Intersecting Inequalities: Race, Gender, and Capitalism in the U.S. Welfare State

Intersecting Inequalities: Race, Gender, and Capitalism in the U.S. Welfare State

Grit Grigoleit-Richter, University of Passau; Marian Ofori-Amoafo, University of Passau
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
27.01.2024 - 27.01.2024
Marian Ofori-Amoafo, American Studies, University of Passau / University of Bayreuth

This interdisciplinary symposium brought together scholars and researchers to discuss multi-dimensional challenges of inequality within the U.S. welfare state. Building on race-conscious literature, race and its intersections with class, gender, and sexuality were central to the symposium discussions. GRIT GRIGOLEIT-RICHTER (Passau) contextualized welfare history in the U.S. and the discourse of the “Welfare Queen” adopted by Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign, a racialized trope of welfare fraud that criminalized poverty. The questions conference presenters addressed in their talks were in what ways the Welfare State continuously perpetuate inequalities within U.S. society; how race, gender, and sexuality figure in the discussions, processes, and policies of retrenchment and access to public assistance; and how the neoliberal turn influenced and shaped new discourses about poverty and welfare reforms.

SYDNEY RAMIREZ (Kassel) links incarceration and sexuality and emphasizes primarily how the new welfare reforms perpetuated racialized narratives and further criminalized welfare recipients. In her talk, Ramirez unveiled the compounding oppressions of sexuality and race within the welfare funding focusing on sexual minorities in the 1970s and 1980s. She further indicated the disproportionate struggles of queer youth following cuts to Public Health Spending from the late 1960s. Ramirez stressed how the rise of Juvenile Justice schemes introduced a two-tier system of punishment, called “Diversion Programs”, that criminalized poverty and disproportionately incarcerated African American young adults and other minoritized groups— thus linking reproductive health, sexuality, and race. The burden of negotiation for these youth fell on private entities such as the “Gay Liberation” movement that sought to use sexuality as a viable option to negotiate for governmental support in the face of limited funding.

FABIENNE MÜLLER (Bremen) questioned “universal coverage” of healthcare and took on neoliberal policies from an alternate angle to examine it affects the reorganization of welfare policies to produce unequal health access to minoritized populations, for example, Native Americans. She uses official documents (reports, speeches) in examining universal coverage policies. Müller shows that in order to fulfil campaign promises, the Clinton administration embarked on welfare reform influenced by neoliberal ideas of modest welfare and prioritized profit, thus insufficiently considering the already existing health and welfare disparities along economic, racial, and gender lines, further deepening social inequalities. The ensuing discussion centered on the exclusionary mechanisms of the welfare state and the notion of a White middle class as the only one deserving of welfare, as exemplified by the Clinton administration’s Health Security Act.

Leading the discussions, MARIAN OFORI-AMOAFO brought the two papers into conversation through neoliberalism, which is paramount in the discussions of at-risk youth and healthcare. Generally, neoliberalism is a political philosophy that describes the nature of political and economic institutions from a liberal capitalist perspective. Neoliberals champion a “modest welfare state,” “liberal rights,” liberty, and a “free-market economy” to ensure “economic prosperity” (Vallier, Neoliberalism1). Proponents are skeptical of excessive governmental involvement in facilitating public good (Vallier, Neoliberalism.). The reduction of welfare programs and their entanglements with neoliberalism heralded a new age of state support, but first, it is essential to understand the meaning of neoliberalism. For this, I turn to the work of anthropologist Ilana Gershon2, who describes an all-encompassing undertaking of power that effectively produces social life, particularly along economic lines (Neoliberal, pp. 537-538). Thus, she argues that anthropological reflections on how neoliberal systems work locally and transplanted to other contexts are essential; they are “insufficient” for confronting them (Gershon, Neoliberal, p. 537). That is because local contexts are already in the toolbox of neoliberalists in designing and advocating for their ideologies. Instead, Gershon points to “epistemological differences and social organization” as two essential aspects to interrogate neoliberalism (Neoliberal p. 537). I focus on “social organization” and ask what happens in a capitalist economy like the US and its social welfare organization.

Gershon deploys a “neoliberalism agency” to explore socioeconomic arrangements and the shift from “economic liberalism to neoliberalism,” promoting a view of people as products of the market (Neoliberal, p. 539). They become autonomous agents free to “negotiate” their abilities with neoliberal agents who determine if their value is worth investment. Neoliberal policies thus focus on peoples’ negotiating power with their capabilities and thus define social organization and relationships in terms of profitability and market “alliances” (Gershon, Neoliberal, pp. 539- 541). Two problems arise from the perspective of the US welfare state: first, if specific groups of people are already maligned, discriminated against, and deemed not worth investing in, how might that, in the view of neoliberalists, affect their marketable traits or capacities, and become a hindrance in a state of welfare retrenchment that disproportionately affect them? Such minoritized populations, like queer youth and poor people, whose capabilities are often undervalued, who have limited power and indeed near absent social, economic, and political power to negotiate would amount to an inequitable negotiation from the onset? Gershon’s insights on “negotiation” and “neoliberal agency” put in perspective how neoliberal policies under the guise of individual liberty delimit the actual negotiating power of individuals against capitalist corporations in securing social welfare. The individual papers and exchanges revealed how the neoliberal turn shapes and adds an extra layer of unequal welfare policies and programs.

