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All in the Family Debt

How neoliberals and conservatives came together to undo the welfare state.

One of the great victories of the American left in the 1960s was to almost completely expunge the last vestiges of the poor law tradition from the American welfare system. Throughout this decade, public interest lawyers associated with the welfare rights movement brought a series of test cases before the federal courts to challenge the array of moral regulations that bore down on unwed women in public assistance programs. Their explicit aim was to bring the “sexual revolution” in family law to the welfare poor. If the Supreme Court now recognized a constitutional right to sexual privacy, why would this right not be extended to women on welfare? If middle-class white women were escaping the dependence of the Fordist family wage by exiting the home, demanding equal wages and freer access to divorce, why would this freedom not be extended to women on welfare? And if marriage no longer counted in determining the legal status of middle-class children, why would the children of welfare mothers still be classified as illegitimate and punished for the sins of the parents? In a series of cases brought before the Supreme court between the 1960s and 1970s, almost every normative stricture on the welfare benefits paid to single women were overturned.

But this development was profoundly unsettling to people across the political spectrum, and it is fair to say that it crystallized the enormous welfare backlash of the 1970s. It is in this period that you begin to hear the argument that public spending on welfare was making women too independent of presumptive husbands and fathers and thus effectively subsidizing the breakdown of the family. Writing at the end of the 1970s, the Chicago school neoliberal Gary Becker remarked that the “family in the Western world has been radically altered—some claim almost destroyed—by events of the last three decades.” He went on to list a familiar series of ills: from the rapid rise in divorce rates and female-headed families, to the decline in birth rates and the growing labor force participation of married women, which he claimed had “reduced the contact between children and their mothers and contributed to the conflict between the sexes in employment as well as in marriage.” Becker believed that such dramatic changes in the structure of the family had more to do with the expansion of the welfare state in the post-war era than with feminism per se—which could be considered a consequence rather than an instigator of these dynamics. Like many of his contemporaries, both neoliberals and neoconservatives, Becker singled out Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—the “poor woman’s alimony”—as one of the primary causes of the breakdown of the family.