Sanford F. Schram, “Where the Welfare Queen Resides: The Subtext of Personal Responsibility”
“Where the Welfare Queen Resides: The Subtext of Personal Responsibility”
Sanford F. Schram
Chapter 2, After Welfare: The Culture of Postindustrial Social Policy, 2000. [PDF]
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) requires welfare recipients to take paid employment in order to receive aid and imposes a five-year lifetime limit on eligibility. After this time recipients are expected to be supporting themselves. Welfare reform is predicated on the assumption that staying home and caring for one’s children is not work, and that the primary, and perhaps only, way an individual can demonstrate “personal responsibility” is by taking paid employment. In what follows, I argue that not only is this emphasis on “personal responsibility” prejudiced against mothers who stay at home with their children, but that it operates to allow dominant gender, race, and class biases to infiltrate allegedly neutral welfare policy and ensure the continued subordination of poor families. In other words, the contemporary welfare policy discourse of “personal responsibility” might sound fair in the abstract; however, in late-twentieth-century America, it has become a way to blame the poor for their poverty without ever having to say so. “Personal responsibility” allows the cultural biases of welfare reform to be “hidden in plain sight.”1
Is this controversial? For some, the 1996 reform law obviously intensifies the unfairness of welfare toward recipients by allowing the broader social biases of gender, race, and class relations to structure the system of welfare provision.2 Making low-income single mothers work for poverty wages while having to care for their children on their own amounts to punishing them for being at the bottom of the gender-race-class system, sometimes euphemistically referred to as the socioeconomic order. The existing political economy is rationalized according to a family-wage logic that incorrectly assumes that families tend to have two parents, one of whom, “the breadwinner,” is able to earn enough to support the family while the other, “the homemaker,” provides the necessary nurturance at home.3 The family-wage system is biased in favor of middle- and upper-class, male-headed, white families that tend to be able to conform to this model. While most families, white ones included, have found it difficult to succeed in a political economy structured according to this logic, they find it even more difficult in the changing postindustrial economy. Poor single mothers of color are the least likely to be able to participate effectively in such a biased system. Welfare compensates families who face extreme financial hardship, but it has historically been constrained to provide aid in limited amounts and under strict conditions so as not to conflict with the family-wage logic. The 1996 law has adjusted welfare to reinforce this, thereby reinscribing the gender, race, and class biases of the dominant culture.
Other commentators find it irresponsible to suggest that the 1996 law does anything beyond trying to get welfare recipients to be “self-sufficient” and not depend on the government for assistance.4 Insisting on “personal responsibility” is good for recipients. It does not perpetuate their subordination in the existing political economy. In fact, it increases their chances of being treated as equal citizens in a society where the cardinal threshold criteria for establishing one’s legitimacy as a fully entitled citizen are having paid employment, being “self-sufficient,” and practicing “personal responsibility.” The way to overcome any biases is to demonstrate “personal responsibility,” which shows that you are no different from the “modal citizen.”
These competing positions reflect debates about welfare that have gone on for centuries. Michael Katz has noted that the debates have a dreary familiarity to them, reflecting the competing tendencies of either blaming society or blaming “the poor” for their poverty.5 However, while the contemporary debate continues to stress these themes, I would suggest that the terrain has changed significantly, if subtly. Not only has the debate moved to focus specifically on “personal responsibility,” but cultural values now infiltrate welfare policy more by stealth. These two developments are related. In an era in which discriminatory ideologies are encoded in euphemistic language, blaming the victim gets legitimated by way of the seemingly neutral category of “personal responsibility.” Replacing the already bland “family values,” the ostensibly neutral language of “personal responsibility” provides cover for more blatant gender, race, and class biases to be insinuated into welfare policy. Consequently, welfare reform has become a rationalization of poverty rather than an attack on it.
In this critique I highlight how the hidden is in plain sight. I first offer a short genealogy of “personal responsibility,” explicating it as a term of contractual discourse. Then I examine how it is being transformed today in welfare policy discourse.6 I suggest that “personal responsibility” is being transformed in ways that make it more vulnerable to being encoded with biases. My point is not that the term “personal responsibility” was previously unbiased. I accept that as a term of liberal contractual discourse, “personal responsibility” was always culturally encoded with particular biases. But when placed within the context of contemporary welfare policy in the late 1990s it tends more readily to be culturally encoded in ways that specifically reinforce gender, race, and class biases.
In the context of welfare reform, “personal responsibility” has come to be limited to a narrow focus on escaping “welfare dependency” and achieving “self-sufficiency” by taking paid employment.7 This tunnel vision does not bode well for single mothers on welfare. It devalues mothering. It also neglects the fact that the work world has a long way to go before it can be said to accommodate all people regardless of class, race, and gender.8 Fin de siècle welfare policy discourse sounds neutral but it often fails to account for the work-related disadvantages posed by class, race, and gender, especially for single mothers. Insisting on “personal responsibility” therefore risks reinforcing the tendencies already built into welfare to stigmatize, demonize, and even criminalize poor single mothers.
After discussing how “personal responsibility” becomes a site for encoding cultural biases, I make explicit the specific mechanisms by which this transmission occurs. I suggest that a series of “relays” provides opportunities for the ostensibly neutral concept of “personal responsibility” to reflect cultural biases: text and subtext, conscious and unconscious, word and image.9 As a result, the behavior implied by “personal responsibility” can be said to suggest an identity. The text of “personal responsibility” implies multiple identities available from the iconography of the dominant culture, among them the middle-class man of virtue and the so-called “welfare queen” as the embodiments of what “personal responsibility” represents and what it does not. The welfare queen is the implied, visualizable “other” of the contemporary welfare policy discourse of “personal responsibility.”
I conclude this analysis by considering that the welfare queen is an artifact produced by discourse rather than a preexisting reality.10 The welfare queen is real only in the sense that she is a reified creature of the discourse of “personal responsibility.” The welfare queen is not homeless but is lodged inside the discourse of “personal responsibility.” To turn a phrase: since there is no welfare queen, welfare discourse has to create her. We see this most especially when we turn to the way “personal responsibility” is administered by welfare agencies. The welfare queen is needed both to delegitimize welfare use by single mothers and to perpetuate the ideal of the traditional two-parent family and the maintenance of the family-wage system. We will therefore reduce the presence of the welfare queen in our lives not by changing the behavior of women receiving public assistance but only by changing the discourse of “personal responsibility.”
A Short Genealogy of Personal Responsibility
Since the welfare reform law was passed in 1996, welfare recipients can only get federally funded welfare benefits for two years after which they must participate in “work-related activities.” Furthermore, they can only receive these benefits for five years over a lifetime after which they are expected to have made the transition to paid employment.11 States can set stricter requirements.
Arguably, welfare’s emphasis on work requirements makes it a critical policy in which the work ethic is being held up as a universal standard to prove that one meets the threshold requirements for citizenship in late-twentieth-century America.12 The social contract is thus being rewritten to help buttress the increasingly beleaguered family-wage system. In the face of declining economic prospects for low-income families in a changing postindustrial economy, imposing a work requirement becomes a last-ditch effort to stave off the need to recognize that work and family values are untenable for many low-income individuals.13 Instead of confronting the postindustrial collapse of economic opportunities for working families at the lower end of the socioeconomic structure, welfare reform tries to deny that collapse. People must demonstrate “personal responsibility” narrowly defined as working in paid employment in order to prove that they qualify as full citizens deserving of entitlements. But this threshold is being imposed just when it is becoming harder to meet.
“Personal responsibility,” however, is not a new idea-it derives from the lexicon of liberal contractual society.14 For several hundred years, Western liberal discourse has focused on articulating the particular type of self needed for the liberal social order.15 This self can be counted on to use the freedom available under liberalism in orderly ways. This, then, is the paradoxical creature who gets to be seen as “self-made” and “self-sufficient,” but only insofar as she can demonstrate that she is “self-regulating.” Until the second half of the twentieth century this self-sufficient person was rarely a woman, as it was near impossible for a woman to be credible in the role of a self-sufficient self.
For Friedrich Nietzsche, the problem was not the exclusive male focus of liberal contractual discourse. Instead, Nietzsche saw the personally responsible individual in the liberal contractual order as a paradox. Such an individual was not a “promising animal” as much as a promising animal of a particular predictive sort:
To breed an animal with the right to make promises-is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? Is it not the real problem regarding man? . . . [T]he ripest fruit is the sovereign individual, like only to himself, liberated again from morality of custom, autonomous and supramoral, in short, the man who has his own independent, protracted will and the right to make promises.16
However, Nietzsche castigated the liberal order that created “last men” who were incapable of making and keeping promises on their own.17 Slavoj Zizek extends this idea of preconstructed choice to all social orders:
Every belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which the subject is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of his choice, what is anyway imposed on him (we must all love our country, our parents. . . ) . This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although in fact there isn’t, is strictly co-dependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture- an offer-which is meant to be rejected: what the empty gesture offers is the opportunity to choose the impossible, that which inevitably will not happen.18
Nietzsche’s paradox was that to be free, to exercise one’s free will, to make a choice, is to do all those things in ways that the culture recognizes, which in a sense invalidates one’s free will to do those things. In the liberal contractual society that particularly valorizes choice, “personal responsibility” is therefore especially paradoxical. It implies being willing to take responsibility for what the dominant culture has already assigned as one’s responsibility, and on terms predetermined by the culture.
“Personal responsibility” only makes sense according to the way the culture distinguishes it from other things. We learn to live the paradox culture creates for us. J. M. Balkin suggests that we do this by learning how to work with the available “cultural software”-the dominant conceptual oppositions that are built up over time and that are used for interpretive purposes.19 For instance, liberal contractual discourse has distinguished personal responsibility from state responsibility. Yet liberal discourse has also juxtaposed personal responsibility against individual freedom, as in rights versus responsibilities, suggesting that there be more government involvement to monitor people’s behavior so as to ensure they do the right thing. Libertarian and paternalistic definitions of personal responsibility clash. The paradoxes of liberal contractual discourse are carried over to personal responsibility. The paradox of the self-regulating self implies a nested understanding of personal responsibility that is both consistent and inconsistent with increased personal freedom. Working within the culture’s oppositions, we learn to negotiate this paradox, though not always successfully and in ways that favor some people over others. In this sense, personal responsibility is not a rational, coherent, objective, neutral idea so much as a culturally acquired, and culturally biased, understanding of what it means to be a person in a given social order.
