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Social and Legal Studies. Volume 13, Number 2 (2004), p. 219-243.


The dismantling and restructuring of Keynesian social security programmes have impacted disproportionately on women, especially lone parent mothers, and shifted public discourse and social images from welfare fraud to welfare as fraud, thereby linking poverty, welfare and crime. This article analyzes the current, inordinate focus on 'welfare cheats'. The criminalization of poverty raises theoretical and empirical questions related to regulation, control, and the relationship between them at particular historical moments. Moral regulation scholars working within post-structuralist and post-modern frameworks have developed an influential approach to these issues,however, we situate ourselves in a different stream of critical socio-legal studies that takes as its point of departure the efficacy, contradictions and inherently social nature of law in a given social formation. With reference to the historical treatment of poor women on welfare, we develop three themes in our critical review of the moral regulation concept: the conceptualization of welfare and welfare law, as illustrated by welfare fraud, the relationship between social and moral with respect to the role of law, and changing forms of the relationship between state and non-state institutions and agencies. We conclude with comments on the utility of a 'materialist' concept of moral regulation for feminist theorizing.

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