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Cristina Gallo

Excerpted from: Cristina Gallo, Marrying Poor: Women's Citizenship, Race, and Tanf Policies , 19 UCLA Women's Law Journal 61 (Spring 2012)(337 footnotes omitted)


In 1996, President Clinton, with the support of a Republican-controlled Congress, honored a longstanding campaign promise to end welfare as we know it. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) terminated the entitlement welfare regime, replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). TANF's revised agenda tackled the volatile issues of the political moment including curbing welfare dependency and receipt by non-U.S. citizens. These goals were reflected in the institution of a five-year lifetime ban on welfare benefits, stringent welfare-to-work mandates, and a restriction on welfare to aliens. Predictably, these reforms have reduced the welfare rolls but have arguably left many former recipients and their children in worse economic circumstances, as recipients have turned to low-wage jobs and private charity.

However, PRWORA's Congressional findings indicated other motivations were at play in the legislation: Congress was concerned with marriage, babies, specifically, babies born to unmarried women, and the whereabouts of the fathers of those babies. The legislative findings, on the whole, are focused on marriage, its importance to a successful society, and the negative consequences associated with extramarital childrearing. On the basis of nothing more than an inconclusive and unsubstantiated link between a similar rate of increase between child welfare recipients and an equivalent rise in the overall number of extramarital births in roughly the same time period, Congress asserted that women's failure to marry the fathers of their children was the cause of an increase in welfare receipt over the prior three decades. There is an unstated but unmistakable implication advanced by this assertion, one borne of heteronormative gender and racial politics: welfare mothers who bear children outside of marriage consign their children to not only a childhood but a lifetime of poverty as a result of their irresponsible choices.

This contention was not invented by Congress. Nor was it solely a product of the academic arena, whose conservative theorists did much to hasten the drastic reform embodied in PRWORA. Rather, the master narrative embodied in PRWORA's findings not only neglects salient institutional, social, and historical trends accounting for the rise in the number of means-tested welfare recipients, but also fails to capture the socio-political context of TANF's marriage promotion and child support policies: the persistent legacy of the family wage ideology in the U.S. welfare state. The family wage is the heteronormative ideological nexus where the fit parent and the fit citizen of the social welfare state inexorably meet. A family wage is one that pays a married male breadwinner a sufficient income to provide for himself and his dependents--his home-making wife and their children. Emerging in the Civil War era and intertwined with the legacy of racialized chattel slavery, the family wage was predicated on husbands' exclusive participation in the free (as opposed to slave) wage labor market and wives' fulfillment of concomitant domestic responsibilities, including childbearing and rearing. While the halcyon days of the homemaker wife may seem hopelessly antiquated, I show that the family wage ideology remains embedded in contemporary social welfare, family, and labor policy, all three of which shape one another.

With TANF, Congress positioned the promotion of heterosexual marriage as a building block of antipoverty policy. The solution to female-headed household poverty embodied in PRWORA is for women recipients to embrace the family wage by finding bread-winner husbands, or in lieu thereof, ensure their children's fathers provide child support. Marriage and child support are privatized responses to the legitimate need for public assistance which rely on assumptions about conventional family formation and work in and outside of the home. In this article, I argue that the family wage ideology and its gendered and racialized assumptions, plainly reflected in TANF's marriage promotion provisions, improperly permeate America's welfare policy. In order to envision a more just welfare system, we must first understand how these assumptions operate to create the inequitable one currently in effect.

The money Congress allocated to marriage promotion was, and continues to be, rather insubstantial compared to the costs of means-tested welfare or even the sums expended under PRWORA for child support enforcement. From the outset, PRWORA incentivized states and certain non-governmental and faith-based actors to compete for a minimum $150 million and up to $300 million per year for programmatic efforts. Nonetheless, what once was a series of Congressional findings is now a program, the Healthy Marriage Initiative, of the federal government's Administration for Children and Families, which funds a network of organizations doing marriage promotion work.

Here, I examine the development and perpetuation of the family wage ideology in welfare policy from the Freedmen's Bureau in the Civil War to today's TANF. I consider how the family wage has mediated the citizenship status, or standing, of men and women, white and black, in U.S. society and how the ideology continues to shape commonsense notions of what it means to be on welfare. In light of the wholesale racialization of the welfare mother as black in political discourse, I pay close attention to the critical role of racial politics, in both the development of the modern U.S. social welfare state and in the specific family formation, marriage, and childbearing policies of various iterations of means-tested welfare.

In Part II, I cover the historical emergence of the family wage ideology, including how it structures access to a gendered conception of citizenship through work, with a focus on the legacy of chattel slavery. An understanding of this emergence is necessary to appreciate the degree to which U.S. social welfare policies incorporate and reify gendered and racialized paradigms of work and citizenship. In Part III, through the lens of these paradigms, I discuss the advent of women's welfare with mother's pensions, the progenitor of modern means-tested welfare, and Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). In contrast to Social Security, the mainstay of the New Deal social welfare state, I argue that the creation of a racially exclusionary, feminized tier of the welfare state, one based on marital status and motherhood as opposed to work, has had longstanding implications for the citizenship status of recipients of means-tested welfare. In Part IV, I provide a historical synopsis of ADC, colloquially known as welfare, from 1935 until 1996, in order to underscore the ubiquity of the family wage ideology in ADC's discriminatory practices. I subsequently review factors, including the welfare rights movement, which broadened access to welfare and increased the number of recipients generally and recipients of color specifically, which I argue precipitated reformers' cries of a welfare crisis, thereby leading to welfare reform.

In Part V, I provide an overview of TANF's marriage promotion and child support provisions. I examine how the family wage ideology has been successfully employed in service of passing both provisions and how they complement one another. I also take up the contemporary debate among feminists and other reform commentators about the significance of TANF's work promotion policies and situate PRWORA's agenda in the context of social welfare reforms in the nineties that promised to make work pay. TANF's workfare provisions further buttress my argument that PRWORA champions normative assumptions about gender, race, work, and family consistent with the family wage, in an era in which those assumptions are increasingly questioned, especially as they apply to poor women and poor women of color. I contend that PRWORA's prioritization of marriage, child support, and workfare reflects the social control or disciplinary function of welfare policy which trades on tropes of racial inferiority and is enabled by recipients' degraded citizenship status. This, in turn, has worrisome consequences for women's autonomy, as well as reproductive freedom, and suggests that there are formidable obstacles to achieving greater gender and racial equity through further policy interventions in what may be an inherently corrupt system.