VANESSA VOLLMAN (Passau) employed an innovative reading practice through her critical reflections on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and discourse through a counter-storytelling process that was simultaneously conversational, theoretical, and narrative—weaving together a powerful instance of self-reflection and observation of racialized encounters and the welfare state. She uses AJA Y. MARTINEZ’s Counterstory3 and her expansion of CRT principles from the 1980s to transfer academic discourse and promote logical reasoning to foster dialogue about race-critical topics with non-academics. Vollman sets the stage for an encounter between acquaintances who meet in transit onboard a Deutsche Bahn, one on the scholar route to an academic conference, the other to work. Her characters take roles as critical race experts who attempt to distil the meanings of “race” and “welfare” to a protégé. They discuss the consequences of systemic discrimination and oppression in the US setting, especially in the aftermath of the Trump presidency and the onslaught on CRT. Vollman communicates multiple vulnerabilities and oppressions for minoritized populations in the US welfare state to reflect the entitlement and sensitivity to discussing such topics amid cultural pushbacks for justice and equality.

The next set of papers under the rubric of social advocacy presented the pitfalls of the US Welfare state and the need for inclusive welfare policies. TAMARA BOUSSAC (Paris) illustrated using one historical example of a racialized welfare reform process with intersecting vulnerabilities for potential welfare beneficiaries. She takes on the infamous welfare regulation of 1961 proposed by the city of Newburgh in New York State that aimed to check welfare fraud. This historical perspective shed light on how African American single mothers were targeted for discriminatory welfare practices that proved to have a long racial segregationist legacy and cemented further inequality. Similar to Ramirez’s presentation, racialized dynamics emerge in Boussac’s talk, and she shows how Newburgh City criminalized attempts by poor residents, especially Black mothers with dependent children, to access public welfare. The program thus became a strategy to control African American migration to the city and their socioeconomic mobility. The reform drafters redeployed racist discourses and imagery of welfare fraud, such as the trope of the “Welfare Queen”, a narrative of laziness by depicting Black residents’ refusal to work, and normative views of family, to exclude Black women with children out of wedlock as opposed to married (White) women.

Boussac further established that welfare became intertwined with and essential to civil rights as the Newburgh case soon gained national attention from organizations such as the National Advancement for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. Welfare became a Black Liberation agenda and showed a different genealogy of the inequalities that attend social welfare policies. While the proposed reform was quickly dissolved in the face of enormous backlash, it nevertheless became a blueprint for additional unequal treatment. Justifications for unequal welfare resurface in the notorious 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action4 on Black Families, which also references the Newburgh case in its focus on black womanhood, childhood, and labor. DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, in the fourth chapter of his Report written for the Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor, among other things, misrepresented a so-called “tangle of pathology” of the Black families (Moynihan, Report, p.29). It linked the collapse of Black families to criminality and delinquent children to Black single motherhood, matriarchy in the Black family, and the absence of the father (Moynihan, Report, pp. 30-33).

Moynihan’s Report inadvertently reiterated stereotypes of the “Welfare Queen” and “Deadbeat Dads”, which Felix Krämer and Grit Grigoleit-Richter referenced in their submissions. The Report racialized the links between poverty and crime based on prison statistics without explaining or providing context for such numbers, and neither in his colorblind reporting on reasons for high unemployment among African American men, for instance. The chapter essentially blames everything that is wrong with Black families on his “tangle of pathology”, on the non-patriarchal family system, and the absence of the father to maintain discipline while disregarding disproportionate social opportunities. There is a missed opportunity in Moynihan’s frame of “tangled pathology”, which already hints at the transgenerational improvisation of African American communities, which would have given the needed context from discussing beyond a racialized and gendered discourse of social welfare.

Opposition to welfare inequality and exclusions reveal how systemic migratory controls that are used to police benefits also reoccur through urban housing segregation and ejection. SNEHA SUMANTH (Ottawa) emphasized the problem of housing segregation through “urban renewal”. She demonstrated how public housing has also become a contested terrain as capital extraction and urban renewal plans foment housing insecurity and racialized dispossession, thus further deepening the effects of racial capitalism. Sumanth used a case study from New York City– New York City Public Housing Authority (NYCHA)– to emphasize how the privatization and commodification of public housing impede and threaten tenants’ livelihoods. Moreover, the strange development in privatization is a conscious perpetration of neglect by the housing authority and its simultaneous use of deterioration of the homes as a basis for “urban renewal” and forceful evictions. Sumanth highlighted tenants organized forms of resistance against capitalist systems that endanger their housing security. Her talk illustrated further that such geographical restrictions show a continuous dispossession that hampers the transgenerational lives of residents and exacerbates their already precarious living conditions.

