Welfare: Law, Poverty, and Social Reproduction
“Welfare” is often equated simply with money. In fact, it’s a body of law, implemented by administrative agencies and aimed at the regulation of working-class families. Sometimes referred to as “the criminal law for women,” the latter family regulation system, like the criminal legal system, has a long history as a state apparatus of racialized social control. As Dorothy Roberts has pointed out, “the family policing system played an integral, though largely overlooked role in the 1990s federal consolidation of capital accumulation, welfare retrenchment, and punitive containment.” And a key coercive instrument of the welfare system is family separation. Despite public focus on “abuse,” most children are removed from their parents for “neglect,” a category that centers on a parent’s failure to provide food, housing, and childcare, or on her failure to afford the provision of proper (i.e. private-pay) treatment for mental health or substance abuse. Excoriated, and sometimes romanticized, as a system of largesse, welfare is in fact a stringent mode of social and labor discipline. How can we understand the role welfare plays in capitalist systems of production and reproduction? How has it shaped, and been deeply shaped by, racial hierarchy and anxiety? And what might a more humane welfare system look like—one oriented to safety and flourishing, rather than to control?
In this course we will investigate the history, present, and future of family regulation – both public and private – with specific emphasis on its construction of gender, sexuality, race, and kinship. We will critically examine the market forces underlying family policing, understand how counter-movements for men’s and father’s rights have impacted the shape of the law, and discuss how the legal and cultural conflation of neglect with poverty continues in late 20th and early 21st efforts as “welfare reform.” Readings will be drawn from landmark legal decisions in welfare and family law, as well as scholars and activists including Dorothy Roberts, Jessica Dixon Weaver, Cynthia Godsoe, Melinda Cooper, Deborah Dinner, Jill Quadagno, Julia Hernandez, and Tarek Ismael, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 15 — December 13, 2023
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 22nd.