The Contemporary Welfare Policy Discourse of Personal Responsibility
When placed within the context of contemporary welfare policy discourse, personal responsibility reflects even more specific ties to the liberal order. Welfare reform refers explicitly to personal responsibility as it relates to economic as well as therapeutic matters.20 In the economic register, welfare reform’s emphasis on personal responsibility is a reference to the idea of less government involvement in the lives of and less support for low-income families. In the therapeutic register, the notion of personal responsibility implies owning up to bad personal habits and disciplining oneself to avoid them. In either case, it becomes less likely that single mothers receiving welfare will be seen as personally responsible. The discourse of personal responsibility fails to account for the fact that existing social relations are structured so as to make it harder for welfare mothers to be seen as achieving “self-sufficiency,” especially when this term is narrowly defined as taking paid employment.
As its very title suggests, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 dramatically vaulted the discourse of “personal responsibility” to center stage in welfare policy. The 1996 law abolished the federal welfare entitlement established under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the block-grant program that gives states funding for time-limited welfare benefits coupled with work requirements.21 The goal is to get families to use welfare for only a short period of time and, regardless of circumstances, to make the transition to paid employment.
While PRWORA is premised on the idea that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society” and is dedicated to reducing welfare dependency- which it sees as a cause for the increase in single parenthood-the law is more focused on enforcing personal responsibility among single mothers by getting them to work than it is on ensuring adherence to family values and preventing family breakup.22 Yet, given the difficulties facing poor single mothers who must work and raise their children on their own, requiring a single mother to work seems more to be designed to discourage her from setting up a household separate from the father of her children rather than enforcing the work ethic. Whether an emphasis on work requirements will produce more two-parent families, let alone families based on sound relationships, however, is very doubtful.23
Whether it seeks to promote family values or the work ethic, the 1996 welfare reform law has defined “personal responsibility” primarily as achieving “self-sufficiency” by taking paid employment. By offering states the option of having recipients sign “individual responsibility plans” or “contracts of mutual responsibility” the law makes it explicit that recipients are expected to promise to try to achieve “self-sufficiency.”24 But even when so defined, “personal responsibility” is simply a “cultural placeholder” that the culture can fill as it deems appropriate. In a culture that valorizes individual choice, personal responsibility inevitably becomes incapable of accounting for the fact that culture, social relations, and institutional practices favor some people over others-that is, that some people are deemed more responsible and self-sufficient than others.
The willful ignorance of welfare reform is becoming more visible over time. Numerous recipients have already been “sanctioned” for not fulfilling the promises they made in their individual responsibility plans. The growing use of such sanctions has contributed to the reduction in the number of recipients, from 14.2 million in 1993 to 9.8 million in 1997, and 7.955 million by September 1998.25 Also, according to initial reports, as many as one-quarter to forty percent of the people who had left the rolls were not working after one year and, having neither welfare nor work, were trying to get by with more informal means of support.26 Most remained poor; many returned to the rolls to use up more of their limited eligibility even in a growing economy. While personal responsibility may once have referred to someone who “kept a promise” (like a mother who promised her children she would take care of them), now it has been reduced to indicating someone who can “hold a job” (like a mother forced to work in a low-wage, dead-end job even though her children were being neglected).27 In the context of welfare policy “personal responsibility” is a trap for poor single mothers. It sets them up to be evaluated according to standards that are often inappropriate for them, their circumstances, and their prospects for achieving “self-sufficiency” as conventionally understood.
Equal Citizenship and the Orgy of Victimhood
As culturally encoded, “personal responsibility” encourages individualistic explanations for the causes of poverty. This individualistic approach to poverty is no accident. For years, proponents of welfare reform such as Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead have railed against liberals for caving in to the demands of women and the “nonworking” poor, with the result that standards of personal responsibility were no longer being enforced. 28 The cultural biases Murray, Mead, and others represent are explicitly defended in their published works. They have criticized liberals for dealing with their guilt by relaxing societal standards to allow poor minorities and women to get welfare rights without having to fulfill the social obligation to try to work or practice traditional family values.
Welfare reform has therefore been quite explicitly aimed at stopping liberal practices that “coddle people” and make “special allowances” for them, based on their race and gender.29Welfare reform with its cutbacks may be about saving money but it is also about saving the cultural values of work and family. It tries to put an end to the idea that race and gender ought to be grounds for claiming victim status and thereby exempting some people from having to adhere to these values. It insists on personal responsibility narrowly construed, without accounting for the race and gender biases of society.
Lest there be any mistake about this, think back to the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King. The Bush administration, Vice President Dan Quayle in particular, spread the word that the riots were caused by the permissive welfare policies started by the liberals in the 1960s.30 This remark went largely unchallenged, lost in the confusion that followed. But it was no idle comment. Welfare policies from the 1960s and riots in the 1990s are not easily connected.31 The circuitry that has been constructed in the attempt to connect these poles is elaborate.32
It draws its charge from the wider cultural war afflicting this country as exemplified in events as apparently disparate as the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton and welfare reform. It is tied to the growing concern among some segments of society that making special allowances for persons of color and women in particular, is not only wrong but has been destructive of the very fabric of society since it got started in the 1960s. Social disorder results when we start excusing the behavior of those who are not complying with societal norms. Black single mothers especially become a flash point, sometimes implicitly, other times explicitly, as if to remind us what the argument is really about. Well before the Los Angeles riots, Murray wrote:
White confusion and guilt over the turn of events in the civil rights movement created what [Daniel P.] Moynihan has called “a near-obsessive concern to locate the ‘blame’ for poverty, especially Negro poverty, on forces and institutions outside the community concerned.”33
According to Gertrude Himmelfarb, since the 1960s welfare reform has led to the “demoralization of society.”34 Mead has added:
The struggle with [welfare] dependency could lead to a general demoralization. . . . Morale could spiral downward in an orgy of competitive victimhood. . . . Personal responsibility must be willed, precisely because it can no longer be assumed. It must become an explicit policy because it is no longer, as in the progressive era, the unspoken ground of the political culture.35
The phrase “an orgy of victimhood” is freighted with much of the subtext of the culture wars and finds its own place in welfare reform as well.
“Orgy” is used to delegitimize the claims of recipients by suggesting that their behavior is promiscuous and generally irresponsible, and that their claims are overblown. “Victimhood” suggests an undeserved permanent status- like an undeserved entitlement-for those who have been wronged.
Mead is implying that what he calls the “unspoken ground of the political culture” justifies coercion to stop these groups from seeking unfair allowances for their welfare dependency. He insists that we impose the cultural standards of work and family upon them and make them behave as everyone else allegedly does. In this interpretation, personal responsibility is an ideal idiom for denying that gender, race, and class play a role in creating the need for public assistance.
Working for Equal Citizenship
Mead in particular is explicit that the well-being of the social order is contingent on universal work norms being imposed on all adult citizens other than the disabled. For Mead, the existing order desperately needs to adopt a system whereby full citizenship with rights and entitlements is contingent upon demonstrated social competence, a willingness to practice prosocial behavior, and, most important, working in paid employment.36 The social risks of the “competent,” so defined, must be protected, and the rest must submit to a welfare regime dedicated to realizing the goals of the “new paternalism.” In exchange, they will receive the reduced benefits of welfare- but only temporarily, until they start to work and become part of the competent class. “Competence” is central to Mead’s “personal responsibility.” This new transformed “personal responsibility” must be enforced if the existing political economy is to survive. For Mead, “personal responsibility” makes the “unspoken ground of the political culture” explicit:
The final option for antipoverty policy represents a return to a citizenship rationale, but this time with the emphasis on obligations rather than rights. The argument is that, if nonwork and other incivilities have weakened the welfare state, then work and other duties should be enforced. . . . Community among citizens can only be built on the basis where individuals show enough self-command to merit the esteem of others. The danger raised by poverty is not that the poor will make excessive demands. . . . It is rather that the new social minorities no longer display the personal organization that makes a community of equal citizens imaginable. . . . Today, there is less poverty, but the separation of the poor from the economy makes integration more doubtful. Therefore, social programs must promote work, and even enforce it, assuming the function that the workplace did before. . . . The prospect is for a long struggle to restore the self-reliance assumed in Western politics. Only if order is restored in cities, and especially if work levels rise, could the poor become more self-respecting. Only then could they stake claims on the collectivity as equals, rather than seeking charity as dependents. In restoring some coherence to the lives of the poor, the new paternalist social policies, if well-implemented, could make a critical contribution.37
Mead understands that the political economy of citizenship is culturally constituted. To be a citizen is not to assume some disembodied position in the political order, or to be a universal subject evaluated according to neutral standards of justice. It is to be a political being within an economic order. It is to assume a culturally encoded subject position reflective of the biases of the existing political economy. Mead understands that the culture war has implications for the political economy and has sought to have these implications registered in the battle over citizen entitlements. To ensure the maintenance of the existing political economy, he nonetheless embraces universal standards of citizenship that apply a transformed definition of personal responsibility to all. Now work is the threshold criterion for achieving full citizenship. But while the standard is universal, it is bound to have discriminatory effects. All must work regardless of circumstances-regardless of the lack of preparation, a shortage of economic opportunities, and an excess of family responsibilities.38 Cultural bias still drives political and economic decision making regarding citizen entitlements and welfare reform reflects those culturally encoded political and economic biases.
