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The Disciplinary Apparatus of Welfare Reform

Janine Fitzgerald teaches sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

In 1996 President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), to end “welfare as we know it.” PRWORA, euphemistically referred to as “welfare to work” or simply “welfare reform,” has fundamentally changed the status of women within U.S. capitalism. Historically, women’s roles in the sexual division of labor have been to reproduce the laborer (cook and keep house) and reproduce the labor force (have children). If women had to work in the formal labor force, then society demanded that they hold jobs appropriate to their gender. There has always been a gender-based social discipline of women whether they were wage earners or homemakers. It is interesting to note that still today beauty contests, sexual harassment, and compulsory use of birth control pills are all forms of discipline enforced on women in many third world factories. Of course, sexual harassment is common in the workplaces of the rich capitalist countries as well.

Early forms of cash assistance programs actively discouraged women’s participation in the formal labor force. Women were to stay home and care for their children. From its inception in 1936, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) stripped benefits from women who earned too much money or were found living with wage-earning males. The new welfare to work program, however, while still enforcing many of the traditional patriarchal attitudes, forces women to abandon their children to daycare and enter the low-skilled job market. As a result, this program subjects workers to a whole new level of control and competition.

Women and Patriarchal Discipline

Historically women’s bodies have been subjected to enormous discipline, but that discipline has centered on their roles as mothers and sexual partners. Historian Howard Zinn has noted that women in societies based on private property and monogamous families occupy a special status somewhere between house-slave, sexual partner, child bearer, and weakling.1 The female character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is thus urged not to think or write. Women have been taught to treat their bodies in accordance with perceived male desires. While women have always worked, whether for wages or as slaves or indentured servants, their work has been organized by men and always subordinated to stereotypical beliefs about gender. For example, male heads of households organized systems of production in early colonial economies in which all families contributed to the economy of the community and individuals living outside of a family unit were taxed.2 Strict patriarchal notions identified the roles of women within both the systems of production and social reproduction.3 As women and girls entered the wage-labor systems in the United States, their behavior was still regulated through patriarchal norms. Textile mill owners of the Northeast sought to recreate the paternalistic living arrangements of the home in residential dormitories and on the factory floor.4 Subsequent sexual divisions of labor in the labor market sought to reinforce women’s status as homemakers. Only jobs that were seen as similar to work that had traditionally been done in the home—including textile work, teaching, child care, cooking, and nursing—were regarded as acceptable occupations for women.

The first social policies that were oriented toward the poor differentiated between men’s work and women’s work and sought to encourage men to be paid laborers and women to be homemakers. Except during times of economic depression, most people in the United States have viewed poverty as a result of individual moral failures. Social policies sought to correct these deficiencies by instilling values of thrift, religious observance, hard work, and temperance, each fitted to the socially defined roles of each gender.5

The Social Security Act of 1930, which included Aid to Dependent Children (later to become Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC), essentially created a two-channel welfare state: one for workers covered by social security and workmen’s compensation and another for mothers and widows.6 Whereas the Social Security Act created a safety net for workers, it relegated poor mothers to a place of poverty and dependence. Paid labor was prohibited or discouraged, and women were punished for earning too much. Social welfare critic, Mimi Abramovitz, described this as an unequal partnership between the state and mothers whereby women were able to trade in husbands in return for the state providing them a temporary and meager social wage.7

Although AFDC did not provide enough for single women to raise their children with dignity and security, the cash assistance became an important part of the survival strategies of the poor. Women would receive welfare and work under the table or leave welfare for a job or marriage, and then go back on welfare when an economic crisis struck.8 Ultimately AFDC gave priority to, indeed gave entitlement to, poor women staying home to take care of their children, albeit in poverty.

