by Anna Marie Smith. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 310pp. Hardcover. $85.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9780521820950. 288pp. Paperback. $29.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521527842. eBook format. $24.00. ISBN: 9780511292798.

Reviewed by Alice Hearst, Department of Government, Smith College, Northampton, MA. E-mail: ahearst [at] smith.edu.


In the mid-1990s, Bill Clinton set out to alter “the culture of welfare.” Under his administration’s guidance, Congress abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and instituted a new series of programs under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing AFDC with a block grant program entitled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. In a system already noted for its miserliness, the TANF changes virtually erased any safety net for the poor. The limited statutory entitlements under AFDC were rolled back to a virtual vanishing point, and states were granted broad discretionary authority to structure their programs around devastatingly strict ‘moral’ requirements, as well as greatly enhanced powers to identify and pursue putative fathers for child support. As Anna Marie Smith argues in WELFARE REFORM AND SEXUAL REGULATION, the cumulative impact of these changes is profoundly eugenic: the poor are discouraged from reproducing altogether, leaving them available for work in the lowest wage sectors of the economy. By stepping up its moral policing of poor women, especially poor women of color – and through the bodies of those women, its policing of poor men – the state effectively isolates and controls a group that has always posed a threat to its stability and order.

Smith has meticulously assembled both facts and theory in this searing indictment of United States welfare policy. Reaching deeply into history and drawing upon Foucauldian notions of ‘biopower,’ Smith traces the state’s efforts to render poor populations legible and manageable. Since the Enlightenment, she notes, the poor have always been portrayed as brutish animals driven by ‘reckless profligacy,’ whose deviance requires control. Poverty programs, she notes, have ‘served as one of the key sites in which the emerging modern State apparatus . . . first developed modern population management and policing technologies” (p.25). A science of poverty has emerged that “degrades the poor while it advances an extraordinarily ambitious policing project [which] operates largely on a mundane level” (Id.).

In its present incarnation as ‘paternafare,’ Smith asserts, poverty policy renders poor women wholly dependent upon the state and the biological father. The policy operates on many, many levels to keep women in line: while the constellation of programs contained in the policy does little in real terms to reduce the plight of poor women and children (the incomes of [*630] most poor women with children are so low that even a minimal contribution in family income looks significant), it creates a network of information about the poor which makes them easily traceable and subject to continued supervision. To qualify for assistance, for example, a woman must assist the state in locating the biological father and assign her rights to support to the state. She must provide the state with the name of a putative father; the state in turn pursues a ‘child support’ action to yoke that biological father into repaying the state for benefits paid to his children and the children’s mother. Since the fathers of poor children and partners of poor mothers are typically poor themselves, such fathers often find themselves encumbered with financial obligations that follow them far longer than the mother’s stint on welfare. Payments continue to the state, not the family, until the debt is fully paid. Mother cannot negotiate for support once they leave the welfare rolls, because there simply are no more resources to be distributed. The child support provisions of the new policy, as Smith notes, masquerade as an egalitarian feminist position by requiring men to pay their fair share of the costs of child rearing. Yet, as she argues, the policies divert attention from the fact that “even the best designed child support system cannot, in and of itself, transform the wage labor market that locks a substantial number of these men and women into the lowest income brackets” (p.118).

Naming names for child support actions is just the beginning of the new policing mode. In several chapters, Smith painstakingly examines the full panoply of tools employed to scrutinize the intimate lives of poor mothers, from the imposition of family caps to marriage promotion programs to efforts to coerce poor women into surrendering their children for adoption. She systematically demonstrates the ways in which these efforts single out the poor women for surveillance, deny such women the privacy that women and families who are not dependent take for granted as a constitutional right, and, in instances where women may be fleeing from abusive partners, subject women and their families to increased risks of violence. She refutes the myths of greedy welfare mothers and deadbeat dads that are deeply embedded in contemporary discussions of welfare by a careful marshalling of facts. Throughout, she argues that the system is based on a patriarchal policy that wants to put the male back in control of the family and of sexuality itself.

In the last two chapters of the book, Smith sets forth a useful typology of five approaches to welfare policy with an eye to how much each model actually alleviates poverty, as well as how much each model encroaches on custodial mothers’ self-determination and intimate privacy rights. Not surprisingly, the paternafare model created in 1996 scores lowest on alleviating poverty and highest on intervening in mother’s lives. The next three models, the first based upon a model in operation in Wisconsin, the second akin to the models adopted in several European countries, and the third a set of proposals that Smith sees as possible with modifications to the Earned Income Tax Credit and TANF programs, are all deemed by Smith to be within the realm of possibility, and are increasingly effective at alleviating poverty while protecting the dignity and autonomy of poor mothers. Her fifth [*631] approach is a utopian ideal, modeled on a presumption that all caregivers should be valued and universally entitled to a living wage for that work, without discrimination based upon the caregiver’s marital status or other living arrangements.

WELFARE REFORM AND SEXUAL REGULATION is a compelling work; it is likely to become the gold standard in discussions of contemporary welfare policy. Deeply grounded in theory, it also manages to move pragmatic discussion about welfare policy forward. While I have some misgivings about what often seems to be a wholesale dismissal of the importance of connecting fathers to children under any circumstances, those disagreements are minor, and the points Smith makes about trying to assure women’s autonomy provide a convincing counterweight to those concerns. This book is a call for social justice that commands attention and respect.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Alice Hearst.