Sex Panic and the Welfare State

By Shepard, Benjamin | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Sex Panic and the Welfare State


Shepard, Benjamin, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


2006 marked the tenth anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The 1996 law was the culmination of decades of erosion in backing for basic provisions of the U.S. social safety net. The following reviews the political campaign that undermined the foundation for this vital component of the New Deal/Great Society income supports. A series of panics diminished approval for the welfare state, leading to the 1996 "reform." Panic discourse increasingly accompanies policy debate. Examples of anti welfare, anti outsider panic discourses are explored.

Keywords: sex panic, reform, social safety net, welfare state, public policy, public debate, moral panic

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February 25th, 2004, President Bush proclaimed gay marriage was a threat to "the most fundamental institution of civilization," (Sandalow, 2004). With this declaration, public concern over war and budget deficits receded as a sex panic over gay marriage and abortion shifted the terms of public debate. Faced with a 'threat' to a "fundamental institution of civilization," the electorate awarded Bush a second term. And he claimed a mandate to dismantle core foundations of the U.S. welfare state (Krugman, 2005).

2004 was not the first time a sex panic had struck fear into U.S. electorate, thus undermining support for public welfare provisions. Panic has long accompanied shifts in the ways public policy enters and exits public life. In this, the tenth year since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, better known as 'welfare reform', it is useful to consider the generation-long political campaign that undermined public backing for this and other safety net provisions. While many consider the 1996 law a success, others describe it as regressive and punitive (Abramovitz, 2000). Explanations vary as to when Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) first lost support. Some suggest that the racialization of welfare is the primary reason for the loss of confidence in the program (Hancock, 2004; Schram et al, 2003). Others suggest that since 90 percent of the program's recipients are women, sexism is a primary cause for the program's lack of popularity (Abramovitz, 2005, p. 387). This essay posits that a series sex and moral panics, encompassing these themes, undermined support for the welfare state, leading to the 1996 "reform."

Paralleling the demise of the welfare state, there has been a proliferation of sex and moral panics (Cohen, 1972/2002; Crimp et al, 1998; Duggan, 1995; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Hall et al, 1978; Thompson, 1998). Studies of the discursive contours of moral panics highlight the ideological quandaries at the center of thirty years of debate over social welfare policy. A number of recent comparative studies of current welfare policies (Sidell, 1998, p. 26-27; Wagner, 1997a, p. 42-48) have specifically located conditions of moral panic within policy debates over public assistance and services for the poor. Other studies (Abramovitz, 1996, 2000; Piven and Cloward, 1993) consider the increase in policies aimed at the moral regulation of the personal and sexual lives of those on public assistance. These works consider the backlashes over public sexuality and the ensuing social controls which usually follow sex panics.

At their core, studies of sex and moral panics investigate social hierarchies. These studies become inquiries into social tensions, ambiguities, and fears, as themes of gender, race, crime, youth, immigration status, and social upheaval are projected onto highly charged acts including public sex, drug use, non-monogamy, birth control, and teenage pregnancy. These symbolic acts--and the calls for their suppression--can be used to assess shifts in social and economic life. For scholars of panic, discourses of fear typically inspire pessimism, which result in the allocation of resources to secure a worthy 'us' from fear of an 'impure' them (Altheide, 2002; Glassner, 1999; Morone, 2003). …

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