Welfare Reform and Patriarchal Discipline

While the entitlement portion of AFDC is gone, many of its inherent degrading attitudes toward poor mothers survived the reform. In fact, the attack on welfare was justified by the perceived immoral activity of welfare recipients. Ronald Reagan blamed crack babies, juvenile delinquency, and divorce on welfare. Politicians and officials in the states in the early 1990s became hysterical about women’s behavior during pregnancy, and prosecutors in over thirty states arrested women who gave birth to infants who tested positive for exposure to cocaine, heroin, or alcohol.9 Women were charged with feticide, homicide, and assault with a deadly weapon (cocaine). Some women were handcuffed, shackled, and taken to jail while still bleeding from birth.10

The media aided and abetted this campaign by drawing a strong connection between crack, race, and welfare in the minds of the American people.11 Women were actually believed to have babies for the increase in their welfare checks. As a Newsweek reporter wrote, “Legislators hope that cutting off benefits to teen mothers will force most girls to change their minds about having babies. Sure enough Julia Leslido, a 17 year old welfare mother from Elizabeth New Jersey says that if the government abolished aid, ‘I would prevent myself from having more children.’”12

Under welfare reform a good mother is now one who works as well as obeys traditional patriarchal norms. Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, said, “If able-bodied women refuse to comply with work requirements they should lose their welfare benefits and the children should be taken away from the parents and placed in foster care or group homes or put up for adoption.”13 Her successor, Tommy Thompson, also advocated placing children in foster care if their mothers refused to work.14

President George W. Bush goes a step farther in subordinating welfare to patriarchal notions. Whereas AFDC sought to help single mothers raise their children, Bush believes that mothers should not be unmarried at all. The White House proposal to reauthorize welfare reform states:

Although our policy must and does continue to support single-parent families, national policy must do a better job of promoting healthy marriages. Rather, it is simply wise and prudent to reorient our policies to encourage marriage, especially when children are involved. For this reason, the Administration plan commits up to $300 million per year for states to design and implement programs that reduce nonmarital births and increase the percentage of children in married-couple families. The Administration’s approach to promoting marriage is to provide financial incentives for states, often working together with private and faith-based organizations, to develop and implement innovative programs.15

Welfare to Work programs present poor women with a stark choice. They can abandon their children to poorly-funded daycare programs to work at jobs that will not provide security, or they can fully embrace traditional notions of gender and get married, although marriage has never proven a sure way out of poverty.

Welfare and the Reserve Army of Labor

The reserve army of labor is a mass of human beings who will work under any conditions. For workers to accept subsistence wages (or less) and appalling working conditions, there must be a great number of desperate people competing against one another. Marx described the reserve army of labor as “belong[ing] to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost….It creates a mass of human material always ready for exploitation by capital in the interests of capital’s own changing valorization requirements.”16

Aid to Families with Dependent Children effectively removed poor women from the labor force and therefore the reserve army of labor. However, the move toward market-based social welfare policies, the end to entitlement programs, and the requirements of work-based assistance programs have reversed this, placing poor women back in the labor force and the reserve army of labor.

Falling rates of profit and overproduction have led to a reconfiguration of the labor market since the 1960s. As Marx recognized, capital has responded by seeking cheaper sources of labor with less security and power. Women have been a major part of the more flexible, docile labor force both nationally and internationally. Women now comprise approximately 43 percent of the labor force in the United States17 and are less likely to be downsized than their male counterparts.18 It is clear that women are a preferred source of labor in the new globalized labor market.

Policy analyst Chris Grover points out that workfare approaches to welfare reconfigure the reserve army, increasing its size and making it conform to the demands of the labor market: “‘Workfarism’ represents a reorientation of social policy to make it more ‘in tune’ with neo-liberal growth, for example the facilitation of flexible labour markets, through social policy in the pursuit of a competitive edge in global markets.”19

