All in the Family Debt


Melinda Cooper in Boston Review:

When we take a close look at American social history, the rules of familial responsibility can be seen at work most clearly during periodic episodes of sexual revolution. By invigorating the poor laws’ emphasis on kinship, the state could contain the costs of evolving sexual mores by imposing marital and familial support as an economic obligation. That is, at each historical juncture where the legal obligations of family were somehow weakened or threatened by the generalization of divorce, the waning importance of marriage, or the liberation of slaves who had never been married, the poor laws would be reinforced to punish those who threatened to transfer the costs of their welfare onto the 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.

More here.