Demonizing the Poor

Harsh restrictions on welfare don't limit fraud and abuse. They advance the interests of the rich and powerful.

Outside a New York welfare office in December 1974.

In April, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a new set of welfare rules titled, with an Orwellian flourish, the HOPE Act. The measure, Brownback stated, “provides an opportunity for success. It’s about the dignity of work and helping families move from reliance on a government pittance to becoming self-sufficient by developing the skills to find a well-paying job and build a career.”

Yet as critics were quick to point out, the new law was clearly more about limiting poor people’s decisions than about building their careers. The HOPE Act prohibits Kansas welfare recipients from withdrawing more than $25 in benefits per day and makes it illegal to spend public aid on jewelry, tattoos, massages, spa treatments, lingerie, tobacco, movies, bail bonds, arcade games, visits to swimming pools, fortunetellers, amusement parks, or ocean cruises.

Not to be outdone by their neighbor, Missouri’s legislators were soon debating whether to prohibit the use of foods stamps (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) for lobster as well as cookies, chips, energy drinks, and steak.

Federal rules may make it hard to put such restrictions into practice, as Florida officials have discovered after repeatedly mandating an invasive drug-testing regime for welfare recipients, but the feds can hardly be counted on for opposition. Last year Congress expanded its long list of welfare restrictions, prohibiting the withdrawal of cash welfare benefits at casinos, liquor stores, or strip clubs. As of April, twenty-three states had imposed additional limits on the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, and eighteen other states were considering the same.

For years state lawmakers have piled on these sorts of rules, creating a great wave of prohibitions, with drug-based denials of aid the most popular ban of choice. Things have gotten so bad that in May the Huffington Post ran an article titled “Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People on Welfare Eat and Pee.” When The Onion lampooned the new rules with an August article titled “New Law Requires Welfare Recipients To Submit Sweat To Prove How Hard They’re Looking For Job,” the line between satire and news had never seemed thinner.

Lobster dinners and drug binges. Casino romps followed by a morning at the spa. Perhaps an ocean cruise and then a quick stop at the fortuneteller before heading to the jewelry store. Can policymakers actually believe that welfare recipients squander their government benefits on such luxury items?

Perhaps. In the US, outrageous stories that demonize the poor and mythical tales of lavish state handouts to the undeserving are rarely in short supply. Even in the best of times the poor are denigrated in popular narratives, and during times of rising inequality and insecurity the poorest are easy scapegoats.

When economic anxieties spread, political entrepreneurs start peddling the same old stories and slanders, polishing them up as newly discovered social problems that demand get-tough solutions. Conjuring images of lavish and irresponsible lifestyles, critics in media and government deride the folly of public aid programs, ridiculing them as counterproductive and costly drains on the nation. Public officials are called upon to show they mean business, and many are eager to lead the legislative charge.

Nonetheless, to many liberal observers, the outlandish new aid rules have seemed hard to fathom. They are quick to point out that the calls for new restrictions are unfounded, irrational, and likely to cause great suffering.

Given the pittance provided, why bother to ban lobster dinners and ocean cruises? Miserly public benefits could never bankroll such splendid purchases. (In 2014, the monthly cash benefit for families averaged about $230 in Kansas and $227 in Missouri; in 2013, the monthly food stamp benefit for families averaged $124.68 in Kansas and $128.04 in Missouri).

With all we know about poverty and public policy, what could these legislators possibly hope to accomplish? Do they just hate the poor? Have the fevers of right-wing ideology consumed their ability to think reasonably about social policy? Many liberals respond to the draconian new laws as if they were just the latest right-wing outrage of the day, posting stories about them to social media with a shake-my-head comment.

It’s fair enough to say that the new welfare restrictions are unwarranted and cruel. But we should not confuse such criticisms with a political analysis of why such policies are pursued, whom they benefit and harm, and how they matter for power and position in the American political economy. Whatever may be going on in the hearts and minds of particular legislators, the paternalistic welfare rules being debated across the states today are far from novel and, in fact, far from irrational.

They are new variants of old practices that work to shore up work compliance, service business interests, impose moral programs on the poor, and strengthen broader political alliances and agendas.

To make sense of them, we need to place them in a historical context and clarify how conflicts over “welfare” matter for the organization of the political economy. To dismiss stigmatizing welfare restrictions as nutty or stupid expressions of political extremism is to miss the important political, economic, and cultural work they accomplish. In the United States today, three dimensions of this work merit special attention.

Makers, Takers, and Welfare Queens

Let’s face it,” the literary critic Hortense Spillers wrote in 1987. “I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name . . . I describe a locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.”

So it is with the proverbial welfare queen, the criminal super-predator, and the illegal immigrant — the mythical underclass of tangled pathologies, crack babies, and deadbeat dads. These are among the grandest of red herrings in our national treasury of rhetorical wealth, indispensable for the neoliberal age of American capitalism.

