Academic journal article Social Work

The Ideology of Welfare Reform: Deconstructing Stigma

Academic journal article Social Work

The Ideology of Welfare Reform: Deconstructing Stigma

Article excerpt

Recent welfare reform proposals (in particular, the Personal Responsibility Act of 1995) are grounded in a neoconservative critique of welfare (Gilder, 1995; Murray, 1984/1994). These legislative proposals are centered around recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) rather than focused on economic structural reform. The Personal Responsibility Act of 1995 (H.R. 4) and the Republican Party's Contract with America (Gingrich et al., 1994) assume that defects in AFDC mothers, not the welfare state or the structure of the U.S. economy, are to blame for the expansion of the AFDC rolls and the growing number of people living below the poverty line:

Isn't it time for the government to encourage work rather than rewarding dependency? The Great Society has had the unintended consequence of snaring millions of Americans into the welfare trap. Government programs designed to give a helping hand to the neediest of Americans have instead bred illegitimacy, crime, illiteracy, and more poverty. Our Contract with America will change this destructive social behavior by requiring welfare recipients to take personal responsibility for the decisions they make. (p. 65)

This article argues that the labels associated with AFDC recipiency and rooted in these neoconservative ideas continue to serve as a political tool for the current welfare reform movement to promote a regressive welfare reform system. This article deconstructs those labels, particularly those used in the Personal Responsibility Act of 1995. In this article, deconstruction refers to the process of analyzing stigma into its component concepts, exposing these concepts as mere prejudice, and leaving a path open to reinterpret (that is, to construct) a new paradigm. This deconstruction has practical implications for social work because it widens the parameters of the welfare reform debate and suggests alternative interpretations of the needs of AFDC mothers.

Deconstructing Stigma

The stigma paradigm hinges on the use of the concepts of dependence, addiction, and illegitimacy and promiscuity to describe single mothers and children whose fathers are absent. The terms' impact on the development of welfare programs is not new; however, stigma has become more difficult to expose in an era in which women are alleged to have made significant gains in economic and social equality.

Deconstructing Dependence

The concept of dependence has been used by advocates of restrictive welfare policies to refer to moral and psychological deficiencies. Dependence is a sufficient condition for being considered mentally unfit. Independence is a necessary condition for being considered mentally fit. Murray (1984/1994) even referred to those who are self-sufficient as "the good people."

The genealogy of the dependence-independence dichotomy was traced by Fraser and Gordon (1994), who found that the concept of dependence changed from a social and economic category in preindustrial society to a moral and psychological category in postindustrial society. During this shift the single-earner family was phased out; women were expected to become wage earners:

The combined results of these developments is to increase the stigma of dependency. With all legal and political dependency now illegitimate, and with wives' economic dependency now contested, there is no longer any self-evidently good adult dependency in post-industrial society. Rather, all dependency is suspect, and independence is enjoined upon everyone. Independence, however, remains identified with wage labor. (p. 324)

Dependence did not always carry a stigma. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), established in 1935, and an earlier version of the AFDC program discouraged the participation of women in the labor force by reducing the working recipient's grant by 100 percent of earnings. Proper motherhood and control of women's sexuality - not self-sufficiency - were the goals. …

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