Motherhood, Marriage, and Morality: The Pro-Marriage Moral Discourse of American Welfare Policy

46 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2016

Date Written: 2004


A family values agenda has taken up residence in American welfare policy. Aggressive marriage promotion policies, including allowing cash bonuses for welfare-reliant women who marry, are included in the welfare reauthorization proposals pending before Congress. Funding of $1.25 - 1.9 billion is directed toward “healthy marriage” and “responsible fatherhood” programs over the next five to six years.

Motherhood, Marriage, and Morality critiques the pro-marriage moral discourse of American welfare policy. Taking an interdisciplinary, deconstructive, and genealogical approach, I trace the social, theological, and historical tracks of values embedded in the moral discourse of welfare reform and reauthorization. To inspect the “good mother / bad mother” exemplar, I have compared its moral resonances with the political theology of early Protestant reform in the 16th century. To probe the “deserving / undeserving” trope, I have traced its thematic stream to the origins of “poor relief” in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. To interrogate the meaning of “independency” / “dependency,” I have examined the failure of the day care movement and the creation of a “two-channel welfare state” in the early 20th century. To explore the terrain of “legitimacy / illegitimacy,” I have examined a path grooved in the painful landscape of race-based oppression in the United States.

From this socio-theo-historical genealogical approach, I offer three conclusions. First, I suggest that the regressive marriage-centered values themselves carry disturbing questions of morality that are challenged by premises of substantive socioeconomic justice. Second, I propose that a deconstruction of the discourse reveals the interplay between sexism, racism, poverty, and the labor market. Third, from a constructive perspective, I propose that welfare policy may look to sources other than brittle family rhetoric for moral and political legitimacy – sources that are powerful, life-giving, and that run deep in the veins of American participatory democracy.

Keywords: motherhood, marriage, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, TANF, morality, welfare, welfare reform, socioeconomic justice, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, PRWORA, labor-family nexus, gender, race, women, feminism

Suggested Citation

Koons, Judith E., Motherhood, Marriage, and Morality: The Pro-Marriage Moral Discourse of American Welfare Policy (2004). Wisconsin Women's Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2004, Available at SSRN:

Judith E. Koons (Contact Author)

Barry University School of Law ( email )

6441 E. Colonial Dr.
Orlando, FL 32807
United States

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