Welfare reform has indeed increased the size of the reserve army of labor, made workers more vulnerable, and intensified competition for jobs among non-welfare low-wage workers. In 1996, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) replaced AFDC and required states to have a specified and increasing number of women engaged in work activities within two years. The current welfare reauthorization under consideration would mandate states to increase participation rates to 70 percent by 2008 at forty hours a week. Economist Timothy Bartik estimates that welfare reform will add between one and two million people to the labor force during 1996–2005.20 Sixty percent of welfare recipients left TANF after the first five years of welfare reform, and during 1996–2003 the number of single women holding a job increased from 65.9 percent to 71.8 percent.21 Labor force participation among single mothers without high school degrees jumped 15.4 percent since welfare reform as opposed to increases of only 1.2 percent among single mothers with bachelor degrees.22 These data indicate that welfare reform has indeed pushed poor, less-educated mothers into the labor market.

Welfare to work programs have made the poor even poorer and further removed them from access to social programs. Seventy percent of those leaving welfare are working in the services, especially retail and eating and drinking establishments. Their average wage is between seven and ten dollars an hour. The poverty gap, that is, the amount of additional income that would be required to raise the average income of poor families up to the federally determined poverty line, has grown from $6712 to $7483.23 Furthermore, welfare recipients entering the labor market are finding it hard to access social programs such as unemployment insurance. Women in many cases, especially if they have been forced off welfare, lose access to critical medical and housing benefits, even though they are still eligible.24 Furthermore, welfare recipients entering the labor market are often the first to lose their jobs during economic downturns. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 70 percent of former welfare recipients who have lost their jobs during the current recession are not eligible for unemployment benefits.25 As a result, surveys show that 40 percent of current food bank recipients were once on welfare, and major cities report a 23 percent increase in requests for emergency food and a 13 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter.26

Women leaving welfare to enter the labor market are competing for jobs with their fellow low- wage workers and to some degree displacing them. Maria Enchutegui of the Urban Institute estimated a 2 percent decline in low-skilled male employment as welfare recipients join the labor market.27 Timothy Bartik speculates that those hardest hit by the welfare to work programs will be other non-welfare poor single mothers. Indeed he estimated that for every welfare recipient who gets a job, another poor woman will lose one.28 Johns Hopkins University and the city of Baltimore began to employ welfare recipients for $1.50 an hour as trainees, undermining the city of Baltimore’s living-wage policy. Later commitments from the governor and the president of Johns Hopkins ended this practice; however, it is clear that welfare recipients will have a competitive edge in the low-skilled labor market.29

Welfare reform is expected to put downward pressure on already low wages. One study estimates a 1.5 percent decrease in wages for low-skilled jobs,30 and another estimates a 10 percent decrease over the long term.31 Overall, as sociologist Sharon Hays points out, the real winners of welfare reform are the companies seeking to hire low-wage workers.32 Not only does welfare reform create a mass of poor women desperate to find work and feed their children, it disciplines all low-wage workers. Desperate men and women who do not receive welfare know that if they complain or demand better wages, they can be replaced by even more desperate welfare mothers.

Welfare Reform and Worker Discipline

Welfare reform not only increases the size of the reserve army, it also subjects welfare recipients to heightened levels of surveillance and discipline. Michel Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison sheds light on how this is achieved.33 The Panopticon was envisioned by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) as a correctional facility designed so that prisoners could be observed and their behavior measured and recorded at any and at all times while the observer remained invisible. In this way the progress of the prisoner’s moral reform could be closely monitored and penalties or rewards administered as necessary. Bentham believed that the prisoners’ awareness that they were constantly visible without being able to verify when they were being watched would be a force for their moral improvement. Foucault describes this logic as the model for a generalized all-encompassing disciplinary power, which extends throughout modern society and acts as an internalized remote control to discipline individuals and control populations. We learn in school, the workplace, prisons and elsewhere to obey the clock and our superiors and behave as we’ve been taught while keeping a critical eye on ourselves and each other. Welfare reform acts as the Panopticon of the poor, a disciplinary apparatus that places them under intense scrutiny and compels them to become docile workers.

