Restoring the civic value of care in a post-welfare reform society

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IN LIBERAL political theory, citizenship, politics, even society itself begins with labor. For John Locke, mixing one's labor with nature creates property and the need to preserve that property is the reason why humans leave the state of nature and create political society.1 To labor is thus to create a status and a claim within liberal society. Labor is the point of entry into citizenship and its accompanying political rights. But this political conception has always had to deal with a host of complicating realities. First, the claim of human equality confronts differences, both natural and cultural, that surround gender. Second, individuals do not enter this existence with the ability to labor or to exercise political rights; children require care, and it is only after many years that they can be expected to contribute to society as full citizens. Finally, the care that children require in order for them to reach adulthood is a form of labor that does not result in property. It is therefore at best unclear how care fits within the Lockean-liberal conception. Here I explore how these issues manifest themselves in the history of welfare and, more recently, welfare reform. I argue that welfare was driven originally by a conception of republican motherhood that lauded care by single mothers-widowed and otherwise-as a form of civic labor equivalent to economic labor. Yet almost from its inception, this concept of care ran up against a competing conception of feminism that sought full citizenship for women through the economic sphere. This second notion led to a cultural shift in which mothers increasingly began to seek compensated employment. As a result, our society developed a new conception of gender equality that made Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) appear ever more anachronistic, and the welfare mothers who were supported by these funds ever more estranged from the body politic. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and its accompanying demand for work as a condition for receiving assistance, is the result. But society's need for care work has not gone away. While welfare reform has helped to move our society beyond the exclusion of women from full citizenship, it has simultaneously denigrated the notion of care as civic work. My question is whether it is possible for American society to restore the civic status it once afforded to parental care and especially motherhood. I conclude by examining and endorsing the concept of At- Home Infant Care, a pilot project developed in Minnesota and Montana, which not only acknowledges the essential connection between labor and citizenship, but also strains to acknowledge and sanction parenthood as worthy civic work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWelfare Reform and Political Theory
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)0871545950, 9780871545886
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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