Babies as barriers: Welfare policy discourse in an era of neoliberalism

Linda Houser, Sanford F. Schram, Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

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Over the past four decades, shifting labor markets have severely diminished the work and income prospects for low-skilled Americans. Partly as a response, public assistance programs have been redesigned to prod people into whatever jobs the changing economy provides (Peck, 2001). Under the neoliberal logic that guides these programs, paid work has been enshrined as the chief responsibility of citizenship (Soss et al., 2011). Activities that were once seen as societal contributions in their own right (e.g., care of children or aging adults) are now widely viewed as impediments to paid work (Stone, 2007). In the process, a remarkable variety of life conditions have come to be known by a simple term: barriers. In this chapter, we analyze the historical origins of the barriers discourse and explore its contemporary deployment in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF was created by federal legislation in 1996 that abolished the entitlement-based Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. It operates today as a federally funded cash assistance program administered at the state and county levels. Most TANF beneficiaries are poor families headed by single mothers who must comply with work and other behavioral requirements to be eligible for benefits. TANF was widely hailed as a success during its first decade, primarily because it appeared to move welfare-reliant women into the workforce. Caseload reductions have varied by state (Pavetti et al., 2011), but their effect has been to produce historically small caseloads disproportionately populated with mothers who struggle to find consistent paid employment. In the parlance of welfare reform, these “hard-to-serve” mothers are said to “have barriers, " which may include such disparate conditions as young children, an active substance addiction, limited access to transportation, or intimate partner violence. The result is one of the more troubling paradoxes of contemporary welfare provision. Given the meager size of cash benefits and the high bar for program compliance, only those with the most complex and desperate needs tend to opt into the program. On the other hand, work-centered performance benchmarks in the TANF program have become more stringent over time, making the remaining “hard-to-serve” clients ever-more undesirable. Their work-participation failures become the performance failures of case managers (and thus, of welfare agencies and state governments), with serious financial consequences (Soss et al., 2011). It should come as no surprise, then, that factors impeding employment are of deep concern to actors throughout the TANF system. We argue, however, that the barriers discourse does far more than just label such impediments. It organizes understandings and practices in welfare administration, and does so in ways that accomplish important political and emotional work (Schram, 2012). The barriers discourse averts attention from the structural forces that marginalize and subjugate low-income families by assimilating them into a personalized roster of the individual market actor’s characteristics. Many of these forces can be traced to durable forms of privilege and subordination in relations of gender, race, and class. Others arise more directly from labor market conditions and public disinvestments that have undermined the life prospects for lower-skilled Americans. Regardless, such external conditions are recast as problems that individuals “have” and must overcome. The “barriers” concept migrated to public assistance from discussions of disability accommodations and health access long before welfare reform in 1996. Nationally, it came to prominence alongside rising calls to incentivize work among the poor, gathering into its orbit a wide variety of physical and mental impairments, social relations and obligations, and conditions in community environments (see U.S. GAO, 1971). “Barriers talk” is pervasive today in discussions of public assistance, whether one looks in governance settings or in relevant areas of scholarship. Yet it has largely escaped critical analysis. We know little about how the barriers discourse arose, how it matters for politics and administration, how workers themselves understand and use this term, or how it affects their work with clients. To advance such an analysis, we begin by exploring the “pre-history” of the barriers discourse in public aid programs from the 1930s through the 1960s. Although workforce participation was not yet the norm for most U.S. women, we suggest that for welfare recipients the 1930s-60s era marked a key period of change in the gender balance of caregiving and labor market roles. Indeed, by 1970 conditions were ripe for the emergence of the barriers discourse, which was already starting to appear in its contemporary form. We then turn to the contemporary period to pursue an analysis of how the barriers discourse operates in practice. We examine how the barriers discourse has entered into the lexicon of frontline welfare administrators, when the term is used, how it is deployed, and, most importantly, what political and practical work the barriers discourse accomplishes. To pursue these questions, we draw on in-depth interviews with fifty Welfare Transition (WT) case managers and administrators that were conducted as part of a larger project on TANF service delivery in the state of Florida (for a full description of our methodology, see Soss et al., 2011). We find that barrier categories and scales provide rubrics for assessments of client needs and employment prospects. Understandings of barriers structure decisions about whether and how to penalize client noncompliance. They shape moral judgments of clients, ideals regarding service provision, and beliefs about how to improve welfare systems in practice. The barriers discourse reverberates beyond the practical activities of street-level bureaucrats to frame perceptions and shape understandings in poverty governance. The discourse converts diverse circumstances, from the conventionally celebrated (e.g., giving birth) to the deeply traumatic (e.g., being abused and violated), into roadblocks to the normative destination of paid work. In the process, it rewrites the boundaries of the problematic: It normalizes life conditions that, however difficult, do not seem to impede work, just as it suggests that persistent hardships are unproblematic (and thus, undeserving of public concern and remediation) once paid employment has been obtained. As it is deployed today, the barriers discourse collapses the distinction between internal characteristics and external conditions, rendering both as traits of individuals who are expected to change their behaviors and become “self-sufficient.” In so doing, it constructs a population defined and classified according to its enumerated work impediments, such that each additional barrier indicates a more problematic subject of governance. By making populations legible in this manner, the barriers discourse produces more knowable and governable targets for state interventions. In these ways, the barriers discourse is not merely indicative but constitutive of neoliberal shifts in U.S. employment and poverty policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781317627401
ISBN (Print)9780415673440
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Stephen Nathan Haymes, María Vidal de Haymes, and Reuben Jonathan Miller.


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