Unit IV: Gender and Work in the Global Economy

Gender and the US Welfare State

There are many ways that nations and national policies are gendered. In this section we will focus on the U.S. welfare state. Here, we do not cover everything pertaining to the welfare state; we clarify debates and provide examples. Welfare does not only come in its most-recognized form (monthly income assistance), but also includes subsidized health insurance (Medicare and Medicaid) and childcare, social security, and food subsidies like food stamps. In addition, the U.S. government pays subsidies to corporations, which is called corporate welfare. Most individuals who receive welfare are stigmatized and construed as undeserving, while the corporations that receive subsidies are seen as entitled to these. The distribution of welfare in the US is a gendered process in which women, especially mothers, are much more likely to receive assistance than men. Since, at the national level, women earn less money than men do and often take time away from the labor force, it is more difficult to maintain a single-parent household on one woman’s income than on one man’s income. This is even more difficult for women who are working class or poor whose work may not even pay enough to stay well fed and cared for without additional support from family, friends, or the state.

The Personal Responsibility/Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 effectively dismantled US welfare policy. As we mentioned previously, the act limits lifetime receipt of welfare to a maximum of 60 months. In addition, the act includes some gender-specific clauses to address the political issue of mothers on welfare. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich infamously suggested that children of welfare mothers should be put into orphanages rather than be raised by the women who birthed them. An incarnation of this sentiment made its way into PRWORA through an optional state-level clause that would bar mothers who were already on welfare rolls from getting additional money to support any new children (Hays, 2001). This clause, also known as the “family cap provision,” effectively punishes children for being born and plays into the demeaning and erroneous stereotype that women on welfare have children in order to get more money from the state. Feminist political scientist Gwendolyn Mink argues that welfare reform targets poor single mothers and families of color and contributes to the devaluing of unpaid care-giving work. According to Mink (2009), through welfare reform, poor single mothers became:

…a separate caste, subject to a separate system of law. Poor single mothers are the only people in America forced by law to work outside the home. They are the only people in America whose decision to bear children are punished by the government…And they are the only mothers in America compelled by law to make room for biological fathers in their families (Mink 2009: 540).

This example illustrates how state policies devalue the traditionally gendered care work that women disproportionately perform, target poor women of color as subjects to be regulated, and reinforce heteronormative breadwinner-homemaker gender roles.

In addition, welfare is linked to state policies governing marriage and family life. For example, the Bush Administration’s Healthy Marriages Initiative, which promoted marriage by providing government funding, assumed that marriage reduces poverty. It is true that two incomes are often better than one. However, not all mothers are heterosexual, or want to be married to the father of their children, or even married at all. More than that, marriage is no guarantee of financial security, especially people living in impoverished communities where they would likely marry other impoverished people. Most people marry within their current economic class (Gerstel and Sarkisian 2006). Gingrich and others especially hoped that women would marry the fathers of their children without recognizing that many women are victims of intimate partner violence. Finally, we are also living in a period in which most marriages end in divorce. It is clear that this initiative was more about promoting a political ideology than actually attempting to remedy the social problem of poverty.

Discourses about welfare mothers invoke images that are gendered, classed, racialized, and sexualized. This phrase speaks to race and sexuality issues as well as gender and class issues. The notions that women on welfare breed children uncontrollably, never marry, and do not know who fathered their children are contemporary incarnations of the Jezebel controlling image of Black women as sexually promiscuous that originated during American slavery (Collins, 2005). This image obscures the fact that during slavery and after emancipation, white men systematically raped Black women. Although most people receiving welfare supports are white, and, in particular, most single mothers receiving welfare are also white, welfare receipt is racialized such that the only images of welfare we seem to see are single mothers of color. As we mentioned before, “the poor” are often framed as amoral, unfamiliar, and un-American. If instead the receipt of welfare was not stigmatized, but was recognized as something that families, friends, and neighbors received in various phases of their lives, these stereotypes would lose traction.

For instance, the mother of one of the authors of this text receives social security for disability checks, yet is staunchly anti-welfare. This contradiction is sustained by the idea that members of the white middle class do not receive welfare even when they do receive various forms of government support.

Women disproportionately number among those in poverty around the world. The term feminization of poverty describes the trend in the US and across the globe in which more and more women live in impoverished conditions, despite the fact that many are working. Women’s unequal access to resources and the disproportionate responsibility for unpaid work placed on them set up a situation in which women can either be supported by a breadwinner or struggle to make ends meet. The global economic crisis and long-standing unequal economic relationships between the Global North—a term that refers to the world’s wealthier countries—and the Global South—a term that refers to the world’s poorer countries—have made sustainable breadwinning wages, even among men, hard to attain.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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