Malthus, gender and the demarcation of 'dangerous' bodies in 1996 US welfare reform

Emily Kaufman, Lise Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


This article argues that populationism as a gendered narrative provides a crucial rhetorical architecture for welfare reform debates in the USA during the 1990s. Populationism, which Joni Seager defines as 'the dogma and the rhetoric of population alarmism and population control,' subtly legitimized efforts to control and marginalize poor women's bodies in the context of welfare reform. The populationism underlying welfare reform hinges on a deep fear of engulfing social chaos if 'we' do not check the fertility of poor women, and particularly women of color. This article historically situates contemporary welfare politics by tracing in some detail how Malthus' original writings on population were constitutively linked to debates about 'poor relief' in early nineteenth century England. Exploring the gendered linkages between Malthus and social welfare policy in the 1800s allows us to understand how Malthus continues to haunt discourses about social welfare in the 1990s and beyond, with direct consequences for poor women and particularly poor women of color.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)429-448
Number of pages20
JournalGender, Place and Culture
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Malthus
  • USA
  • gender
  • populationism
  • welfare reform

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Demography
  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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