Time is constantly used as a means of control. Since no recipient is allowed to receive cash assistance for more than two continuous years or five years in a lifetime, recipients are constantly made aware of their progress in relation to time. Furthermore, all recipients must be work-ready under welfare reform, except in situations of disability. Recipients must get jobs within a certain number of days (thirty days is a common limit). Recipients are allowed some training programs, but these are limited to ninety days, and the welfare clock is always ticking. State welfare programs are also controlled by time. They must have a certain percentage of their clientele working a certain number of hours and finally off welfare completely within a given time period.

Recipients are required to report frequently to social service offices within drab government buildings. There, posters warning of the perils of welfare fraud and reminding recipients of the ticking welfare clock decorate the waiting rooms. In some places, applicants answer questions through bulletproof glass. Women are only allowed into the inner sanctum of locked doors after they have proven themselves needy and worthy of assistance through a dizzying set of applications. Recipients then meet with social workers or “technicians” to discuss their barriers to employment. Once these barriers have been identified—they are always found in the attitudes and habits of the applicant, never in the potential employer or the realities of the labor market—the recipient and the technician devise a plan to help the recipient get to work. This plan is called the Individual Responsibility Contract, and the recipient must sign it. Social service agencies subcontract with a number of programs and nonprofit agencies with which applicants must meet to “overcome their barriers to employment.” Recipients then travel from place to place and meeting to meeting, juggling issues of transportation and childcare. Recipients are closely monitored at each appointment, and their progress is reported to social services.

Many of these training sessions would be laughable if they were not so degrading. Some of the “bad attitudes” identified include: never on time; have low self-esteem; dress inappropriately; do not know how to interview or fill out a job application; and, overall make bad choices. Welfare reform sets out to fix these problems by forcing women to attend training sessions and counseling them on life skills (under the threat of sanctions). One job readiness and training program on “work maturity” provides curricula in punctuality, attendance, positive attitude behavior, appearance, interpersonal relationships, and completing tasks. A faith-based program offers ten holistic tools, which include the vision tool, the faith tool, the discipline tool, the work tool, the responsibility tool, and the wealth tool to improve women’s attitudes. A program in Wisconsin, on top of offering all the above, teaches classes on nutrition.

The social norm for women is now that of a working mother. Superwomen who both work and perform domestic duties are the new heroes and are constantly celebrated in magazines and television programs. Mothers who have gotten themselves off welfare and work two jobs as well as care for their children receive notice during presidential speeches. Those who fail to comply with the dictates of welfare reform find themselves visiting food banks and fighting to keep their children.

Poor mothers, demonized by society, are eager to distance themselves from the stigma of welfare by joining the ranks of hard-working Americans. Some recipients distinguish themselves from other recipients by reporting neighbors for fraud. One recipient, while bemoaning the loss of time spent with her child said, “People need to get out there and quit being the bums of society and work and support their children.” She continued, “If they don’t have an education then they need to get over it and get out into the workforce.”34

A punishment and reward system enforcing every step of welfare reform extends far beyond the individual recipient. Sanctions punish both recipients and states. States which reduce the number of welfare recipients and reduce teenage pregnancy without increasing abortion rates are eligible for financial incentives. If states fail to reduce the number of welfare recipients, their total federal block grant may be reduced. Therefore states, and in some places, counties, face tremendous pressure to get women off welfare. Similarly, welfare recipients who do not comply with work requirements face a partial or complete reduction in benefits. The Washington Post reported that within a thirteen-month period, 38 percent of families leaving welfare left because of sanctions.35 In 1997, more than one-half of Indiana’s 14,248 cases were sanctioned off welfare; 40 percent of cases in Tennessee and 27 percent in Florida suffered a similar fate. Many states and counties actually seemed to be sanctioning recipients in order to meet federally-mandated welfare reductions. Reasons for sanctions include failure to provide the father’s name to social services, failure to attend appointments and training sessions, and failure to work. In some cases social service agencies send out sanction letters without identifying the cause of the sanction. Then, the sanctioning process appears mysterious, arbitrary, and even more threatening to welfare recipients.