Going from organized tenant resistance to self-organized welfare support, the presentation by PEER ILLNER (Berlin) illustrated a similar double-edged sword. He showed how the aim to repress those deemed undeserving of support weaponizes welfare control against specific groups of people. Illner explained that reductions in federal disaster relief programs following the neoliberal turn in the 1980s increasingly put racialized impoverished communities at risk in the face of climate disaster. The rise of mutual aid and non-governmental welfare relief programs, such as Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements, become primary aids amid failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and how state failure simultaneously justifies reducing governmental welfare support. Using the example of the Black Panther Party’s social projects, Illner conveyed how African Americans were forced to mobilize mutual aid to support their social welfare programs against unsatisfactory and absent State welfare. Thus, the retrenchment of the welfare state has given way to a resurgence of mutual aid organizations that have filled the void in the absence of state welfare.

FELIX KRÄMER (Erfurt), in his new book Living on Credit (2024)5, added an essential but often overlooked aspect to the field: debt. He meticulously historized the intricate web of debt from the end of slavery to contemporary consumer and student debts, vividly demonstrating how forms of debt are utilized under a capitalist framework to produce an exploitable and often disenfranchised class. Citing postslavery and Reconstruction Era exploitative systems of convict leasing and sharecropping systems —the afterlives of racial capitalism—, he illustrated how they have continuously and disproportionately extended an inequitable racial “wealth gap” but also a debt gap since 1865. There seems to be a transfer from “slave capitalism to debt capitalism” (Krämer, “Living on Credit”), which unfolds in policies like student and real estate loans. Like several of the papers prior, Krämer shows the interconnections between criminalization and racialization of poverty and welfare fraud and a welfare system that always seems to disenfranchise and exploit minorities and people experiencing poverty in favor of maintaining a neoliberal capitalist economy.

Altogether, the presentations and discussions revealed that the history of social welfare in the United States is shaped by racialized, gendered, and class-based socioeconomic and political power, which tends to benefit a white majority disproportionately. Understanding the US welfare state as part of a more extensive neoliberal capitalist social program makes lucid the historical and contemporary hardships of seeking governmental assistance for those with precarious livelihoods. Yet the “self-help” models such as community-based social aid Gay Liberation, the fight for universal health coverage, the Black Panther social aid scheme, tenant resistance, and disaster mutual aid show glimpses of hope in the fight for equitable welfare for all.

Conference overview:

Karsten Fitz (Passau): Welcome and Opening Address

Grit Grigoleit-Richter (Passau): Introduction: Intersecting Inequalities: Race, Gender, and Capitalism in the U.S. Welfare State

Panel I: The Road to Welfare Retrenchment: Neoliberal Agency
Chair: Marian Ofori-Amoafo (Passau)

Sydney Ramirez (Kassel): Carceral Consequences for Sexual Minority Youth, 1976-1996

Fabienne Müller (Bremen): The Health Security Act under President Clinton – universal only for Some?
Commentary and Moderation: Marian Ofori-Amoafo

Vanessa Vollman (Passau): Critical Reflections on Race and Welfare are just the Ticket: A Critical Race Theory Counterstory à la Martinez.
Audience Responses

Panel II: The Battle for Welfare: Local Advocacy & Responses
Chair: Anna-Lisa Müller (Passau)

Tamara Boussac (Paris): Welfare as Civil Right: Race, Gender and Civil Rights Activism during the Newburgh, New York Controversy

Sneha Sumanth (Ottawa): Expanding Frontiers of Property and Real Estate Capital: Public Housing Renewal in New York City

Peer Illner (Berlin): Apologists for Austerity? Mutual Aid and Welfare State Retrenchment

Audience Questions

Felix Krämer (Erfurt): Living on Credit: People, Power, and Debt in the United States from the End of Slavery to the Present

1 Vallier, Kevin. ‘Neoliberalism.’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, Winter 2022, in: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2022. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, / neoliberalism/.
2 Gershon, Ilana. Neoliberal Agency, in: Current Anthropology 52 (4) (2011), p. 537–55.
3 Martinez, Aja Y. Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory. Conference on College Composition and Communication ; National Council of Teachers of English, Champaign, Illinois, 2020.
4 Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1965.
5 Krämer, Felix. Leben auf Kredit: Menschen, Macht und Schulden in den USA vom Ende der Sklaverei bis in die Gegenwart, Campus, Frankfurt am Main, 2024. (Forthcoming)