Welfare Reform: The Politics of Sex, Race, and Citizenship

Sean Cahill describes how sexual citizenship and poverty get constructed along racial lines in a manner that shapes welfare reform policies in his 2010 Black Sexaulities piece

The frame of sexual citizenship (Faiman-Silvia 2004) gives partial citizenship to sexual and racial minorities while endowing full citizenship on heterosexual white men, thus making them the norm for the societal definition of marriage, family, and sexual intimacy. The state then plays an intrusive role in sexual citizenship due to the racial dynamics of poverty. Sean Cahill describes how sexual citizenship and poverty get constructed along racial lines in a manner that shapes welfare reform policies in his 2010 Black Sexualities piece.

The Racialization of Poverty in the United States

Poverty in the US is racialized. This racialization means differences in income, poverty rates, homeownership rates, education, and unemployment. Therefore welfare reform disproportionately affects Black people and Latinos:

A related point is the role that law and public policy place in the social construction of race, gender, and citizenship. Race is intrinsically tied up with government determinations of rights based on racial membership. The lived experience of race is the result of historical laws and public policies that constructed white male privilege, segregation, and disproportionate poverty in Black and Latino communities. 1

Various theoretical approaches entrench the disenfranchisement of Black people and Latinos by defining most outcomes as a product of rational choice. Since the 1960s and the publishing of the Moynihan Report, society has stigmatized anyone who does not meet the norm of families. This then justifies their disadvantage. However, in truth, the perceived pathologies of various groups were set forth as causal factors in poverty. Welfare reform is thus about privileging certain kinds of families and penalizing others. 

The State of Family Affairs

According to Cahill, Since the mid-1990s the primary focus of the state has been single mothers and same-sex couples. The lives of both groups are attributed to moral choices. For instance, proponents of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act aka welfare reform claimed a causal relationship between failure to marry and poverty and blamed other social “pathologies” as well. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allowed states to refuse marriage as well.

Cahill focuses on marriage promotion, fatherhood initiatives, and abstinence-only-until-marriage education:

Public policies affecting family recognition, family supports for low-income families with children, HIV/AIDS, and prisons are based on a narrowly moral and individualized etiology of alleged social problems such as poverty, out-of-wedlock birth, homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, and criminality.2

Bush-Cheney administration promoted heterosexual marriage as a key solution to resolve child poverty. Thus marriage and fatherhood initiatives drive these efforts by advocating marriage and the promotion of fatherhood while allowing privileges to married couples with children for various benefits. Unmarried couples also could not have access to fertility clinics.

These politics disadvantage Black and Latino families and also assume all poor women desire to marry or identify as heterosexual. Policies against same-sex marriage and adoption proliferated during the same period. Lastly, the abstinence-only-until-marriage ignores the relates of both sexual and ethnic minorities. Policies against prison sexual abuse thus disproportionately affect Black and Latino members of society. This contributes to the spread of disease and recidivism. Homophobia prevents the problem from being taken seriously.

The Family According to the Federal Government

Cultural homophobia leads to anti-gay bias. As Cahill points, the defense of policies against same-sex couples and single-headed houses are relatively similar. Federal fatherhood initiatives began under Vice President Dan Quayle who critiqued the Black women television character Murphy Brown for having a child as a single mother. They founded the National Fatherhood in 1994 after social backlash:

In order to address this alleged dysfunctional and destructive “welfare culture,” the PRWORA prioritized marriage; the reduction of out-of-wedlock births (i.e., births to unmarried mothers), in part through abstinence-only “sex education”; and the reinsertion of fathers into families led by low-income single mothers and the promotion of mother-father families as essential for the successful rearing of children.3

The Bush administration implemented its vision of fatherhood and used federal funds to do so. Advocates of the federal initiatives for fatherhood desire the granting of benefits to married couples and prioritized their children in other programs like Head Start, student loans, job training, and other welfare programs. The marriage movement also portrays second marriage and divorce as flawed.

Proposals to limit benefits disproportionately affect people of color. These policies can result in the breakdown of families. Furthermore, policies are based on the argument that marriage should determine the benefits of welfare reform. Studies show that single-family parents did not lead to rising in poverty in the US. Research indicates single-family-headed households are a greater portion of other societies that have lower poverty rates.

Why The Marriage Movement Does More Harm Than Good

Cahill concludes that the marriage movement is more about anti-gay bias and the policing of family structure than anything else. Welfare reform is used to regulate sexual morality and punish anyone who deviates from patriarchal norms. Such policies other gay men and lesbians. The religious right also defines single mothers as lacking in work ethic. They also emphasize individual choice to justify this disenfranchisement.

According to Cahill, continuing to use the state to legislate the outcomes of certain types of families will continue to increase inequality. Abstinence-only-until-Marriage education was introduced at the federal level in 1996 and its funding continues to grow.

The majority of abstinence-only programs have misinformation about sexuality and reproductive health. Condoms are presented as dangerous and ineffective while homosexuality is characterized as unnatural behavior similar to pedophilia and incest even though gay-friendly sexual education leads to less negative outcomes. Students face anti-gay harassment.

This is dangerous, especially to the exclusion of safe sex education and access to contraception. These programs rely on shame and fear and ignore homosexuality except to mention HIV transmission. Abstinence-only education thus facilitates the spread of HIV.

These attitudes also prevent the proper solutions for sexual abuse in prison. Prison officials do not understand the circumstances of prison sexual abuse including the traumatic response. Furthermore, they do little to prevent victims from life-threatening disease transmission. Gay men and transgender women are most at risk. Sexual acts are often associated with greater exposure to violence.

Suggested Solutions for Family Policies

Existing policies have failed to change the outcomes for these groups due to the stereotyping that underpins these policies. They do more harm than good. Current policies will likely ensnare the children of the unsupported family into the system:

Public policies affecting family recognition, poverty, sex education, and prison sexual abuse disproportionately hurt those who live at the margins of race, sexuality, class, and gender in a country still dominated by ethnocentric, classist, patriarchal, and heterosexist assumptions.4

Cahill argues all these factors together have led to higher rates of infection among black women. Thus, Cahill suggests activists try to find common ground between the Black and queer communities.

  1. Page 193-194 
  2. Page 191 
  3. Page 195 
  4. Page 205