Women have always played a part in the reserve army of labor. However, AFDC in seeking to regulate women’s role in social reproduction created a buffer between women and the labor market, effectively removing some from the reserve army of labor. Welfare reform forces poor women back into the labor force and creates a new disciplinary apparatus to train and regulate them. While many women and groups have organized to resist welfare reform, recipients still find themselves working longer hours than their peers. Like the slaves and indentured servants of the past, these women are expected to care for young children by themselves and work full days, too. This process creates a pernicious blend of Taylorism and patriarchy with detrimental consequences for all workers.


  1. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Collins, 1999), 103.
  2. Mimi Abramovitz, Regulating the Lives of Women, (South End Press, 1988).
  3. Jacqueline Jones, A Social History of the Laboring Classes, (Blackwell Publishers, 1999).
  4. Jones, Social History, 100.
  5. William Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State, (The Free Press, 1999), 68.
  6. Barbara Nelson, “The Origins of the Two-Channel Welfare State,” in Linda Gordon, ed., Women, The State and Welfare, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).
  7. Abramovitz, Regulating, 206.
  8. Kathryn Edin & Laura Lein, Making Ends Meet, (Russel Sage Foundation, 1997).
  9. Lynn M. Paltrow, “Punishment and Prejudice: Judging Drug-Using Pregnant Women,” in Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Riddick, eds., Mother Troubles, (Beacon Press, 1999).
  10. Paltrow, “Punishment,” 65.
  11. Paltrow, “Punishment,” 65 .
  12. Steve Waldman, Newsweek, December 12, 1994.
  13. Robert Pear, New York Times, February 10, 1995.
  14. New York Times Magazine, January 15, 1995.
  15. The White House, http//, January 2003.
  16. Karl Marx, Capital, (Vintage Books, 1977), 784.
  17. Ken Hudson, Monthly Review (April 2001), 44.
  18. Of the almost 4 million workers displaced between January 1999 and December 2001 2,186,000 were men and 1,783,000 were women. U.S. Department of Labor, Displaced Workers Summary 2001.
  19. Chris Grover, Capital and Class, no. 79, 18.
  20. Timothy Bartick, “Will Welfare Reform Cause Displacement?” (Employment Research spring 1999, W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research).
  21. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Before and After Welfare Reform,” IWPR publication no. D459, June 2003.
  22. Data comes from CSS Tabulations of Current Population Survey analyzed by Mark Levitan & Robin Gluck, “Job Market Realities and Federal Welfare Policy,” Community Service Society (September 2003).
  23. Mark Levitan & Robin Gluck, “Job Market Realities and Federal Welfare Policy,” Community Service Society (September 2003).
  24. Janice Peterson, “Feminist Perspectives on TANF Reauthorization: An Introduction to Key Issues for the Future of Welfare Reform,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, (February 2002).
  25. Heather Boushey & David Rosnick, “Jobs Held by Former Welfare Recipients Hit Hard by Economic Downturn,” Center for Economic and Policy Research (September 5, 2003).
  26. Barbara Ehrenreich & Francis Fox Piven, Mother Jones (May–June, 2002).
  27. Maria E. Enchautegui, “Will Welfare Reform Hurt Low-Skilled Workers?” Assessing the New Federalism (February 2001).
  28. Bartick, “Welfare Reform.”
  29. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, (University of California Press, 2000), 28.
  30. Enchautegui, “Welfare Reform.”
  31. Bartick, “Welfare Reform.”
  32. Sharon Hayes, Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform, (Oxford University Press, 2003), pg. 226.
  33. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (Vintage Books, 1995).
  34. Interviewed by author March 10, 1998.
  35. Barbara Vobejda & Judith Haveman, Washington Post, March 23, 1998.
2004, Volume 56, Issue 06 (November)
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