The New Isms: Discrimination by Stealth
However, the infiltration of the concept of personal responsibility with culturally dominant biases is usually less explicit than Mead’s rhetoric. It is generally an instance of what some have called “new” forms of discrimination that discriminate without explicitly saying so.39 In this way, contemporary welfare policy discourse fails to account for race, gender, and class privileges. Some people get to be seen as self-sufficient without doing anything whereas others cannot be seen that way regardless of effort. Inner-city black homeowners and working single mothers may be seen as having failed to acquire assets and an income according to the accepted standards of self-sufficiency even if they work harder than suburban couples. The latter, meanwhile, reap the benefit of being the right people in the right place at the right time and allow their assets to accrue in value without much effort at all.40
The language of personal responsibility as a new form of discrimination therefore tends to privatize these issues of self-sufficiency by silencing references to “social capital” and the broader context that helps people be selfsufficient. 41 Segregation in the United States today ensures that access to housing, schools, and jobs is implicitly still allocated by race to a large extent. 42 Public policies and market practices continue to systematically disadvantage mother-only families by failing to account for their special needs for income support, child care, and flexible schedules.43
Public opinion tends to exaggerate the percentages of nonwhites receiving public assistance.44 Yet, over 60 percent of adult welfare recipients are nonwhite single mothers with children, and about three-quarters of this group are African-American.45 The percentages are even higher for longterm welfare recipients and persistently poor families.46 While the public exaggerates the numbers of African-Americans on welfare, African-Americans are overrepresented among the poor. But ostensibly neutral discourse on personal responsibility is enforced on all regardless of recipients’ economic circumstances and the uneven allocation of social capital.47 As a result, welfare becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy making real the claims about racial minorities on welfare. Because the 1996 legislation has hit the poorest communities the hardest, the demographic composition of the recipient population now reflects popular stereotypes.48 By default, the welfare population is now composed largely of nonwhite, unmarried, inner-city mothers.49
There is in particular a troubling gendered subtext to the discourse of personal responsibility. Part of the problem is that “personal responsibility” is a patriarchal term. Women have often found themselves in relations in which they demonstrated care or connectedness, in which they showed the ability to be supportive of others, whether these be their families, their spouses, their friends, or their community. Yet, “personal responsibility” is traditionally expected of men-who were taught to be autonomous, self-disciplined, and able to act on their own. It is not that there are natural differences between men and women on these issues, but rather that by holding women to the traditional male standard of “personal responsibility” we overlook what women have contributed as caregivers and as collaborators in creating a more supportive set of social relations inside the family and out in the community. “Personal responsibility” immediately stacks the deck against women and undervalues the traditional women’s work they have to do.50 “Personal responsibility” however furthers the problem because it pretends to accord women equality by ostensibly holding them to the same gender neutral standards-but in a way that is covertly biased against them.
The quest for women’s equality has been volatile. Feminism’s calls for equal treatment have accompanied tumultuous changes in sexual relations, marriage, family, work, and the culture more broadly. Most troubling for many people has been the precipitous increase in the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers. While not all these changes have been the result of women’s push for equality, feminism has helped women become more independent. But the backlash has been real. Much of the resistance to women’s equality is grounded in a patriarchal ideology. Women’s continued subordination as a “second sex” is reflected in persistently high rates of male violence against women which is often the product of male dysfunction- an inability to control anger, oversocialization to a culture of violence and aggression, and other social and psychological problems.51
However, patriarchal ideology is no longer as dominant as it once was and today professional and nonprofessional white women can benefit from numerous opportunities for economic independence long denied them. Sexism is now often encountered in a new form-less ideological and more implicit, less the product of intent than the consequence of neglect. To varying degrees all women still confront a patriarchal ideology that promotes a conscious attempt to position them in subordinate social roles. Yet now, allegedly neutral discursive practices will also reinscribe their subordination. This is the real problem with “personal responsibility” for women on welfare.
Women confront a new double bind. In the early part of the century maternalist policies were enacted to provide special protections for women as wives and mothers, which reinforced their subordinate status as dependents. 52 Now the new paternalism is insisting that they be treated equally with men but in ways that fail to account for their special circumstances.
For women on welfare this bind is intensified. In welfare, the discourse of personal responsibility neutrally applies a work test for two-parent families to the attempts by single mothers to achieve self-sufficiency. Neutral standards of personal responsibility-paid employment-ignore the fact that many single mothers want to work but find it difficult to do so. The jobs that suit their special circumstances may not be available; they may not pay enough to support a family; or they may require leaving young children at home without sufficient parental attention and adequate care.
Single mothers are judged unfairly by the standards applied to two-parent families and have to do double duty as both “homemaker” and “breadwinner.” While this is difficult for any single mother, it is even more so for low-income, low-skilled single mothers with young children. They are sorely tested to make ends meet even when they combine incomes from a variety of sources-child support, payments from relatives and friends, public assistance, as well as paid employment.53 Single mothers on welfare are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, whether they emphasize care at the expense of work or vice versa. The intensity of this double bind results from gender bias infiltrating the ostensibly neutral welfare policy discourse of personal responsibility. Mothers who work and do not give their children sufficient attention are not “real” mothers, while women who do not work reinforce the idea that they are not fit to take on the traditional male role of provider.
The push to require single mothers receiving welfare to work highlights gender bias in another regard as well. As mentioned earlier, the 1996 law is prefaced with a concern about the deterioration of the traditional two-parent family, which it calls “the foundation of a successful society.” Its major response to this problem has been to require single mothers receiving welfare to work. This seemingly odd connection is made possible by a gendered subtext. The reformers ostensibly want to save the family but they have chosen to do so by requiring single mothers to work because the women are available. Because women need to rely on welfare when the men do not support the family sufficiently, they become convenient targets.
Their greater availability is a sign of their vulnerability, which often stems from their being left to care for the children. They are more vulnerable to state regulation than men. Requiring them to work and limiting their access to welfare sends the signal that traditional families rather than welfare should be responsible for caring for children. While the law allows states to require noncustodial, usually male, parents of children receiving welfare to work, and encourages states to collect child support from fathers, the lack of employment for poor low-skilled males has made both these measures far less significant as sources of welfare receipt than the work requirements and time limits imposed on single mothers.54
The unstated reality, then, is that women are being used to punish both male and female parents for not forming traditional two-parent families and not avoiding the use of welfare. The sins of the fathers are visited not on the sons but on the mothers. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have suggested, requiring single mothers to work is legitimated in part by their “deviant” sexual and family lives. However, the work requirement is also being used to enforce the traditional two-parent family, both among these women and others.55 Requiring noncustodial fathers to work has become an option under welfare reform but it remains a minor one. Welfare reform may initially be largely about getting single mothers to work, but as those jobs fail to produce a livable wage, the policy’s focus logically shifts to getting women to marry men.
Requiring women to work in order to increase marriage rates does not make much sense, however, if the result is that families remain poor. It might make sense if the goal of welfare is to enforce the two-parent family regardless of circumstances. Yet if welfare is supposed to combat the underlying poverty that destroys the two-parent family, then welfare reform is a non sequitur. Instead, contemporary welfare policy is accelerating the “feminization of poverty”-a phrase coined by Diana Pearce to refer to the fact that a growing number of the families living in poverty are headed by women.56 By forcing women into low-wage work and cutting them off from needed assistance, the 1996 legislation is likely to increase this statistical trend.
The “feminization of poverty” also implies a double coding between welfare and the broader culture whereby the discourse of personal responsibility encodes poverty as female, and vice versa. The “feminization of poverty” implies that low income and female gender reinforce each other as a lack or deficiency. We come to think of poverty as a feminized state, just as we see the female as a lack, like a form of impoverishment. As Balkin writes, “Jeanne Schroeder has summed up this phenomenon aptly when she states that in patriarchal thought, a thing is privileged not because it is male, but is called ‘male’ because it is privileged.”57 Poverty is seen as a state of personal deficiency not because it is female; rather, it is made out to be female because it is seen as a state of personal deficiency. Therefore, while there is much value in highlighting the “feminization of poverty” as a statistical trend, it is also important to note that poverty is being feminized today in this other sense of being made out to be a female-like state of being. The nesting of the oppositions in male : female :: abundance : lack :: wealth : poverty encourages the formulation that women are more likely to be poor and the poor are more likely to act in a female-like fashion. Given its failure to account for the way these gender biases operate, “personal responsibility” is not only likely to reinforce the “feminization of poverty” as a statistical trend but also to accelerate the tendency to see poverty as a feminized state of being. In the process, not only does poverty get feminized but personal responsibility is again reinscribed as a male phenomenon that women lack.
The 1996 law is also a dramatic recent example of what a growing number of scholars are calling the “new racism.”58 Lawrence Bobo and associates refer to the decline of “Jim Crow racism” and the rise of “laissez-faire racism.”59 Without making explicit distinctions based on race, this newer form of discrimination reinscribes race privileges implicitly through a euphemistic, encoded discourse.60 According to Amy Ansell, the economic and social discourses of the new right encode these newer forms of discrimination even while ostensibly focusing on allegedly race-neutral issues such as personal responsibility.61 In fact, the allegedly neutral categories of universal rights may always have had racial biases.62 The problem of encoding shows exactly how the dominant categories of rights, entitlements, deservingness, and the like latently carry a racial subtext that implies that blacks are less deserving. The false neutrality of encoded categories reinforces the false neutralism that ignores variations in the broader social and economic context and the way that variation disproportionately works against blacks being able to demonstrate self-sufficiency and personal responsibility as well as whites.
Some might want to argue that there is nothing new about the new racism. The old racism infiltrated neutral social categories, while contemporary racism is often explicit in its castigation of people of color. Still others might want to suggest that since racism now has to be encoded to be used, racism must be on the decline. But perhaps the practice of racism has simply changed rather than declined, given a legal and social climate that makes it less legitimate to be explicitly racist.
While the old racism was ideological, the new racism is discursive.63 The old racism was grounded in an obfuscating ideology of racial superiority;
the new racism is an artifact of allegedly neutral discourse reinscribing racial privilege without ever arguing for it explicitly. While the old racism has not entirely gone away-as the high rates of hate crimes indicate-it is being outflanked by a less virulent, if more insidious, new racism. The old racism was grounded primarily in an ideology that infiltrated one’s consciousness and argued for white superiority. The new racism eschews blatant theories of racial hierarchy and operates surreptitiously, perhaps even subtly without intention, by being insinuated into allegedly neutral practices that just happen to disproportionately disadvantage people according to race.