Now as in the past, such images serve powerful ideological functions. As the richest Americans have mobilized to hoard wealth and power in recent decades, the middle and working classes have fallen into an extended era of precarity and anxiety.

Now as in the past, elites have rolled out tales of a parasitic and undeserving poor to deflect public anger from themselves. Lazy and criminal “takers” who abuse the goodwill of hardworking taxpayers are offered up as a handy scapegoat for the new hard times and a ready explanation for fiscal shortfalls.

Deeply racialized stories of a threatening underclass captivate the public imagination, while on the periphery lobbyists and public officials rewrite policies and administrative procedures to redistribute wealth upward. The welfare queen and the street criminal are brandished to discredit progressive redistribution, pare back social protections, and justify ever-tougher modes of policing and social control.

What must be understood, then, is the critical role that controversial policy proposals play in constructing this political spectacle. For many observers, it’s easier to see how racial stereotypes and stigmatized images of the poor are used to advance policy agendas than to recognize the reverse — the powerful ways that policies and their rationales work to cultivate racial understandings and images of the poor.

While public policies dispense material benefits and burdens, they also perform a symbolic politics. Policies that force the poor to work send a powerful signal that they would not work unless forced to do so. Proposals that target social groups for special efforts to police irresponsible and criminal behavior tell the public how members of these groups behave. Needless restrictions on welfare recipients’ profligate ways demonize their targets (widely perceived as poor and black or Latino) and focus public attention on reforming their alleged pathologies.

The more outlandish such policies are, the more they distract citizens from real injustices and turn them into passive spectators of political theater. Lobster, in this sense, is just the newest red herring, trotted out to deflect public anger and justify cracking down.

As they carry out this political work, aggressive policies of social control also put established race, gender, and class prejudices into circulation, often in ways that update their content and reinforce their power. The repetitive ritual of getting tough on the poor is, as many critics point out, a form of “dog-whistle politics,” successfully mobilizing racial resentments in a society where explicitly racist appeals are usually condemned.

The “welfare queen” and the “criminal thug” — infamous, gender-stereotyped paragons of a deviant and threatening blackness — do the symbolic lifting for a politics that dares not reveal its own racism. Together, they evoke a potent stew of class, gender, and racial biases, deepening divisions among potential allies as they smooth the way for an ugly assortment of partisan and policy goals.

As restrictions on gambling, drugs, and luxury purchases insert themselves in the popular consciousness, they turn the realities of most poor people’s lives upside down. They are mystifying stereotypes made concrete, impugning the character and dignity of single mothers who struggle daily to support their families.

Large numbers of women who seek welfare benefits do so to escape abusive relationships. Absent the stain of “welfare,” their efforts to extricate themselves and their children from dangerous situations might be seen as courageous acts of parental responsibility and independence.

Instead, the very benefits that allow them to light out on their own testify to their personal irresponsibility and involvement in a collective culture of dependence.

Women in welfare programs use drugs and give birth to children at lower rates than women in the population overall, but never mind the facts — political rhetoric and policies focused on changing “bad behaviors” easily invert these realities. The mythical addiction known as “welfare dependency” remains a subject of endless fascination, even as the vast majority of poor women actively participate in the paid labor force.

In the post-welfare-reform era, work is the norm for women receiving cash aid or food stamps. But whether they are receiving aid or not, these women remain mired in a labor market that offers low-skilled workers only poverty-level wages and benefits.

Employers churn through waiting pools of disadvantaged workers, who take their turns navigating jobs with unpredictable and insufficient hours that offer practically no opportunity for advancement.

Welfare is typically just one income source among many for poor women trying to cobble together enough money to live — a supplement to formal employment, informal work, social sources of support, and others. Yet the symbolic power of welfare blots out all the rest, rendering them dependent on government and demonizing their very identities as women and mothers.

To observe these political functions and effects, however, is not the same as explaining why politicians in both parties return time and again to the playbook of disciplinary welfare interventions.

For that, one must look to the strategic partisan objectives such policy agendas serve — the political method beneath the policy madness. As we argue in our recent book Disciplining the Poor (co-authored with Richard Fording), the political logic of these initiatives is deeply embedded in the terms of contemporary party competition. It flows from the coalitions of interests that define, constrain, and position the two major political parties.

In an era of party polarization and government deadlock, the turn toward draconian poverty governance has been an unusually cooperative, bipartisan affair. Republicans led the way, of course. Barry Goldwater’s “law and order” campaign for the presidency in 1964 led to President Nixon’s declaration of a “war on crime” and call to “clean up the welfare mess.”

President Reagan doubled down in the 1980s by inventing the iconic Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” and mobilizing law enforcement for a new “war on drugs.” Republican candidates at all levels of government scored big political points by tarring Democrats as “soft on crime” and eager to give handouts to the undeserving poor.

