Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Common Ground: The Queerness of Welfare Policy

“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.

Perpetuating Stereotypes

In order to justify cutting public assistance and other social welfare programs, the right has been relentless in its use of stereotypes and myths about people receiving welfare. The images of the welfare cheat (who steals for years from taxpayers because he does not want to work), and of the welfare mother (who keeps giving birth to child after child to increase welfare benefits) are two lies that have been successfully seared into the brain of the average American. The idea that welfare has been a strain on the nation’s economy has also become widely accepted. The truth—that even before the Clinton administration’s welfare reform the average adult on welfare was a woman with recent work experience who was caring for children; that the average mother on welfare had only two children; or that even before welfare reform, welfare to the poor amounted to less than 6 percent of the national budget—is apparently completely irrelevant.
Similarly, for decades the right has used stereotypes to justify discrimination against LGBT people. Queer people are all too familiar with the long list of stereotypes and myths that have historically been used against us. For example, the myth that we are child molesters, long proven false, still rears its ugly head when conservatives want to challenge our ability to adopt children or to openly serve as teachers.

Negative stereotypes such as these about welfare recipients and about LGBT people have been used to control public opinion and to promote specific social policies. By constantly perpetuating these stereotypes in the media, the right has enabled them to become part of the public discourse and embedded them in the public consciousness. This makes it easier for politicians to tap into these public sentiments to create social policy based upon these stereotypes.

One of the stereotypes that has been perpetuated about both poor people and queer people is the idea that these groups have made bad lifestyle choices. By depicting poverty and queerness as simple choices that could be easily changed if one truly desired, the right has created an excuse for the American people to ignore (or worsen) the problems faced by those populations.

The poor are depicted as lazy or irresponsible people who are choosing not to work. The facts—that they may not have the education or skills needed to find a job; that they may have health problems that prevent them from working; or the reality that there are not jobs available—are ignored. Instead, the right perpetuates a myth that depicts poor people as choosing to take advantage of a society that cannot afford it. Right-wing leaders also seem to love discussing single motherhood as simply a bad choice. They have succeeded in creating in the public the unfounded (and illogical) belief that poor women are casually, lazily, selfishly choosing to have extra children so that they can get an extra three dollars a day in welfare from the government.

Queer people are also accustomed to being depicted as having made a bad “lifestyle” choice. Right-wing editorials, position papers, lobbying, ad campaigns, and sermons continue to talk about homosexuality as a destructive choice that can be easily unchosen by those who see the error of their ways. Nowhere in their arguments is there room for the idea that most people (straight or queer) believe that changing their orientations is not an option. And even less acceptable is the idea that people who do actively choose homosexuality have made a perfectly good choice.

Both groups are also told that their sexual behavior is a bad choice. Single mothers are accused of irresponsible sexual behavior and left to raise their children without financial support, in the same way that people with AIDS were accused of irresponsible sexual behavior and left to die without support. Having been depicted by the right as guilty of making bad choices, the gay community should be especially skeptical when we see those same tactics being used against poor people.

Regulating Behavior

A big part of the 1996 welfare reform was directed at lowering the rate of “illegitimate” pregnancies among women on welfare. Through “family caps,” the government denied benefits for additional children born to women on welfare. In addition, the PRA provided 100 million dollars to be divided among the top five states that reduced “out-of-wedlock” births without increasing abortions. Those rules represented legislators’ efforts to tell poor women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, as politicians attempted to impose their morality upon poor citizens by denying them basic safety net survival provisions. The rules imposed by the PRA are not unlike the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for abortions, making it harder for poor women to get abortions, but had no effect on wealthier women who could afford to pay for abortions themselves. Other efforts exist to control the reproductive behavior of poor women, such as the program in Kansas that provided free Norplant (a five year sterilization) to women on welfare.

All of these efforts parallel the way the government has used social policy to deny LGBT people control over their own bodies. We live in a country with a history of multiple states outlawing consensual oral or anal sexual intercourse for heterosexual or homosexual couples, and other states applying those laws exclusively to homosexual couples. Throughout our history, penalties for engaging in sodomy have ranged from death to a 500 dollar fine to a 20-year prison sentence. Transgender people are confronted with government control of their bodies every day. In a society where gender is narrowly defined (by mainstream culture, by doctors, by mental health organizations, and, of course, by government) in dichotomous terms, transgender people are constantly being told to use their bodies in ways that are not natural for them. Deviation from cultural and legal norms is severely stigmatized, and the government often fails to protect transgender people from the resulting violence.