“Black” today does not mean inferior as much as it did twenty-five years ago. Instead, today it more often denotes risk. “Black” alerts the economically wary to stay away. Black is still a significant marker but now more as a signal of economic danger than racial inferiority. It is a hollowed out discursive practice rather than a thick ideological symbol. It does not refer to the biology or culture of race as much as to the economics of it. If working with “blacks” does not decrease your job prospects then that is acceptable, but if blacks move into your neighborhood your investment goes down and that is not. But as an institutionalized practice to signal economic danger, race is institutionalized racism. Used as a marker, race continues to systematically disadvantage blacks. As long as African-Americans are treated differently- even if not on account of their biology or culture-the conditions for their subordination are re-created.
Therefore, William Julius Wilson is both right and wrong when he argues that race is less significant as a source of discrimination and we should deemphasize politically counterproductive and divisive race-based social policies like affirmative action.64 He is right that explicit racial discrimination is less tolerated; however, he is wrong if he is understood to suggest that race is not significant for privileging some over others. The difference is that now whites discriminate on the basis of economics rather than biology or culture. Therefore, race today is most significantly encoded with economic danger. To mark someone in terms of race in the market society is to constitute that person as a subject worthy of marginalization.
Black is a self-legitimating signifier. As long as African-American represents black economic disadvantage, being black will be a marker that can be used in ways that work against African-Americans, and as long as it disadvantages African-Americans black will imply economic disadvantage. African-Americans will not be treated equally until black is equal to white. In a segregated society, the redistribution of social and economic capital to equalize access to critical resources, housing, schools, jobs, and so forth will have to come first if African-Americans are to be treated equally.65 Treating black equal to white, however, will help bring about the equalization of resources. Only then will black no longer be the critically distinctive signal that it is currently. Until then, it will continue to be encoded in economic anxiety.
In the “new racism,” black is encoded with economic danger as opposed to explicit references to inferiority. What then explains the popularity of the very controversial book The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray?66 I would argue that it provides a strikingly public example of how the socially anxious periodically seek recourse to a more explicit subtext in order to reaffirm the meaning of the main social text. The Bell Curve is ostensibly about intelligence; in fact, it is about social policy. Many of its later sections argue that social policies designed to improve the condition of the poor, who belong disproportionately to ethnic and racial minorities, are futile because there is a genetic basis for their inferior state. These social programs are wasteful because they are trying to change the unchangeable. The money would be better spent on other things or not at all. This book could do much to reinvigorate the age-old and long-held prejudice that African Americans in particular are genetically inferior.
The popularity of the book’s argument that blacks are less intelligent is surprising in a society that claims to be increasingly successful in vanquishing racial prejudice. Part of the answer lies in the fact that racism is still embedded in our unconscious even as public discourse discourages racist ideas. Sometimes a segment of the population want to be reminded that the neutral categories favor whites. Race privilege still contributes to the structuring of everyday life; people half-know this and many are anxious that that might change. They want to be reassured that racial privilege will not only continue, but that it is justified. The notion that race undergirds the neutral categories of public discourse reassures them that their racial resentments are legitimate. For these reasons, racial bias that is hidden in the subtext of public discourse is periodically made explicit.
The subtext of narrative operates like an unconscious space where anxieties referenced by the conscious narrative are made explicit. Zizek suggests that the subtext serves as a relay, just as pornography can for civilized discourse.67 It is here in the subliminal passage that implicit meaning is made explicit. The more explicit implications of the word are made visible in this subterranean state. That which is encoded for public presentation is decoded to reassure the reader as to its implications. The off-the-record nonpublic transcript provides explicit details for those who need such reassurance. Ironically, while the unconscious is an imaginary, it has less need for imagination. In this way, the “symbolic” and the “real” supplement each other.
The Bell Curve can thus be seen as the pornography of the “new racism.” Its popularity serves to remind us that some whites still want the old racial biases of public discourse spelled out. Disturbing though it sounds, The Bell Curve was a source of reassurance to some. It was its own form of reconciliation. It was a gesture designed to underscore the need to state in explicitly clear language that the implicit assumption of racial superiority still informs public discourse. It reduced the anxiety caused by the rhetoric of equality and personal responsibility that insists on not taking race into account. It was time to explicitly recognize that the old racial prejudice is still legitimate in the public realm, if only a subtextual dirty little secret most of the time.
The Holocaust offers a striking parallel to the way the vulgar subtext buttresses the abstract public text. Zizek shows how the Nazis relied on an interplay between public pronouncements on the Jewish Question and the hidden subtext of bureaucrats. How else would people know that the Eichmanns of the regime were “doing their real job” and not “just following orders”? I offer this example not to confuse the racial discrimination of welfare reform with the genocidal discourse of Nazism but to highlight how the vulgar subtext is critically involved in supplementing public discourse. According to Zizek, this process of supplementation was the dirty little secret of the Holocaust that could not be acknowledged but which helped translate the impersonal, abstract public language into concrete acts of genocide.
For Zizek, the subtext added the extra charge to public pronouncements and created “surplus obedience”:
The fact remains, however, that the execution of the Holocaust was treated by the Nazi apparatus itself as a kind of obscene dirty secret, not publicly acknowledged, resisting simple and direct translation into the anonymous bureaucratic machine. In order to account for the way executioners carried out the Holocaust measures, one should thus supplement the purely symbolic bureaucratic logic involved in the notion of the “banality of Evil”. . . . One should fully agree with [Daniel Goldhagen] that [Hannah] Arendt’s notion of the “banality of Evil” is insufficient, in so far as-to use Lacanian terms-it does not take into account the obscene, publicly unacknowledged surplus-enjoyment provided by executing orders, manifested in the “unnecessary excesses in this execution.” . . . [Y]et [o]bscene unwritten rules sustain Power as long as they remain in the shadows; the moment they are publicly recognized, the edifice of Power is thrown into disarray.68
That the problem of personal responsibility in welfare reform is not of the magnitude of the Nazi Holocaust does not negate the distinct possibility of a parallel in the way they are structured. Both have their dirty little secrets, their subtextual pornography, which if revealed undermine the pretense that legitimates them.
Individuation: Social Capital as the Surplus Whiteness of Class
The subtextual processes that inform the discourse of “personal responsibility” are a site for a particularly invidious form of individuation.69 Individuation is the process which reduces people to atomistic selves whose particular differentiating circumstances need not be taken into account. The race and gender of an individuated self do not matter. Class relations are not taken into consideration either. The way these factors have impacted a person is deemed irrelevant and not to be compensated for in public policy and institutional practices.
This false neutrality makes invisible what Charles Tilly calls the “categorical inequalities” which influence the way gender, race, and class prefigure the allocation of economic opportunities across and within various institutional settings ranging from the family to community, schools, employment, housing, and the like.70 For Tilly, categorical inequalities are “durable inequalities” because they create the prearranged institutionalized practices that slot social capital and access to resources on the basis of gender, race, and class distinctions. Once these distinctions are privileged, persons identified with them can exploit their material advantages, emulate their gains in one area after the next, and adapt to change in ways that maintain and build on the initial categorical privileges. Tilly finds that neglect of these built-in categorical inequalities leads to an incorrect emphasis on individual differences as the explanation for inequalities:
We should find that once categories are fixed in place they greatly attenuate the effects of individual variation in knowledge, skill, attitude, and performance on either side of categorical divides. We should also find that categorical organization helps produce individual differences as a consequence of structured differentials in contacts, experiences, opportunities, and assistance or resistance from others. . . . Categorical inequality actually accounts for a major share of interindividual and interhousehold inequality in material welfare.
Production of qualifications for, and connections to, different kinds of work-human capital, broadly defined-operates categorically, with systematic differences by race, gender, ethnicity, and citizenship. Since human-capital differences themselves result to an important degree from categorical processes, categorical inequality actually lies behind much of what economists now measure as interindividual or interhousehold inequality. Once we consider both indirect and direct effects of categorically organized inequality, we discover that a large share of the variation in rewards and resources commonly attributed to individual differences in capacity and effort actually results from the categorical organization of production and reproduction. If so, we should reverse the conventional procedure for analyzing discrimination:
instead of treating it as the residual difference between categories once all possible sources of individual variation are taken into account, treat it as the portion of inequality that corresponds to locally relevant categories, and then see how much of the residual can be explained by variation in human capital, effort, and similar individual-level factors.71
In this way, personal responsibility organizes discrimination. Without accounting for preexisting categorical inequality, it becomes a vacated space where the class, race, and gender of the embodied self-sufficient self is not accounted for. It is a site where we construct a moonscape with no recognizable social context. The variation in people’s circumstances does not rise to the level of visibility in the predominant discourse of personal responsibility that drives the reform legislation.72 In title and text, therefore, the Personal Responsibility Act has its own “surplus whiteness” that erases the social and economic context of welfare receipt and makes invisible the way those contextual factors contribute to the reliance on welfare by poor women, in particular poor black women.73
The growing gap between skilled and unskilled workers exacerbates the consequences of not taking organized class relations into account.74 Unskilled workers are increasingly unable to keep up with skilled workers in wages, benefits, and work conditions. In recent years, it has become more common for unskilled workers to settle for low-wage jobs. In 1982, workers in the top one-tenth of the labor force made in wages 3.95 times what workers in the bottom tenth made; however, in 1996 they made 4.72 times as much. There is evidence that unskilled workers are also less likely to receive benefits than skilled workers. Whereas benefits were once what made low-wage jobs worth taking, they are less and less available to serve that purpose.
In 1982, the total compensation of the top one-tenth of workers was 4.56 times that of workers in the bottom tenth; by 1996, the top tenth received 5.43 times as much compensation as the bottom tenth. Additional evidence indicates that unskilled workers, especially temporary ones, are more likely than before to be put in risky work environments.75 Going to work is quite different for the unskilled, and so is practicing “personal responsibility.” For single mothers with children, it means little more than participating in the rapidly emerging global sweatshop economy or more established forms of economic exploitation.76
Rereading and Reencoding Personal Responsibility
Given the foregoing, it is imperative that we consider the possibility that gender, race, and class biases infiltrate the contemporary discourse of “personal responsibility” by a variety of covert means-by a series of tacit relays. One such tacit relay is the aforementioned relationship of text to subtext. It is there that cultural encoding takes place. Personal responsibility as an allegedly neutral category can undoubtedly be read in many ways: no more government handouts; no more collective responsibility for social problems; poverty is a private issue; private virtue is the basis for personal success; each poor person needs to accept responsibility for her or his own poverty, and so on. It can also more explicitly and crudely mean: “get over it; no more whining; no more claiming victim status; stop blaming other people for your own failures.”
