights about the structure of a policy like sexual regulation in welfare reform by moving back and forth between social theory, in-depth documentary analysis, and constitutional doctrine. I certainly recognize the value of other feminist political theory paradigms, such as abstract normative arguments about human rights,14 interventions in democratic theory,15 and psychoanalytically informed explorations of identity, recognition, and power.16 I view historically specific analyses of State-centered sexual regulation campaigns17 as a complementary paradigm that can advance feminist political projects by enhancing the precision of our critical diagnoses and enriching our discussions about resistance strategy.
In Chapters 1, 2, and 3, I develop my social theory framework by engaging in critical assessments of the concept of “biopolitics” in Agamben and Hardt and Negri, Piven, and Cloward’s theory of the capitalist State’s regulation of the poor, the Foucauldian concept of biopower, and the post-Foucauldian theory of neoliberal risk management. Next, in Chapter 4, I trace the ideological construction of paternafare by placing it in the context of legal foundations – especially the 1968 King v. Smith18 decision – and by examining the demonization of the welfare mother in political discourse from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. Chapter 5 is devoted to a close reading of the paternafare law that is currently in effect. In Chapter 6, I examine the other welfare reform initiatives ostensibly designed to shape the kinship relations and intimate decisions of poor women: the family cap, TANF family planning initiatives, the promotion of marriage and child custody relinquishment, responsible fatherhood programs, teen pregnancy prevention, and abstinence education. I turn to normative considerations in the final section of the book. Chapter 7 assesses rival poverty assistance and child support models using a side-by-side “ideal-type” analysis. In Chapter 8, I present my vision of a progressive and antiracist feminist revolution in redistributive policy and family law.
In this study, I submit one aspect of welfare reform policy, namely sexual regulation, to close examination. I include within the category of sexual regulation measures such as paternity identification and child support enforcement, the family cap, the promotion of family planning, the state welfare policies designed to encourage poor mothers to give up their children for adoption, the promotion of marriage as a solution to poverty, fatherhood programs, and abstinence education. Inspired by Foucault,1 I include both the policies that constitute an obvious attempt by the State to influence the intimate and erotic practices of the poor and the initiatives designed to advance the broader goal of patriarchal and racial population management among the poor. Using social theory tools, constitutional doctrine, and extensive legal analysis, I bring to light the mode of governance that is expressed in this constellation of State initiatives. These particular measures deserve our close attention; not only have they not received the public scrutiny that has been allotted to their close cousin, the workfare requirements, but they also represent one of the privileged sites for the development of a particularly problematic form of governance. The postwelfare State is withdrawing from the poor only in the sense that it is massively scaling back redistributive social rights. At the same time, the State is aggressively intervening in the poor mother’s intimate life, and that intervention is becoming increasingly defined in a narrow manner with reference to her kinship relations and reproductive behavior. Operating – at this point, at least – in harmony with the larger project of disciplining American labor, the State, in the guise of welfare reform, is becoming an increasingly effective vehicle of sexual policing, calibrated according to a class-oriented, gendered, and racial profile.
On the surface, the State appears to be hopelessly incompetent when it pursues the sexual policing of poor women. A bit of marriage propaganda or even the most severe child support enforcement rule will never cause these women to accept the patriarchal marital family wholeheartedly. Without a doubt, poor women, like their wealthier counterparts, will continue to vote on the virtues of marriage with their feet, as it were, by cohabiting with their intimate partners instead of marrying, marrying at later ages, divorcing more often and sooner, moving in and out of casual relationships, becoming lesbian, or remaining celibate.2 In this sense, we, the nonpoor women, resemble our poor sisters. Through the everyday decisions that we are making in our intimate relationships, we are contributing to a massive transformation in the American family. Even the most powerful moral conservative forces would be unable to convince American women to submit to couverture and other traditional forms of unfettered patriarchal authority. It also seems highly likely that the State will fail to achieve its ostensible sexual regulation objectives in the context of welfare reform. This is not to say, however, that these policies are not having any significant impact on poor women’s lives. Poor women are extraordinarily exposed to the coercive powers of the State today. Obviously, they are the ones who bear the brunt of the neoliberal cuts in social programs. In addition, however, they are also the women who are targeted, first and foremost, where conservative family values projects and disciplinary interventions are concerned.
In the context of the current TANF regime, the State limits eligibility, subjects recipients to degrading workfare requirements, and discourages poor women from making intimate choices that are deemed to interfere with their “work readiness.” In some cases, poor single mothers are being urged to enter marriages or to postpone childbearing. In almost every case, the TANF recipient is pressed to participate in the paternafare system, regardless of her wishes. Compulsory paternity identification and child support enforcement systems register the poor in a governmental database such that they can be easily tracked, definitively identified with state-of-the-art biometrics, pinpointed in the seamlessly connected public and private information networks, and physically hauled into court. In a sense, paternafare creates an opportunity for the State to attach radio frequency identification tags to poor women, men, and children alike. Understood from the perspective of Agamben, or that of Hardt and Negri, TANF facilitates the advance of biopolitical domination. As we will see, however, their theories of biopolitics can be used only as sensitization devices, for they are ultimately incompatible with historically specific and institution-based analysis.
For Agamben, sexual regulation in welfare policy would constitute only one moment within the State’s timeless campaign to produce “bare life.” Agamben begins with Aristotle’s distinction between life as mere subsistence, which is a life that could be lived even if one found oneself outside the polis, and the pursuit of the “good life,” which is a life that is possible only for the citizen who is a member of a formally constituted polis. Agamben interprets this distinction as a tension between two institutional postures that are adopted by the State toward “the people”; this tension establishes the fundamental structure for any possible government.3 In Aristotle’s account, the male citizen could perfect himself only within the polis. If he left the city – or if his government descended into anarchistic chaos and effectively dissolved itself – he would revert back to a life in which his highest good would be nothing more than subsistence, or “bare life.”
It appears, then, that one enters the condition of “bare life” only in the absence of government and that the existence of the State prevents us from descending into an animalistic and subhuman form of life. That appearance achieves its ideological perfection in modern liberal democratic legitimation discourse, for the latter promises to safeguard the life, liberty, and happiness of “the people” by prohibiting arbitrary State intervention. Agamben would argue, however, that the liberal democratic form of governance inevitably betrays itself. Even as it promises to embrace “laissez-faire,” it busily measures its population; tracks reproductive rates; controls immigration; manages the markets in food, housing, transportation, and energy; polices the poor; and takes steps to ensure the ready supply of able-bodied military recruits. Ironically enough, caregiving is thereby politicized, and, for all the ideological disavowal, biopolitics is established yet again as the essence of governmental interest by the modern nation-State. The latter “assume[s] directly the care of the nation’s biological life as one of its proper tasks.”4
But this is hardly the politicization of caregiving that is envisioned by progressive feminism.5 Agamben treats the concentration camp of Nazi Germany as the exemplary State institution. The Jewish people were designated,
Introduction; 1. From paternafare to marriage promotion: sexual regulation and welfare reform; 2. Biopower and sexual regulation; 3. Post-Foucauldian sexual regulation theory; 4. The ideological construction of paternafare; 5. Paternafare law today; 6. Welfare reform, reproductive heterosexuality, and marriage; 7. The normative assessment of paternafare: an ideal type analysis; 8. Feminist visions; Appendices; Index.