These examples illustrate how elected officials have imposed very serious consequences for LGBT people and welfare recipients who do not comply with what the government considers appropriate uses of our bodies. It is rare that LGBT organizations publicly make this connection between these two populations. Many (but not all) in the LGBT movement have made the connection between sodomy laws and the anti-abortion movement; many queer people understand the connection between controlling women’s reproductive rights and controlling LGBT people’s sexual activities. However, the connection of LGBT people to welfare reform’s family caps has not often been made explicit. We must fight any attempt to legislate sexuality, regardless of who is being targeted.

Promoting “Family Values”

“We need a system that can support people who are trying to do the right thing—who choose the right marriage partner, get married and have children.”[1] This quote, from Christian American magazine in 1995, was made by Christian conservative, then presidential candidate Alan Keyes. It summarizes his views on both welfare and gay families. His rhetoric, like that of most on the far right, is so similar when it comes to these two issues that it is impossible to distinguish about which subject he was speaking. (In this case, it was welfare.) The right’s relentless promotion of the “traditional” family is very much connected to (but separate from) the issue of government control of our bodies. The right portrays both welfare recipients and LGBT people as threats to its notion of family.

One of the most popular welfare myths conjured by the right is that of the pregnant, unwed, black welfare mother whose constant state of pregnancy and unrepentant laziness are not only a strain on the economy, but also a threat to traditional families everywhere. Despite the fact that this stereotype is not accurate, it is used relentlessly by the right to promote its own agenda, which is symbolized by a very particular family structure. This ideal family is comprised of a heterosexual married couple with children (and this family is usually white and headed by the father). Right-wing leaders have been very upfront and consistent in claiming that one of the goals of welfare reform is to stigmatize single motherhood and to promote two-parent married households.

This stereotype of the pregnant, black, unwed welfare mother has been used as a link in portraying all unmarried mothers (across class and racial lines) as dangerous threats to the institution of marriage, contributing to the breakdown of families everywhere. The cries of concern about increased “illegitimacy” rates are voiced by those who describe the breakdown of the “traditional” family as heralding the downfall of the entire society. As right-wing pundit Ann Coulter claims in her 2009 book Guilty, “Countless studies on the subject make [it] clear, look at almost any societal problem, and you’ll find it is really a problem of single mothers.”[2]

Similarly, the right also portrays LGBT people as threats to the traditional family unit (and blame them for all of the societal ills that allegedly follow). Gay marriage is depicted by conservative political and religious leaders as capable of undoing centuries of heterosexual marital bliss. (This is despite the fact that many queer people believe that gay marriage is essentially a conservative element of the LGBT movement’s agenda, which, through the emulation of heterosexual rituals actually reinforces the validity of the institution of marriage, instead of challenging or undermining it). Right-wing religious organizations have also lobbied relentlessly against domestic partnership and queer adoption rights.

The right clearly has a deep investment in sustaining the patriarchal structure of American society. To maintain its powerful and influential position, the right uses these unfounded warnings about the threats presented to families by welfare illegitimacy and by homosexuality. Any discussion by the right about “illegitimate pregnancies” and family structures immediately has implications for LGBT parents. The LGBT movement must recognize the dangers that exist for us when the Right attacks welfare recipients in order to promote a two-parent heterosexual family.

Rewarding ‘Deserving’ Families

The right has lobbied hard for tax breaks for some families. For example, around the same time as welfare was being dismantled, right-wing Senator Don Nickels sponsored the bill S.1134 that would provide family tax relief. This bill essentially provided welfare to middle-class families with stay-at-home mothers (but not to working mothers, divorced mothers, single mothers, etc.). As explained earlier, tax breaks are forms of welfare that come without the stigma that accompanies welfare to the poor. Impoverished families and single mothers that rely on TANF are told by our elected officials that they are undeserving of government aid in support of their efforts to raise their children. And yet, those same right-wing politicians then turn around and advocate for that same aid to families with mothers who fit their “traditional” image of family.

The poor are not the only ones who do not fit that traditional image. The right (in its battles against LGBT marriage, domestic partnership, and adoption rights) has also lobbied relentlessly against any government recognition of LGBT families. For example, the same Senator Nickels was also the prime sponsor of two other bills that forbade gay marriages (and eventually evolved into and passed as the Defense of Marriage Act). This means that those tax breaks (welfare) that Nickels wanted for middle-class families would only be available to heterosexual middle-class families.