In addition, however, the discourse of personal responsibility can be used anew to imply other, more empowering approaches to addressing poverty. We might even recognize that victims are often “heroes of their own lives.” Linda Gordon has used this phrase effectively to highlight the courage of female victims of domestic violence who step forward and take action to protect themselves and their children, often by being willing to go on public assistance. 77 In spite of all the social opprobrium and risks to their personal safety, these women come forward to achieve their independence from those who have wronged them. Yet such courageous acts of personal responsibility are not what the phrase means today.
Paul de Man has been said to suggest that reading “performs that which is in the text but always escapes us.”78 Reading is an act of supplementation, supplying what is missing from a text. A new reading can make for a different text, different from the way it was read previously. Yet this is also to suggest that the cultural reserve that readers draw on to interpret texts gets imbricated in them. What the text signifies is therefore not entirely autonomous, and whether such a reading is active or passive, performative or not, is not entirely clear.
De Man’s definition of reading suggests it is like remembering, wherein the previous event is remembered in terms of the way it was experienced rather than in isolation.79 The written word is also never read on its own but in terms of its cultural codes, which are nested in the related interpretive distinctions supplied by the culture. Personal responsibility is linked to conceptual oppositions like strong and weak, active and passive, culture and nature, reason and passion, male and female, and white and black.
Then again, if reading is like remembering, it is also like misreading. Take the case of Dan Quayle. As was widely publicized, as Vice President Quayle misstated the Negro College Fund’s slogan “a mind is terrible thing to waste.” He restated it as “what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or to not have a mind.”80 The text read, “invest in education for deserving African American children,” but Quayle’s statement reads as if “those kids wasted their opportunities and wasted them by getting wasted.” Whether it was bad memory, bad public speaking skills, or a case of letting the culture do the interpreting we will probably never know; however, the example serves three times over to indicate how context can infiltrate the reading of texts.
“Personal responsibility” is therefore most often read or misread in the context of the rich cultural reserve of the biases and prejudices of the existing social order. It is a dead metaphor-tethered tightly to the existing culture of liberal capitalism and its commitments to limited definitions of work and family. No matter how neutral it sounds, personal responsibility is at best a semiliberated sign, still tied to the culture that supplies it with meaning. It is mythical in the sense that it easily can be used to invoke widely shared myths of the prevailing cultural heritage such as the myths of self-sufficiency and dependency.
The discourse of personal responsibility is a culturally loaded one that excludes alternative points of view and makes invisible many other types of personal responsibility. The increasing evidence that suggests that women who rely on welfare are indeed often-more often than previously thought-trying to escape from abusive relationships underscores the way the discourse of personal responsibility is encoded. At any point in time roughly one-fifth of welfare recipients are suffering from abuse at the hands of a partner, and about two-thirds of recipients have at some point in their lives been victims of abuse.81Women who choose to go on welfare to escape domestic abuse are therefore inverting the prevailing discourse of personal responsibility: They are engaged not in a passive act of dependency but in an active move to achieve independence. In refusing to account for the special circumstances of many welfare recipients, the discourse of personal responsibility thus neglects the fact that what it depicts as deplorable acts of passive dependency are often laudable acts of active independence. With these contextual silences embedded in the discourse of personal responsibility, women on welfare are evaluated according to the liberal standards of a decontextualized individuated self-a self who must always prove herself by being willing to work regardless of whether it puts her or her family at greater physical, emotional, or economic risk. This is the loaded subtext to
“personal responsibility,” filled with the prevailing cultural biases.
Hidden in Plain Sight
According to Pierre Bourdieu, the encoded meanings of texts like welfare’s “personal responsibility” are part of the “unsaid” that accompanies what he calls each person’s “habitus.”82 The habitus is an unstated sixth sense about how things work-social relations in particular-in a specific cultural setting. People draw on their sense of habitus in order to do many things, including even the basic act of reading social policy texts. But it would be misleading to say that such encoded unsaid meanings are hidden below the text. The subtext is still a legible text available for inspection by those who care to read it, although, like all texts, it is open to multiple readings. Instead, as has been suggested by others, the encoded bias of the subtext of welfare policy discourse operates not so much like the unconscious as what Freud called the preconscious. It is like the unconscious in that it reflects emotions that are not made explicit in conscious activity. Yet it is also like the sub- or preconscious in that it is not entirely unconscious but is an accessible storehouse of images and messages. Jacques Derrida reminds us that Freud saw even the unconscious as analogous to the wax paper “mystic writing pad” of his youth that left behind traces of what had been written even after it had been erased.83 “The Unconscious is outside, not hidden in any unfathomable depths.”84
I want to emphasize that the subtext of welfare policy discourse is similar, in that it is not in the strict sense an inaccessible unconscious. Rather, it is semiconscious. It is a partially visible and accessible subtext that records the fantasies and dreams, anxieties and fears associated with the publicly muted main text. In this sense, the latent subconscious subtext is an unutterable ground that is “hidden in plain sight.”85 It is readable and recognizable even though we articulate the main text. It tells us that we are still involved in making distinctions based on the embodied identities of race and gender despite the publicly promulgated laws being written in an idiom that denies this. As Zizek writes:
Fantasy designates this unwritten framework which tells us how we are to understand the letter of the Law. And it is easy to observe today, in our enlightened era of universal rights, racism and sexism reproduce themselves mainly at the level of the phantasmic unwritten rules which sustain and qualify universal ideological proclamations. The lesson of this is that-sometimes, at least-the truly subversive thing is not to disregard the explicit letter of Law on behalf of the underlying fantasies, but to stick to this letter against the fantasy which sustains it.86
The neutral law is not really neutral. We can see that. It is hidden in plain sight. The radical response, therefore, Zizek suggests, is to insist on the neutrality the law promises but implicitly denies. This is one way to challenge the latent biases of state-sanctioned universalistic discourse such as “personal responsibility.”87
Visualizing Welfare Policy Discourse
The foregoing suggests that the subtext also includes an imaginary that texts inspire. One means of making this explicit is what W. J. T. Mitchell has called iconology or theories illustrating how texts and image are entwined.88 Mitchell has also outlined what he calls “picture theory.”89 “Picture theory” builds on the chiasmus that pictures call forth theories and vice versa. For instance, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 Watergate-era film The Conversation shows how text and image are implicated in each other.90 In The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, who surreptitiously tapes a couple’s conversation in Union Square in San Francisco. He then uses cutting-edge technology to decipher the conversation embedded in the sounds of the tape, making an innocent lover’s conversation take on new meaning as a conspiracy to commit murder. Here The Conversation is the audio equivalent of another film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up (from the Julio Cortazar short story) in which a photographer uncovers a murder plot when he blows up pictures he shot of a couple in a public park in London.91
But it is not the surveillance of things hidden in the plain sight of parks and other public spaces that interests me here, though the issue of how the public transcript, whether a law or a campaign speech, already has hidden messages in it is pertinent to my discussion. Nor am I interested in the old cliché that things are never quite what they seem, though that is what encoding is all about. Instead I want to show how text and image are implicated in each other. In Blow-Up, the Rorschach of photographic images gives way to a gunman in the bushes. The continual enlargement of the photo tells a story of murder. In The Conversation, the tape recording is played over and over in a way that changes the sound of what is being heard. But the replaying of the tape also changes something else. We are shown the tape but see the conversation. The audio implies the visual, and the image a text. Text and image invoke each another.
This, then, is where we find the “welfare queen”-hidden in plain sight in the text of welfare policy discourse.92 That is home. The “welfare queen” is not a woman; she is not a she; she is an it, a particular kind of it. It is nonhuman, but not cyborg. Instead, it is another kind of hybrid-a text/image-a phrase that is a picture. We read “personal responsibility” but we see “welfare queen.” The “watchword” of “personal responsibility” has its own “optical style.”93 With the contemporary welfare policy discourse of personal responsibility, we express fear of poor neighborhoods and broken families but we see “black women with children.” The welfare queen is an oxymoron-a queen of welfare; she cannot be and is not real. She is an it; an artifact of text, a condition whose possibility is made plausible by the discourse of personal responsibility with its implied debts to gender, race, and class. A more reified “Willie Horton” of Republican fearmongering ads about crime during the 1988 presidential campaign, the welfare queen is the implied identity of the contemporary welfare policy discourse of personal responsibility.
Identity Thinking in Personal Responsibility Discourse
These relays of text and subtext, conscious and unconscious, word and image point to the contemporary welfare policy discourse of “personal responsibility” that is prone to create identities to go with the behavior. This additional relay helps the discourse gain much-needed credibility by implying that an abstract category relates to embodied experience. The words of personal responsibility reference the image of the welfare queen. This act of subtextual visual supplementation helps complete the cycle of representation and closes it off from challenge. The universal category of personal responsibility is “sutured” to the embodied, particular identities of real women of color.94 As Zizek writes:
In the rejection of the social welfare system by the New Right in the U.S., for example, the universal notion of the welfare system as inefficient is sustained by the pseudo-concrete representation of the notorious African-American single mother, as if, in the last resort, social welfare is a program for black single mothers-the particular case of the “single black mother” is silently conceived as “typical” of social welfare and of what is wrong with it.95
Given the way life chances are historically and currently distributed, the subtextual identity of the allegedly neutral and colorless behavioral discourse is easily tinted with gender, race, and class. Text and subtext conspire to entwine behavior and identity, so that narrative and image can work hand in glove.
