Scholarship That Supports Activism: Anna Marie Smith On Welfare Reform And Sexual Regulation

“Why is ‘welfare reform’ a queer issue?” That question was posed to a gathering of New
York-based social services and LGTBQ advocates a couple of years ago at a meeting that
launched the Queer Economic Justice Network (QEJN). Since then, QEJN has reached out
to mainstream LGTBQ organizations to help them recognize the myriad ways that “welfare reform” has
harmed poor queers.
On November 9, Professor Anna Marie Smith of the Cornell University Department of Government
offered her own sharp analysis of welfare law and sexual regulation for CLAGS, an analysis that can be
put to immediate use by activists. Summarizing her research on the implementation of “welfare reform”
in the 50 states, Smith reviewed the states’ treatment of mandatory paternity identification and child
support enforcement cooperation requirements for welfare recipients; domestic violence and the “good
cause” exemption from regular program requirements for welfare recipients; the “family cap” on welfare
payments denying payments to cover children conceived while the mother was receiving welfare; family
planning and the promotion of adoption for women on welfare who give birth; and the promotion of
marriage and sexual abstinence for welfare recipients.
Even those who have not considered the intersection of welfare and queer life can sympathize with
the dilemma of the lesbian mother who does not want to involve the biological father of her child in her
family’s life, but who is threatened with the loss of rent and food money if she does not assist the local
agency in seeking reimbursement for those payments from the biological father. Will she be able to
argue that she has “good cause” for not cooperating with the agency? Will it matter at all if the
biological father was abusive or if he might become a danger to her, her children, or her partner if he
finds out that she is in a lesbian relationship? What can a welfare-funded and mandated family planning
course that teaches only (heterosexual) marriage and abstinence offer a queer teen parent? Is that
funding replacing funds for other sexual education and family planning services? Are these mandatory
“educational” programs being run by religious organizations through the “charitable choice” provisions
of the “welfare reform” law?
As the discussion of Smith’s presentation revealed, the notion that poverty is exclusively the result of
personal irresponsibility has led lawmakers to conclude that welfare recipients (generally single mothers
and their children) need to have their behavior regulated by government, by family (generally
husbands), and by the private labor market. Under the guise of attacking “dependence,” welfare
“reformers” seek to eliminate poor mothers’ independence from abusive or dysfunctional relationships,
whether with partners, employers, or local welfare bureaucrats.
Smith’s sobering review of the implementation of “welfare reform” around the country also poses
questions about the federal reauthorization of the welfare law in the coming year, questions that QEJN,
not surprisingly, seeks to address with policy makers.

Richard Blum is a staff attorney in the Civil Division of the Legal Aid Society and a member of QEJN. QEJN
meets on the second Wednesday of every month. For more information, please call Joseph DeFilippis at (212)