Like previous cuts to the social safety net, this measure was preceded by a significant ($1.5 trillion) corporate tax cut, suggesting that the government is squeezing the poor to pay the rich. But welfare cuts have long served another purpose: population control.
Building on the flawed logic that providing support to the poor incentivizes poverty and encourages low-income people to reproduce to take advantage of social support, Trump touts the curtailment of SNAP as a backward way of combating poverty itself. In the past few decades, lawmakers across the political spectrum have used fiscal policies as a means to curb the growth of low-income communities — including by trying to prevent poor people from reproducing.
In doing so, they have adapted the tactics of early-20th-century eugenicists, who promoted “selective breeding” practices expressly to reduce “dependency.” This troubling chronology not only illuminates the injustice of “austerity” cuts to welfare — it also reminds us that welfare rights and reproductive rights are deeply intertwined.
Few people openly embrace eugenics today. But in the early 20th century, the movement was mainstream. Its supporters sought to “improve” the human species through selective breeding, immigration restrictions and the involuntary sterilization of “defectives” (those they described as “morally degenerate” and “shiftless,” as well as people with disabilities and others).
Such measures, which proponents claimed would protect against the “pollution” of the gene pool, fell out of favor after World War II, for good reason. Having witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, Americans were wary about measures that targeted entire classes of people for elimination. Furthermore, by mid-century, the scientific claims underwriting eugenics were proving to be pretty slapdash. Geneticists had realized that the inheritance of positive and negative traits was far more complicated than eugenicists proclaimed.
But eugenics didn’t disappear after the war; it was simply rebranded. Race crusaders replaced concerns about heredity with concerns about culture and domestic environment. By shifting their focus from “defective genes” to family size and dependency as reasons for sterilization, eugenicists targeted poor and minority women, whom racists framed as “hyperbreeders” whose descendants drained public resources away from deserving whites.
In fact, sterilizations actually increased in the 1950s and 1960s in many Southern states, including North Carolina and Virginia, because of the rebranding of eugenics.
This increase came at precisely the same time that Congress created Medicare and Medicaid and that African Americans gained access to such federal programs after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This was no coincidence. Bitter about the demise of segregated Jim Crow America and the expansion of protections for the poor, authorities embraced sterilization to prevent poor and minority communities from advancing socially.
Opponents of welfare framed the women who received benefits as irresponsible at best and dangerously fertile at worst. As a Daily News editorial put it in 1959, “Ladies have babies by assorted gentlemen so as to keep the relief checks growing fatter each year.” To reduce the number of welfare recipients, Congress passed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act in 1970, which allocated $383 million for contraceptive programs, including grants to hospitals that performed voluntary sterilizations.
But many hospital administrators used the funds to operate on unknowing minority women. In a 1975 class-action suit in California, 10 plaintiffs accused medical residents at a Los Angeles hospital of performing tubal ligations on Mexican American women without their consent, or with only dubious consent, secured while women were in the throes of contractions or under the influence of pain medication.
The plaintiffs in Madrigal v. Quilligan shared a profile: They were foreign-born, already had multiple children and lived in low-income, Spanish-speaking homes. Hospital staffers also presumed — falsely — that the women were on welfare. That’s why the plaintiffs petitioned for sterilization consent forms to stipulate that welfare benefits couldn’t be revoked if a person declined to consent to the procedure.
These plaintiffs knew that many women were submitting to sterilization because they feared that they would otherwise lose benefits. A court case from 1974 had highlighted this problem. Relf v. Weinberger involved two poor African American girls in the South with intellectual disabilities whose mother signed a consent form only after being told they’d lose welfare benefits if she didn’t. The mother was also falsely told that her daughters were receiving birth control shots, rather than being permanently sterilized.
The Madrigal plaintiffs lost their case. But by publicizing the outrageous abuses happening to similar women, they helped overturn California’s 70-year-old sterilization laws in 1979.
Despite this legal victory, officials in California and elsewhere continued to assert that they should have the power to regulate the fertility of low-income women as a means of limiting government spending.
When the Clinton administration unveiled its comprehensive welfare overhaul bill in 1995, lawmakers touted that, among other things, the plan would prevent people from having children “until they are ready to support them.” By linking benefits to family size, the administration made population control central to its goal of keeping the costs of benefits down.
Subsequently, state and federal policymakers have routinely proposed cutting prenatal care under Medicaid, capping welfare benefits based on family size, revoking food assistance and even forcibly sterilizing women to stop them from having babies the government doesn’t want. President Trump has stated that unwed teenage mothers on public assistance should be institutionalized, where they wouldn’t be able to have more children. In an executive order issued last year, he promoted marriage as a means of reducing poverty.
Studies show no correlation between benefit levels and birthrates among low-income women. Yet the presumption that low-income women should limit the number of children they have, and that cutting welfare will serve that goal, continues to frame the debate. This means that families that are most vulnerable to efforts by the state to shape their choices face the deepest cuts in support.
As the Trump administration dismantles social programs — claiming that this will help eliminate poverty by decreasing “dependency” — it is building on a long, dark history of the state promoting population policy through withholding welfare, or worse.
In many ways, anti-poverty campaigns have extended the legacy of eugenics. But it isn’t and shouldn’t be the job of lawmakers to decide who gets to reproduce and under what conditions. Many Americans will never achieve parental fitness (economic security) in the eyes of the state, even if they “play by the rules,” such as by delaying parenthood, going to college and getting married. Poverty itself holds people back from achieving those goals, and there simply aren’t enough well-paying jobs for all who need them and are able to take them.
What people need instead of cuts to SNAP and intrusions into their reproductive decisions is access to employment, housing, food and health care. A meaningful and effective anti-poverty campaign would affirm the dignity and rights of those whom society has historically deemed disposable.