Nietzsche tells us that discourse conspires to assign agents to the actions described: “[T]here is no being behind the doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed; when the deed is everything. . . .[O]ur entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language and has not disposed of that little changeling, the ‘subject.'”96 Language forces us to imply agency where it is not clear if there is any. Liberal contractual discourse is especially in need of agents, for it implies autonomous, selfmade, self-sufficient selves who have made their own promises and can be held accountable for them. Without that constitutive assumption, the order quickly falls into disorder.
Analogously, the text of behavior is in need of a subtext of identity, added after the fact to lend coherence to what is described. As an abstraction disconnected from the real lives of people, personal responsibility desperately needs to be able to associate itself with embodied identities in order to make itself credible. Responsibility in the abstract needs persons in the concrete, for without them “personal responsibility” can be criticized for not offering much guidance to real people. The behavior needs identifiable agents with which it can be associated. Extending the analogy further, welfare discourse calls for its own welfare queens in order to make its criticisms convincing and the behavior it condemns as the product of people’s choices.
Thus we read “personal responsibility” and are encouraged to think about a variety of identities, including the “welfare queen.” The “welfare queen” serves as the graphic interface of “personal responsibility.” The white middle class is provided an opportunity to focus its anxieties on the subtext of welfare policy discourse. The abstraction of personal responsibility is tied to identifiable subject positions based on gender, race, and class prejudices, while real women of color are denigrated in the process. The contradictory relationship of “personal responsibility” to embodied identity reflects the dangers of “identity thinking,” as Theodor Adorno calls it, and shows that the process of reification is doubled.97 Identity thinking reifies both the abstraction and the identity to which it is attached. “Personal responsibility” is given a life it would not otherwise have, and flesh-and-blood single mothers receiving welfare are made out to be welfare queens.
This is what Louis Althusser called the act of interpellation wherein people are assigned an identity according to the way they are positioned as subjects in discourse.98 Identifying people this way is like calling them “communists.” We put a label on people and expect them to live out their lives according to it. When they find that this is their plight-that they have been labeled so as to be marginalized-their refusal to renounce their labeled status only confirms the belief that that is who they were in the first place. By refusing to denounce other communists, the labeled communist proves she is a real one.99 Anticommunism becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. So it is with “personal responsibility” and the “welfare queen,” for by refusing to practice “personal responsibility” as defined in welfare policy discourse recipients prove they were irresponsible all along and are sanctioned and eventually liable to be removed from the rolls.
Yet it works both ways, for just as the contemporary welfare policy discourse of personal responsibility creates a space in which we envision the welfare queen, so does the image of the welfare queen reinforce contemporary welfare discourse.100 The woman depicted in Figure 1 had in 1997 been sanctioned to the point where she was removed from the welfare rolls.101 Reduced to cooking family meals on an outdoor grill, she sits outside and stares blankly away from the camera while her teenage son looks on. She seems to be an enigma, refusing to work and claiming undetectable maladies, though not even trying to defend herself against a welfare bureaucracy that rejects her story. Her inscrutability creates doubt in our minds, allowing us to decide that she is incorrigible in her insistence on taking welfare. Her passivity becomes a form of active defiance. Her blank face is a blank slate on which welfare discourse can write its stigmatizing story of the welfare queen. Her body language is therefore not of her own making but a discourse that reads her a certain way.
Simply by being there, in poverty, on the welfare rolls, in the backyard, cooking on the grill, she is open to being read by welfare policy discourse. Without knowing anything about her life, her personal experiences, or her hopes and fears, welfare policy discourse appropriates her body and judges her passivity as a willfully chosen dependency.
The Administered Welfare Queen
The welfare queen is a textual spectacle and a spectral text. She is not a preexisting reality. Yet she takes on a life of her own beyond the interplay of text and image because welfare regulates recipients in such a way that they cannot but fail to meet imposed standards of personal responsibility. The welfare queen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to be restaged by welfare recipients in their daily struggle to make ends meet.102 Each time a woman on welfare tries to combine unreported income with welfare benefits, she commits fraud according to the state, and no matter how poor she is she becomes the welfare queen all over again.103 The welfare queen as reenacted is therefore an iterable symbol, designating recipients as undeserving and in need of regulation. Their regulation becomes self-legitimating.
As Barbara Cruikshank has emphasized, overly stringent and punitive rules, elaborate procedures for determining eligibility, extensive reporting requirements, surveillance, behavioral standards, work requirements, and the like all combine to create the near-impossibility of being on welfare and not being seen as a rule-violating welfare queen.104 This is the conspiracy of discourse that covers up its own self-legitimating circuitry. The welfare queen seems to need regulation but only because regulation reinforces the idea that there are welfare queens to be controlled and punished. The welfare queen is an artifact of power and that power is deployed in state administrative practices.
For instance, the individual responsibility plans initiated by the 1996 law have led to massive purges of the welfare rolls, with many single mothers being sanctioned for failure to fulfill all the promises they had made in their plans. Actually, a common reason for being sanctioned seems to be missing scheduled appointments.105 The welfare queen becomes an artifact of the state’s monitoring practices. The individual responsibility plan makes the welfare queen a self-fulfilling prophecy destined to occur, given the high probability that many women on public assistance will not be able to meet the many standards of responsibility imposed on them.
Michel Foucault emphasizes that power creates its own opposition.106 Power defines what is deviant and then repeatedly hunts it down. Relatedly, Gilles Delueze has noted how continuous monitoring has replaced periodic surveillance as the technologies of supervision intensify.107 Power can make the welfare queen a permanent reality as long as a single mother remains on welfare and therefore under suspicion. Welfare regulation therefore continually recreates welfare queens. Women on welfare continually reenact the welfare queen as a self-fulfilling prophecy as they try to make ends meet and of necessity therefore violate their agreements under welfare reform. By going on welfare, not reporting all their income, and doing what they need to do to survive, their attempts to support their children become further evidence of their indolence.
Yet the welfare queen serves ideological purposes that do not just delegitimate welfare use by single mothers; it also buttresses the family-wage system and the traditional two-parent family. For Zizek, power is used not just to thwart social alternatives but also to reproduce existing social relations. Zizek wants to distinguish himself from Foucault by suggesting that power operates on the privileged category as well as the subordinated one. On another subject, Zizek asks:
One should ask here the naive, but nonetheless crucial question: why does the Army so strongly resist publicly accepting gays into its ranks? There is only one possible consistent answer: not because homosexuality poses a threat to the alleged “phallic and patriarchal” libidinal economy of the Army community, but, on the contrary, because the Army community itself relies on a thwarted/disavowed homosexuality as the key component of the soldiers’ male bonding.108
Male bonding in the military can only be made acceptable by disassociating it from homosexuality. Military male bonding needs to create homosexuality as a denigrated and deviant practice in order to legitimate itself.109 And so it is for women’s dependence on men in the traditional two-parent family. Dependence on the state is a denigrated deviance that legitimates female dependence on men, especially in a society that valorizes independence.
Each discourse beats back a threatening “other” in order to protect its own particular version of that phenomenon. How else is one to distinguish the good from the bad, whether it is male bonding or women’s dependence? This is the psychic life of discourse.110 This is the cultural software that processes social relations.111 The social relations of male bonding and the traditional marriage are made safe in the process.
Since there is no welfare queen, the family-wage system has to create one not just to discourage the use of welfare but to reinforce the idea of women’s dependence on men. It is no surprise that the welfare queen is being ever more intensely sought out at a time when women’s dependence on men in the traditional family structure has become suspect. While some religious groups claim that it is God’s will that wives submit “graciously” to their husbands and thereby shore up the traditional two-parent family, other institutions manufacture welfare queens in order to get the same result. Thus both God and the welfare queen haunt fin de siècle America, working against the odds to reproduce the faltering family-wage system.
Body Knowledge: Real Policy
The harm done by the discourse of personal responsibility begins with the way it misreads the efforts of women on public assistance. It refuses to accept that while some may be irresponsible according to any definition of the term, many others are “heroes of their own lives,” and most are victims of circumstances left to fend for themselves by absent partners, poor job prospects, and impoverished neighborhoods.112
“Personal responsibility” is a disembodied category, an abstraction that fails to account for the coping practices of people in the real world, real families, and real communities. While “personal responsibility” needs to be attached to an identifiable subject position in order to be credible, it connects to stereotypical identities available in the culture to legitimate its disembodied behavior. Personal responsibility has no use for embodied experience. It is a colorless category that makes no provision for the exigencies of class, race, and gender in the real lives of those who labor under its sign. In real life, personal responsibility is more than an abstraction, it is not a universal category experienced by different people all in the same way.
Putting people’s embodied experience into the category of personal responsibility enables us to see how it will be experienced differently by different people. We can then begin to understand how class, race, and gender biases may make it unreasonable to insist on some single mothers practicing personal responsibility, narrowly defined as taking paid employment. We may see that reliance on welfare is a necessity for some single mothers. But the power of “personal responsibility” as a discourse lies in its ability to erase embodied knowledge. It is not interested in the body knowledge that comes from having a “different” body. Everyone is to understand personal responsibility the same way irrespective of that fact that their body has taught them a distinctive set of conditions and consequences. Austere bodily suppression is a requirement if one is to embody personal responsibility.
The embodied welfare recipient must regulate her body so that she can achieve the personally responsible body.113 This goes well beyond the straightening of hair. Poor black single women must act as if they were white, married, middle class, and with substantial job skills, in order to be recognized as personally responsible under welfare reform. The personally responsible body has a surplus whiteness which is called male.
As a cultural icon in the contemporary welfare policy discourse of personal responsibility, the “welfare queen” also remains obtuse to embodied reality. The term is a cipher to be filled with social stigma for the purpose not just of delegitimating welfare use by single mothers but also to legitimate women’s dependence on men. By participating in the ongoing recreation of the welfare queen, “personal responsibility” seeks not just to “end welfare as we know it” but also to motivate continued efforts to re-create the traditional two-parent family and shore up the faltering family-wage system.
Its cause is huge; its work is never done. For that reason, proponents of “personal responsibility” are not likely anytime soon to admit that the welfare queen is their creation. But, when they do, they will be freed from the growing tendency to use welfare to punish people for the inequities of the existing political economy.
