Teaching and Learning Guide for: Resisting the Neo-liberal Poverty Discourse: On Constructing Deadbeat Dads and Welfare Queens




When teaching social welfare policy, it is important to determine the ideological influences upon our policy choices and ability to rationalize those choices. We are able to do this by examining the history of a particular policy, comparing policies in different nations and by incorporating discourse and/or narrative analysis. This article is particularly useful in demonstrating the nature of discourse and the impact of ideology upon welfare reform in the United States. It may be incorporated in classes on discourse, however I have included an example of an abbreviated syllabi for a class in social welfare policy.

Author Recommends

Cassiman, Shawn A. 2006. ‘Of Witches, Welfare Queens and the Disaster Named Poverty: The Search for a Counter-Narrative.’Journal of Poverty 10: 51–66.

This article critiques the explanatory frameworks associated with welfare receipt and draws attention to the gendered nature of the construction of welfare queens by drawing upon historical similarities in the treatment of witches. The conclusion argues that rather than evidence of individual fault, responsibility rests with society, as poverty is a “man” made disaster.

Kissane, Rebecca Joyce and Richard Krebs 2007. ‘Assessing Welfare Reform Over a Decade Later.’Sociology Compass 1/2: 789–813. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00029.x

Comparing the declines in welfare caseloads across states, or what is often articulated as welfare reform success, the authors draw attention to both improvements and challenges in the lives of welfare recipients and offer some policy recommendations.

Lubiano, Wahneema 1992. ‘Black Ladies, Welfare Queens and State Minstrels: Ideological Warfare by Narrative Means.’ Pp. 323–63 in Raceing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

This chapter draws attention to the gendered and racialized nature of the construct of welfare queens. The author argues that contemporary narratives are informed by the historical narratives associated with black women in the United States, with the ‘welfare queen’ the latest tale.

McCormack, Karen 2004. ‘Resisting the Welfare Mother: The Power of Welfare Discourse and Tactics of Resistance.’Critical Sociology 30: 355–83.

McCormack draws attention to the discursive construction of the welfare mother while also identifying some of their tactics to resist negative constructions. She discovers that some women both resist and participate in the discourse, distancing themselves from ‘others’ in an effort to legitimate their need and demonstrate their deserving status.

Schram, Sanford F. 2006. Welfare Discipline: Discourse, Governance, and Globalization. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

This text draws our attention to the global nature of the welfare discourse while offering a critique of globalization as the explanation for welfare state retrenchment. The author incorporates gender and race in his powerful critique of the trends in welfare states. He concludes by offering an alternative to the globalization argument in the form of compassionate liberalism.

Online Materials:

Sociology Eye, http://sociologycompass.wordpress.com/

Institute for Research On Poverty, Current News:


Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign:


Ten-Year Anniversary of Welfare Reform:


Discussion by Sharon Hays, author of Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform (2003):


Sample Syllabus:

Topics for Lecture & Discussion

Weeks I & II: Introduction & Overview

The History of Social Welfare Policy: From the English Poor Laws to the birth of the welfare state.


Trattnor, Walter I. 1994. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in the United States (5th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.

Weeks III & IV: Social Security and Housing Policies

Weeks V–VII: Talking About Welfare Reform


Week V-Welfare reform arguments:

Fraser, Nancy and Gordon, Linda 1994. ‘A genealogy of dependency: Tracing a keyword of the welfare state.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 19: 309–336.

And, Excerpts from:

Ellwood, David T. 1989. Poor support: Poverty in the American family. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Murray, Charles 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy from 1950–1980. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Week VI: Life as a Single Mother on Welfare or in Low-Wage Work

Chapters 1, 2, 3, & 4 in Edin, Kathryn & Lein, Laura 1997. Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Russell Sage Foundation.

Week VII: After Welfare Reform

Cassiman, Shawn 2008. ‘Resisting the Neo-liberal Poverty Discourse: On Constructing Deadbeat Dads and Welfare Queens.’Sociology Compass 2/5: 1690–1700, DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00159.x

Kissane, Rebecca Joyce and Richard Krebs 2007. ‘Assessing Welfare Reform Over a Decade Later.’Sociology Compass 1/2: 789–813. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00029.x

Excerpts from:

Hays, Sharon 2003. Flat Broke With Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Focus Questions

Some possible discussion questions:

  • 1How does ideology shape social welfare policy?
  • 2How does social welfare policy reflect ideological influences?
  • 3How do gender and race impact social welfare policy?
  • 4What is discourse?
  • 5How do we, as individuals, students, and scholars, contribute to the social welfare policy discourse?

Seminar/Project Idea:

Group Project: Counter-narratives: on contributing to the discourse

Drawing upon class readings, notes and current media, each group will critique an assumption (as represented discursively) about recipients of a social welfare policy; welfare, health care, housing, education, or unemployment. They will ground their work in the literature, paying particular attention to historical shifts in the discourse. Students will then identify how extreme economic ‘events’ contribute to (or provide opportunity for) shifts in discourse and/or policies of their choice. Finally, they will offer their own contribution to the discourse, based upon their critique and presented to the class through a PowerPoint presentation.


* Correspondence address: Shawn A. Cassiman, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, St. Joseph's Hall, Rm. 403, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH 45469-1442, USA. Email: cassima@notes.udayton.edu