“Why is welfare policy a gay issue?” In my years as the executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, I was asked this question countless times. For the most part, welfare is not considered “a gay issue.” As I discuss in the introduction to this issue of S&F Online, our national LGBT organizations have a constructed a paradigm of what constitutes “a gay issue” that I find to be too narrow. The same is true for many antipoverty organizations. To assume that the only issues that are queer issues are those that deal exclusively with queer people is to erase the multiplicity of each of our identities. To assume that welfare is not a queer issue is to assume that there are no queer people who are poor or women or people of color or transgender or HIV-positive or immigrants or parents—because all of these groups are directly affected by welfare policy. In addition, to assume that welfare is not a queer issue also assumes that being queer means that we have no connection to what happens to the rest of the world. It assumes that, even if we are well off, we have no interest in what happens to poor people, communities of color, or the labor movement. It also assumes that we will not need their support on “our” issues and thus we can afford to ignore “their” issues. Such myopic thinking has left our political movement isolated and more importantly, it has left the most disenfranchised in our communities without a social safety net.
Despite the LGBT movement’s inability to make a connection between welfare rights and gay rights, the right wing of this country definitely sees a connection. Their understanding of the similarities of these two movements can be seen clearly in the strategies with which they have attacked both. There are many similarities between the language and tactics of those fighting against LGBT rights and of those who advocate for the complete end of the social safety net. By understanding the ways the right has used similar methods of oppression against these movements, both movements can be better equipped to fight back collectively.
Dismantling the Social Safety Net
In 1996, Congress and President Clinton passed and implemented the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRA). With the passing of the PRA, the federal government sharply reduced basic “safety net” programs for low-income individuals, children, families, elderly and disabled people, and immigrants. The bill replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Although it is important to support AFDC, it is also important to recognize that until the 1960s and the rise of the welfare rights movement, AFDC served relatively few single mothers, especially black single mothers; was administered in an arbitrary fashion by local welfare agencies; and highly scrutinized and regulated the lives of women who did receive welfare. The welfare rights movement had made AFDC more of an entitlement in the sense that more people received it and many arbitrary and intrusive practices of local welfare officers were eliminated, at least for a time.
As the focus on the PRA was to move people off assistance and into employment, TANF was a block grant program created under the PRA where states received time-limited blocks of money for welfare programs. In order to qualify for these block grant funds, states were required to enact programs aimed at forcing welfare recipients to “work” for their individual or family benefits (without valuing child rearing as work or providing sufficient child care options for those mothers forced to leave their children to go to work). Workfare was a relatively limited program in terms of the numbers of women who formerly would have been eligible for AFDC. The vast majority of low-income single mothers were affected in two ways: 1) by being forced to take low-paying jobs in order to access job-related benefits such as childcare assistance, housing subsidies, transportation vouchers, etc., and; 2) by being sanctioned for not meeting requirements, that is, denied any benefits, including job-related ones. PRA basically allowed states to deny aid to needy families. States are actually prohibited from using block grant money to provide benefits to families receiving aid past a lifetime five-year limit. Welfare changed from a needs-based entitlement program to a short-term aid program. The language of PRA states repeatedly that much of the motivation for this reform is to discourage the irresponsible behavior (code for “laziness,” “unwed motherhood,” etc.) that allegedly leads people to depend on welfare checks. However, the main effect of PRA was not that people had to work for their benefits but that the numbers of single mothers receiving cash assistance plummeted.
How did the complete dismemberment of this limited yet important entitlement program come to pass? It happened through years of work by the right wing in this country to demonize the poor, and they did so by using the same tactics they used against LGBT people. For decades the right has been engaged in mounting a moral panic. This moral panic was stimulated by the changing roles of women and queer people; the rise of single motherhood; and changes in economic structures, including deindustrialization in the United States and the expansion of global competition. The right has used hot-button issues like homosexuality and welfare (and abortion and immigration) as a strong rallying cry to draw a complex coalition of people into efforts to stem the tide of change that threatens the historical power and control of rich, white, heterosexual men. The people who are recruited into this coalition, while they tend to be heterosexual, are often those who are not insulated from the consequences of a turbulent and insecure economy. Although they are not the rich, they tend to be invested in their whiteness and marital status as a source of pride and identity. Given these investments in the embodiment of identity, it is not coincidental that these hot-button issues have trafficked in stereotypes and have been based in conservative notions of what families should look like and how much control we can have over our own bodies.