The right has been very clear about determining what kind of family is entitled to government aid, and LGBT people must realize that we are placed with poor single mothers on the “undeserving” side in this equation.

Blaming the Victims

The conservatives in this country have a long history of blaming people for situations beyond their control. Conservative attacks upon poor people and LGBT people are very similar in this way.

Poor people on welfare are portrayed as being responsible for their own poverty. Either they are too lazy to work, or they lack employable skills, or they never developed a proper work ethic and habits. As a result, workfare programs (like NYC’s Work Experience Program) were immediately set up after welfare reform, with the goal of teaching employable skills, ethics, and habits to welfare recipients, while punishing those too “lazy” to participate.

However, missing from these discussions is the reality of life in the United States: There are not enough jobs. Even when the economy was booming, as it was during the Clinton era, there were still more people than there are available jobs. And there will never be enough jobs. In order to keep wages competitively low, capitalism, by design, will never allow for full employment.

While making welfare recipients work has appeal for conservatives as a punitive measure, it requires an answer to the question: Work at what jobs? Perpetuating the idea that the poor are responsible for their own poverty and mandating that they receive job training will not change the fact that there will never be enough jobs available for them once they are trained. This issue is a complicated one, and yet the right does not present it as such. They are content to present it as a simple problem (people on welfare are lazy) with a simple solution (let them get jobs like the rest of us.)

Queer people are familiar with the tactic of blaming the victim. The example of AIDS is a clear one. When the epidemic began in this country, gay men who were infected were called “too promiscuous” and blamed for the disease, whereas heterosexual people (particularly those who contracted AIDS through blood transfusions or “cheating” husbands) were presented as “innocent” victims who did not deserve their fate. That reality has not changed sufficiently—a gay man who contracts AIDS through sexual contact will likely be blamed (“well, he should have known better by now”) for his circumstance. Discussions of black gay men on the “down low” continue to be dominated by a public discourse that simplistically vilifies men for not being safe enough to come out.

The conservative organization Focus on the Family made this very clear in a 1999 article, “Homosexuals Live Dangerously, Demand Protection.” The article stated that gay men “take sexual risks” and “live dangerously” and “then turn to Health and Human Services to take care of them.” Gay men were worse than other risk takers, according to the article, because “skydivers and balloonists never insist that the government set aside millions of dollars to pay for their accidents.”[3]

The appeal of blaming the victim is clear. It abdicates society from responsibility and deflects it onto the individual. Rather than looking for the larger, harder solutions for AIDS (finding a cure or providing access to care for all people with AIDS [PWAs] until a cure is found or establishing universal health care) or for welfare (creating jobs or acknowledging that full employment will never happen and planning accordingly), it is much easier to blame PWAs or the poor for their own problems.

The LGBT community must advocate for a government that provides basic survival support for all of our members. We must realize that an injury to one is an injury to all. When we remain silent and allow society to determine who is and who is not deserving of help, we will inevitably be placed in the “undeserving” category.

Replacing the State with the Church

The religious right has the same response to both welfare and homosexuality: Accept Christ and all will be solved. Right-wing magazines and leaders who oppose any gay rights legislation repeatedly urge homosexuals to change their sexual orientation by joining their churches. Gay-conversion organizations like Exodus Ministries use language like, “there is hope for change through the power of God,”[4] when they try to “recruit” homosexuals into their organizations. Likewise, many political leaders have been arguing for years that welfare should be dismantled completely and replaced by private charities, such as churches. For example, in one article, “A Faith-Based Alternative to the Welfare State,” the right-wing Family Research Council makes the argument that “dependence on God obviates the need for dependence on the state.”[5]

The immediate impact of the 1996 welfare reform upon queer people was not so different from the impact it had upon other low-income people. However, the next 15 years brought about welfare policies and programs that have had very distinct implications for queer people.

Marriage Promotion

One major product of welfare reform was marriage promotion, such as programs like the “Healthy Marriage Initiative.” These programs include a range of provisions designed to encourage women on welfare to get and stay married: deducting money from welfare checks when mothers are living with men who are not the fathers of their children, providing extra cash bonuses to recipients who get married, offering relationship and marriage education classes, and increasing monthly welfare checks for married couples. Several provisions specifically target Latino and African American communities. These programs were widely criticized by women’s organizations concerned about victims of domestic violence. However, the silence from the mainstream LGBT movement was rather widespread. Apparently, the threat that such programs posed to low-income lesbians who cannot legally get married was not of concern to most of our national LGBT organizations, presumably because the lesbians in question were low-income, and thus not of concern to our national organizations. I believe that economic security is a right that should apply to all people—single or married—and coercing poor women to get married in order to be able to survive is ineffective and disgusting public policy. We must also ask to what extent the push for gay marriage aligns with conservative and neoliberal modes of marriage promotion that are about establishing security and benefits through coupledom, rather than through public assistance provided by the government. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support of gay marriage coexists with his overall economic austerity plan, including his various attacks on public services.