Notes to Chapter 2
1. See Kathleen O. Kane, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Gender and Death,” (Ph.D.
dissertation, University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, 1994; and Kathy E. Ferguson and Phyllis Turnbull, Oh, Say, Can You See? The Semiotics of the Military in Hawai’i (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p. xiii; and Micaela di Leonardo, Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, American Modernity (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1998), prologue.
2. For an incisive critique of current welfare policies as reinforcing gender, race, and class biases, see Randy Albelda and Chris Tilly, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women’s Work, Women’s Poverty (Boston: South End Press, 1997), pp. 79-146.
Among those who share the view that welfare is structured to be consonant with the dominant biases of the broader society, there is debate over which type of bias-class, gender, or race-is more pronounced. For an emphasis on class, see Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, updated ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1993). For the argument that welfare regulates not merely class relations, but race and gender as well, see Linda Gordon, “What Does Welfare Regulate?” Social Research 55 (winter 1988):
3. Nancy Fraser, “After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State,” Political Theory 22 (November 1994): 591-618.
4. Lawrence M. Mead, “The Rise of Paternalism,” in Lawrence M. Mead, ed., The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997), pp. 1-38.
5. See Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon, 1989), pp. 121-22.
6. For a related genealogy of “dependency,” see Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon,
“A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State,” Signs 19 (winter 1994): 309-36.
7. See Albelda and Tilly, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, pp. 122-30.
8. Ibid., pp. 45-64.
9. On transmission, see J. M. Balkin, Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 74-97. On relays, see Patricia Clough, The End(s) of Enthography: From Realism to Social Criticism (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992), pp. 26-27.
10. For a related reading, see Barbara Cruikshank, “Welfare Queens: Policing by the Numbers,” in Sanford F. Schram and Philip T. Neisser, eds., Tales of the State:
Narrative in U.S. Politics and Public Policy (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Notes to Chapter 2 | 191 1997), pp. 113-24; and Barbara Cruikshank, The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp.
11. See Irene Lurie, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: A Green Light for the States,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 27 (spring 1997): 73-89.
12. See Lawrence M. Mead, “Citizenship and Social Policy: T. H. Marshall and Poverty,” Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (summer 1997): 197-230.
13. See Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 229-33; and Sheldon Danziger and Peter Gottschalk, America Unequal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 151-58.
14. See Anne Norton, Republic of Signs: Liberal Theory and American Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 130.
15. See Michael J. Shapiro, Reading “Adam Smith”: Desire, History and Value (London: Sage, 1993), pp. 1-44.
16. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York:
Vintage Books, 1967), II, 1: 57; and II, 2: 59.
17. Ibid., II, 2: 59.
18. Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), p. 27. Emphasis in the original.
19. See Balkin, Cultural Software, pp. 226-41, especially p. 229, where he suggests that “cultural software is the product of conceptual bricolage. It is not a rationally designed structure of conceptual relationships, but a historical jerry-built product.” 20. On how both therapeutic and economic discourses reinforce the idea of “welfare dependency,” see Fraser and Gordon, “A Genealogy of Dependency,” pp. 309-36.
21. Lurie, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” pp. 73-89.
22. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 2159, 42 U.S.C.S. § 601. (Supp. 1996).
23. There is no evidence that single parenthood declines when single mothers on welfare are required to work. The work requirement may very well increase it by enabling some single mothers who do find jobs to become self-supporting without having to get married. The work and family commitments in the 1996 law may be at cross-purposes. Liberals are not the only ones who worry that the welfare reform law of 1996 may undermine the ability of some single mothers to be good parents by requiring them to work to the point where they do not have the time to tend to their children adequately. In a widely read opinion piece, conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson said as much. See James Q. Wilson, “A GI Bill for Mothers,” Newsweek, December 22, 1997, p. 88.
24. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, P.L 104-193, Sect. 408(b), 110 STAT. 2153, 42 U.S.C. sec. 601 et seq. (Supp. 1996).
25. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children and Families, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): 1936-1998, Updated September 1998 (http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/news/3697.htm).
26. On sanctions, see Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann, “Sanctions: A Force behind Falling Welfare Rolls,” Washington Post, March 23, 1998, p. A1. Also see Robert E. Recor and Sarah E. Youssef, “The Determinants of Welfare Caseload Decline,” Report #99-04 (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Center for Data Analysts, Heritage Foundation, May 1999). On the condition of families that have left the rolls, see “CDF, New Studies Look at Status of Former Welfare Recipients,” CDF Reports (April/May 1998); and “Tracking Recipients after They Leave Welfare: Summaries of State Follow-Up Studies” (Denver: National Conference of State Legislatures, February 1998). See Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein, Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997), for evidence that most women receiving welfare supplement their cash benefits by engaging in unreported work and with income support from family and friends, but do not resort to selling drugs or sex.
27. Edin and Lein, Making Ends Meet, pp. 234-35, found that poor single mothers who worked were worse off financially, were more harried, and had less time for their children than those who relied primarily on welfare for an income.
28. Charles Murray, Losing Ground: Social Policy 1950-1980 (New York: Free Press, 1984); and Lawrence M. Mead, The New Politics of Poverty: The Non-Working Poor (New York: Free Press, 1992).
29. See Fred Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., LA, and the Rate of American Big Cities (New York: Free Press, 1997).
30. Michael Wines, “White House Links Riots to Welfare,” New York Times, May 5, 1992, p. A1.
31. Myron Magnet explicitly connects welfare dependency and the liberalism of the 1960s in The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (New York: Morrow, 1993).
32. An equally curious connection between the 1960s and contemporary policy is made by some disenchanted leftists who claim that the “crisis strategy” developed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward in the 1960s to overload the welfare system and force reform finally backfired in the 1990s when conservatives struck back against welfare dependency and were able to end the welfare entitlement. See Michael Tomasky, Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 105-17; and Jim Sleeper, Liberal Racism (New York: Viking, 1997), pp. 58-60.
33. Murray, Losing Ground, p. 33.
34. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (New York: Knopf, 1995).
35. Mead, The New Politics of Poverty, pp. 260-61.
36. Mead, “The Rise of Paternalism,” in Mead, The New Paternalism, pp. 1-38.
Notes to Chapter 2 | 193 37. Mead, “Citizenship and Social Policy,” pp. 220, 229-30. Emphasis in the original.
38. In particular, see Edin and Lein, Making Ends Meet, pp. 127-36.
39. See Amy Ansell, New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain (New York: New York University Press, 1997), pp. 74-141; Etienne Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Etienne Balibar and Emmanuel Wallerstein, eds., Race, Nation, Class, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1991), p. 43; and Patricia J. Williams, “Of Risk and Race,” Nation., December 29, 1997, p. 10.
40. Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 91-126.
41. For a discussion of the hoarding of “social capital,” see Tilly, Durable Inequality, pp. 147-69.
42. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, The Breaking of the American Social Compact (New York: New Press, 1997), pp. 113-30.
43. See Albelda and Tilly, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, pp. 1-44.
44. Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 102-53.
45. Ibid., pp. 70-71. For an account of how social programs get marginalized when they are seen as “black” programs, see Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare:
How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Michael K. Brown, Race, Money, and the American Welfare State (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).
46. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “The Contemporary Relief Debate,” in Fred Block, Richard A. Cloward, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Frances Fox Piven, eds., The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 45-52.
47. See Jason DeParle, “Shrinking Welfare Rolls Leave Record High Share of Minorities,” New York Times, July 27, 1998, p. A1.
48. See Margaret Weir, “Is Anybody Listening,” Brookings Review 15 (winter 1997): 30-33.
49. DeParle, “Shrinking Welfare Rolls Leave Record High Share of Minorities,” p. A1.
50. See Albelda and Tilly, Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits, pp. 107-13.
51. Jody Raphael and Richard M. Tolman, “Trapped in Poverty/Trapped by Abuse: New Evidence Documenting the Relationship between Domestic Violence and Welfare” (Ann Arbor: School of Social Work, University of Michigan, 1998) (http://www.ssw.umich.edu/trapped/).
52. See Alan Wolfe, Marginalized in the Middle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 153-70.
53. Edin and Lein, Making Ends Meet, pp. 147-80.
54. Lurie, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” pp. 73-87.
55. Piven and Cloward, The Breaking of the American Social Compact, pp. 72-77.
56. See Diana Pearce, “Welfare Is Not for Women: Why the War on Poverty Cannot Conquer the Feminization of Poverty,” in Linda Gordon, ed., Women, the State, and Welfare (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. 265-79.
57. Balkin, Cultural Software, p. 229.
58. Ansell, New Right, New Racism, pp. 69-73.
59. Lawrence Bobo, James R. Kluegel, and Ryan A. Smith, “Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a ‘Kindler, Gentler’ Anti-Black Ideology” (New York: Russell Sage Foundation: June 1996 [http://epn.org/sage/rsbobo1.html]).
60. Sanford F. Schram, Words of Welfare: The Poverty of Social Science and the Social Science of Poverty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 15-16.
61. Ansell, New Right, New Racism, pp. 266-67.
62. Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” 63. On the distinction between ideology and discourse, Wendy Brown writes:
Liberalism will appear here as both a set of stories and a set of practices, as ideology and as discourse, as an obfuscating narrative about a particular social order as well as a narrative constitutive of this social order and its subjects.
These two apparently antagonistic formulations-the former associated with a Marxist theory of ideology and the latter with Foucault’s critical replacement of that theory with the notion of discourse-are both important to apprehending the operation of gender in liberalism. . . . To my knowledge, no one has yet satisfactorily articulated a relationship between discourse and ideology as terms of critical theory. . . . What does each term “do” that implicates or requires the other? In Foucault’s formulation of power in and as a regime of truth, the ideological element of discourse appears not in opposition to materiality but in relation to the effects of power that it naturalizes or ontologizes. Thus, the discursive production of the subject can be conceived as ideological not in relation to some “real” subject or nondiscursive account of the subject, but insofar as this discourse naturalizes itself and thereby renders effects of power-subjects-as objects in the prediscursive world.
Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 142. Emphasis in the original.
64. William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Knopf, 1996), pp. 183-206.
65. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp.
66. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994), pp. 269-553. It is important to ask whether The Bell Curve is an example of the old or the new racism. There are parallels with eugenic literature that spoke of such things as “racial cleans Notes to Chapter 2 | 195 ing.” This represents an explicit appeal both to ideologies of racial hierarchy and to the scientific theories of genetics. I would argue that the new and old racism both appeal to these two sources but in reverse order-the old racism relied primarily on ideology, while the new racism avoids explicit references to an ideological position and relies more on allegedly neutral scientific discourse. On the basis of this comparison, The Bell Curve is an example of the new racism more than the old.
On the old racism and its relationship to eugenics, see Schram,Words of Welfare, pp. 14-15; and Michael J. Shapiro, “Winning the West, Unwelcoming the Immigrant: Alternative Stories of ‘America,'” in Schram and Neisser, Tales of the State, pp. 17-26.
67. Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, pp. 179-82.
68. Ibid., pp. 55, 56, 73. Emphasis in the original.
69. On individuation, see Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 98-104.
70. Tilly, Durable Inequality, pp. 193-228.
71. Ibid., pp. 236-40.
72. The 1996 law does make concessions such as allowing states to grant exemptions for up to 20 percent of their caseload, most prominently for women at risk of domestic violence. These are intended to be temporary exemptions and women are still not eligible for federally funded assistance for more than five years, discounting exempted time. See Lurie, “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” p. 82.
73. On “surplus whiteness,” see Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 207-29.
74. See Tilly, Durable Inequality, pp. 229-34.
75. Peter Passell, “Benefits Dwindle for the Unskilled along with Wages,” New York Times, June 14, 1998, p. A1.
76. See Andrew Ross, ed., No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers (London: Verso, 1997).
77. Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The History and Politics of Family Violence (New York: Viking, 1988).
78. John Mowitt, Foreword to Paul Smith, Discerning the Subject (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. xxii. Also see Paul de Man, Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp. 3-20.
79. See Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
80. See Maureen Dowd, “From the Bush Library Dedication Comes News of Hot Mugs, Mad Dogs and the Early Republican Hopefuls for 2000,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 17, 1998, p. 9B.
81. Raphael and Tolman, “Trapped in Poverty/Trapped by Abuse.” 82. See Roger Brubaker, “Social Theory as Habitus,” in Craig Calhoun, Edward
LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, eds., Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 212-34.
83. See Sigmund Freud, “Notes on the Mystic Writing Pad,” quoted in Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 222-23; and Michael J.
Shapiro, “Literary Production as Politicizing Practice,” in Michael J. Shapiro, ed., Language and Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 227.
84. Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, p. 3.
85. See Kane, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Gender and Death”; and Ferguson and Turnbull, Oh, Say, Can You See?, p. xiii.
86. Z? iz?ek, The Plague of Fantasies, p. 29. Emphasis in the original.
87. Lisa Duggan calls highlighting the heterosexist bias of ostensibly neutral laws “queering the state.” See Lisa Duggan, “Queering the State,” Social Text 39 (summer 1994): 1-14.
88. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 1-8.
89. Ibid., pp. 11-34.
90. The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1974.
91. Blow-Up, Tonino Guerra and Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/England, 1966.
92. Cruikshank, The Will to Empower, pp. 104-21, emphasizes that the mythical
“welfare queen” is an artifact of numbers more so than narratives because it is primarily through the accounting procedures of the stingy welfare system that women are unavoidably made out to be cheats. Both Cruikshank’s analysis and mine emphasize the importance of seeing the “welfare queen” as an effect of the welfare system’s machinations.
93. Mitchell, Picture Theory, p. 71.
94. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996), pp.14-15.
95. Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” New Left Review 225 (September/October 1997): 29. For an analysis of the influence of media images on public opinion about welfare, see Gilens, Why America Hates Welfare, pp. 102-53. Gilens relies on Doris Graber, “Seeing Is Remembering: How Visuals Contribute to Learning from Television News,” Journal of Communication 40 (1990): 134-55, to emphasize the power of images over text. He notes how the over-representation of African-American women in media texts and images has contributed to the public’s most often exaggerating the extent to which minorities comprise the welfare population.
96. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, I, 13: 45.
97. See Gillian Rose, The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (London: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 42-46.
98. See Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 5-6.
99. Lillian Hellman was the paradigmatic case of a woman who refused to Notes to Chapter 2 | 197 succumb to the bullying tactics of the congressional “witch hunt” in the early 1950s that tried to get witnesses to “name other communists.” In her own words, Hellman refused to “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” See Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), p. 93.
100. See Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 144-60.
101. See Vobejda and Havemann, “Sanctions,” p. A1. A similar picture of the woman who had been removed from welfare appeared in the Washington Post on March 23, 1998.
102. Cruikshank, “Welfare Queens,” pp. 113-24.
103. Edin and Lein, Making Ends Meet, pp.172-80.
104. See Cruikshank, “Welfare Queens,” pp. 113-24.
105. Vobejda and Havemann, “Sanctions,” p. A1.
106. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), pp. 53-73.
107. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control,” October 59 (January 1992): 1-7.
108. Z? iz?ek, “Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” p. 32. Emphasis in the original.
109. Many other parallels can be drawn to suggest that the denigrated category is needed not just to delegitimate a particular practice but also to encourage participation in practices associated with the preferred category. One unfortunate example is Paul de Man, who like others, spread anti-Semitic ideas during the Nazi period. In one instance de Man demonstrated the need for “jewish literature” as a denigrated category in order to separate and promote the superiority of European literature. De Man and others needed the category of “jewish literature” as a deviant other to privilege “European literature” as superior and devoid of the defects of “jewish” writings. See David Lehman, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: Poseidan Press, 1991), pp. 180-82.
110. Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, pp. 1-30.
111. Balkin, Cultural Software, pp. 1-41.
112. The phrase “heroes of their own lives” comes from Linda Gordon’s book by that title on women and domestic violence. See Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives.
113. William M. Reddy, “Postmodernism and the Public Sphere: Implications for an Historical Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 7 (May 1992): 134-68.
transformed in ways that make it more vulnerable to being encoded with biases.
My point is not that the term “personal responsibility” was previously
unbiased. I accept that as a term of liberal contractual discourse, “personal
responsibility” was always culturally encoded with particular biases. But
when placed within the context of contemporary welfare policy in the late
1990s it tends more readily to be culturally encoded in ways that specifically
reinforce gender, race, and class biases.
In the context of welfare reform, “personal responsibility” has come to be
limited to a narrow focus on escaping “welfare dependency” and achieving
“self-sufficiency” by taking paid employment.7 This tunnel vision does not
bode well for single mothers on welfare. It devalues mothering. It also neglects
the fact that the work world has a long way to go before it can be said
to accommodate all people regardless of class, race, and gender.8 Fin de siècle
welfare policy discourse sounds neutral but it often fails to account for the
work-related disadvantages posed by class, race, and gender, especially for
single mothers. Insisting on “personal responsibility” therefore risks reinforcing
the tendencies already built into welfare to stigmatize, demonize,
and even criminalize poor single mothers.
After discussing how “personal responsibility” becomes a site for encoding
cultural biases, I make explicit the specific mechanisms by which this
transmission occurs. I suggest that a series of “relays” provides opportunities
for the ostensibly neutral concept of “personal responsibility” to reflect cultural
biases: text and subtext, conscious and unconscious, word and image.9
As a result, the behavior implied by “personal responsibility” can be said to
suggest an identity. The text of “personal responsibility” implies multiple
identities available from the iconography of the dominant culture, among
them the middle-class man of virtue and the so-called “welfare queen” as the
embodiments of what “personal responsibility” represents and what it does
not. The welfare queen is the implied, visualizable “other” of the contemporary
welfare policy discourse of “personal responsibility.”
I conclude this analysis by considering that the welfare queen is an artifact
produced by discourse rather than a preexisting reality.10 The welfare
queen is real only in the sense that she is a reified creature of the discourse
of “personal responsibility.” The welfare queen is not homeless but is
lodged inside the discourse of “personal responsibility.” To turn a phrase:
since there is no welfare queen, welfare discourse has to create her. We see
this most especially when we turn to the way “personal responsibility” is
administered by welfare agencies. The welfare queen is needed both to
delegitimize welfare use by single mothers and to perpetuate the ideal of
Where the Welfare Queen Resides | 29
the traditional two-parent family and the maintenance of the family-wage
system. We will therefore reduce the presence of the welfare queen in our
lives not by changing the behavior of women receiving public assistance
but only by changing the discourse of “personal responsibility.”
A Short Genealogy of Personal Responsibility
Since the welfare reform law was passed in 1996, welfare recipients can only
get federally funded welfare benefits for two years after which they must
participate in “work-related activities.” Furthermore, they can only receive
these benefits for five years over a lifetime after which they are expected to
have made the transition to paid employment.11 States can set stricter requirements.
Arguably, welfare’s emphasis on work requirements makes it a
critical policy in which the work ethic is being held up as a universal standard
to prove that one meets the threshold requirements for citizenship in
late-twentieth-century America.12 The social contract is thus being rewritten
to help buttress the increasingly beleaguered family-wage system. In the
face of declining economic prospects for low-income families in a changing
postindustrial economy, imposing a work requirement becomes a last-ditch
effort to stave off the need to recognize that work and family values are untenable
for many low-income individuals.13 Instead of confronting the
postindustrial collapse of economic opportunities for working families at
the lower end of the socioeconomic structure, welfare reform tries to deny
that collapse. People must demonstrate “personal responsibility” narrowly
defined as working in paid employment in order to prove that they qualify
as full citizens deserving of entitlements. But this threshold is being imposed
just when it is becoming harder to meet.
“Personal responsibility,” however, is not a new idea—it derives from the
lexicon of liberal contractual society.14 For several hundred years, Western
liberal discourse has focused on articulating the particular type of self
needed for the liberal social order.15 This self can be counted on to use the
freedom available under liberalism in orderly ways. This, then, is the paradoxical
creature who gets to be seen as “self-made” and “self-sufficient,” but
only insofar as she can demonstrate that she is “self-regulating.” Until the
second half of the twentieth century this self-sufficient person was rarely a
woman, as it was near impossible for a woman to be credible in the role of a