The Logic of Welfare Reform: An Analysis of the Reauthorization of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996




Russell-Morris, Brianne

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Those involved in creating contemporary welfare reform legislation in the United States have boasted that the legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), has been successful in removing recipients from the cash assistance welfare rolls and thus from the State’s responsibility. Yet many analysts believe it has granted the State more invasive control over welfare recipients of cash assistance, even while reducing its role in providing a social safety net for them (Abramovitz 2000;Mink 1998;Neubeck 2006;Smith 2007). This reconfiguration of State regulation of low-income women and children, who are the majority of cash assistance recipients, involves a contradiction between the promotion of dependency on a male breadwinner via heterosexual marriage, or mandatory participation in paternity establishment and child support enforcement, and the promotion of self-sufficiency through low-wage work. This thesis analyzes the logic behind this major change in welfare policy, specifically by examining the legislative process leading up to the 2006 welfare reform reauthorization legislation, to determine if this contradiction has been recognized or not within mainstream poverty discourse. The thesis explores how policymakers and those working with policymakers verbally justified the contradiction in order for it to be written into law by analyzing the State’s discourse on poor women leading up to the reauthorization of this reform. An original feminist textual analysis of several Congressional hearings leading up to the February 8, 2006 reauthorization of PRWORA under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 is presented. This feminist analysis focused on an examination of the processes by which a text is produced, such as Congressional hearings, and contains two elements: 1) a critical interrogation and deconstruction of the welfare reform discourse as it might be gendered, racialized, and classed in spite of policymakers’ and witnesses’ presentation of the welfare recipient as an asexual, disembodied citizen; and 2) an analysis of not only what is there, but what is missing and possibly presumed by the policymakers and polity alike. Most policymakers and hearing witnesses did not perceive these two aspects of welfare reform to be contradictory, but rather to be complementary. As the ideology of the work and family ethics continues to constitute the logic of welfare reform and to infuse its resulting discourse, the reality that work alone or dependency on a male breadwinner alone does not reduce poverty for most low-income women and children leads policymakers and their supporting witnesses to press for both simultaneously.



Welfare, Reauthorization, TANF, Reform, PRWORA, Women