Fatherhood Initiatives

Various fatherhood initiatives are related to these programs. In 2006, Congress enacted a new program, “Grants For Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood,” authorizing grants of up to 50 million dollars per year for activities promoting “responsible fatherhood.” These programs have their roots in welfare reform, which allocated millions of dollars for things like “Responsible Fatherhood Programs” and “Partners for Fragile Families.” These programs targeted unemployed and underemployed noncustodial fathers with a range of services designed to force fathers to provide things such as child support and to undergo parenting instruction. As with marriage promotion programs, these programs raise the question of what happens to women, such as lesbian mothers (not to mention domestic violence victims), who do not want biological fathers involved in their children’s lives.

Charitable Choice

Created as part of PRA, “charitable choice” allowed government officials to purchase social services from religious providers using TANF, Welfare to Work, and other funds. In 2009 under President Obama, it became the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Many have voiced concern that charitable choice blurs the separation of church and state. Critics argue that federal financial support of churches creates the potential for the biased funding of groups affiliated with a particular religious denomination. Issues of proselytizing to clients and discriminatory hiring policies have already led to lawsuits. For queer people, the concerns should be obvious. Although there are many religious communities and organizations that are welcoming to LGBT people, many other American religious institutions (particularly those large enough to secure government funding) have a long history of intolerance of homosexuality. The prospect of having to seek help at a church where they feel unwelcome is enough to prevent many low-income queers from accessing needed services. This is an issue that should be of concern to all LGBT people, regardless of their income bracket.

Abstinence Only

When PRA passed in 1996, it allocated 50 million dollars per year over a five-year period for state abstinence-only education programs. In 2002, Congress voted to extend funding for these programs. Abstinence-only education programs (which are also funded by other federal programs, in addition to using welfare money) teach young people in schools that abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the expected norm in this country. These programs teach that sexual expression outside of marriage will have harmful social, mental, and physical consequences, and that abstinence is the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. These programs are not allowed to include discussion of the proper use of contraception, including condoms, as a way to reduce the risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. Only failure rates of condoms can be discussed in these programs. These programs also leave out vital information about safe sex practices, sexual orientation, and abortion, as well as lacking education and socialization that would empower young people to live out their values and ideals in sexual relationships. Every reputable sexuality education organization and the American Medical Association have denounced abstinence-only education. The implications for queer people should be self-evident. When queer sexuality is, by definition, taking place outside of marriage, what message are these programs teaching our young people about themselves and their desires? When condom use is being dismissed as both immoral and ineffective, how many new cases of HIV are these programs responsible for?

Moving Forward

The question of whether or not poor people are entitled to government support has been debated in this country since its founding. The debate about who deserves help (and what kind, and how) is not over, even with the PRA’s dismantling of previous welfare policies. As we face reauthorization of welfare reform and engage in public policy debates about the social safety net in general, it is crucial that LGBT organizations get involved in the debates. To ignore these discussions, on the premise that they are not “gay issues,” is to assume that all LGBT people are middle class, which is simply not so. It also assumes that these policy debates have no implications for middle-class or affluent queer people. But looking at the tactics and results of the right’s attacks on poor people and queer people should make clear that welfare policy is indeed a queer issue—one that we can no longer afford to sit out.

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  1. Ebert, M. (1995). “Man of Conviction”. Christian American. September 1995. [Return to text]
  2. Coulter, Ann. (2009). Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America. New York: Crown Forum. [Return to text]
  3. DeNicola, S. (1999). “Homosexuals Live Dangerously, Demand Protection”. Focus on the Family Citizen. April, 1999. [Return to text]
  4. Curtis, C. (1996). “A Way Out: More ministries are offering homosexuals a chance to turn away from a life of destruction.” Christian American. July/August 1996. [Return to text]
  5. Marshall, J.E. (1995). “The Greatest of These is Love: A Faith-Based Alternative to the Welfare State”. Family Policy. Family Research Council. 1995. [Return to text]