As Republicans succeeded with this strategy, growing numbers of Democrats in the 1980s became eager to take these political clubs away from the competition. With Bill Clinton and others at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council taking the lead, Democrats began to advance modified versions of Republican ideas as their own and echo calls for tough new approaches to “underclass pathologies.”

After making the promise to “end welfare as we know it” a centerpiece of his 1992 campaign, Clinton oversaw the abolition of the federal entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the creation of a tough new behavior-centered welfare regime, and a slew of policy and practical advancements in the construction of mass incarceration. Thus, for many years now, the color of punitive poverty governance has not been red or blue; it has been, as sociologist Joshua Page argues, purple.

Still, the two major parties continue to have distinct relationships to poverty, welfare, and criminal justice. Get-tough agendas remain deeply divisive within the Democratic Party, and have the potential to disrupt fragile electoral and legislative coalitions. When the party bucked its southern wing and acceded to the demands of an insurgent civil rights movement in the 1960s, it produced a group of disaffected white voters ripe for Republican picking.

Nixon’s “southern strategy” exploited this opening to draw over white voters below the Mason-Dixon line, and Republicans ever since have successfully deployed racialized images of social disorder among the poor as a powerful wedge issue against their opponents.

Leaders of the Democratic Party today remain traumatized by these experiences and, accordingly, approach welfare and criminal justice issues from an anxious and defensive stance. Their participation in disciplining the poor is considerable, but it is usually a tortured affair in which fearful politicians try to avoid any appearance of “softness” while assuaging angry voices of dissent from the left wing of the party’s coalition.

By contrast, policy debates centered on “the pathological poor” have been uniquely attractive to Republicans, helping assemble and cement the disparate factions of their coalition. Like the New Deal coalition that preceded it, the Republican coalition that rose to power after the 1960s — primarily business interests, religious and moral conservatives, racist reactionaries, and neoconservatives — was never easy or obvious. It depended on suppressing divisive issues and focusing on issues where unity could be forged.

Stories of social disorder in the racialized “underclass” played a special role in this process. They could be used to advance business goals by disparaging tax-and-transfer systems and by providing grist for arguments against shielding people from the motivating effects of market pressures.

It spoke directly to neoconservative anxieties about the breakdown of authority and aspirations for a strong state pursuing moral ends. It mobilized racial conservatives through a broad discourse of “social disorder” that connected welfare dependency and street crime to the practices of social protest, urban unrest, and civil disobedience associated with racial justice movements. It equally aligned with social conservatives’ goals of promoting virtuous self-discipline, personal responsibility, and “traditional values” such as work and marriage.

After decades of returning to this well, contemporary Republicans frequently do it out of habit. Welfare-bashing is bread-and-butter partisan politics, a go-to play in the electoral playbook selected even by Republicans who haven’t worked out a broader, intentional strategy.

In states like Kansas, Missouri, and Florida today, we are witnessing partisan uses of dog-whistle politics that reflect the structure of party competition and have become institutionalized over time.

The Material Politics of Welfare

The politics of welfare-bashing is symbolically powerful, but it is also materially consequential. Since the 1970s, political victories have concentrated wealth and political power at the top of American society, and tax cuts for the rich have pushed state governments into perpetual fiscal crises.

Public officials today are under strong pressure to bring budgets into line and, with powerful political forces arrayed against raising tax revenues, predictably look to cut expenditures on the disadvantaged.

Overt program and benefit cuts are the most visible responses, but they are also the most likely to arouse opposition. Policies designed to limit fraud and regulate how benefits are used can often achieve the same goals — and avoid the potential political liabilities of appearing cold-hearted.

“I support helping people in need,” the old standby goes, “I just want to make sure benefits go to the people who truly need them and don’t encourage bad choices that will trap them in poverty.”

In their landmark book Regulating the Poor, first published in 1971, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward provide a powerful analysis of how stigmatizing welfare rules advance the process of welfare contraction.

Although program benefits may remain in the letter of the law, forces that deter eligible people from claiming benefits or drive existing recipients out of program caseloads can substantially erode their availability and value in practice.

The public promotion of stigmatizing new welfare rules can demonize welfare usage to the point where even the most desperate eligible people resist claiming them. And just as allegations of voter fraud can be used as a pretext for new rules that limit voting rights and access, campaigns to combat welfare fraud give rise to new methods for denying applicants, threatening recipients with the specter of criminal punishment, and subjecting clients to all manner of degrading questions and check-ups.

Viewed from this perspective, bans on lobster dinners and family visits to the public swimming pool take on greater material significance. Over the past two decades, a dizzying array of denigrating welfare rules and restrictions has taken a steep toll on welfare participation rates.

Today, the percentage of eligible families receiving benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is just 40 percent — a level not seen since the early 1960s, before low-income Americans attained any semblance of welfare rights.

In the mid-1960s, Piven and Cloward estimated that only about half of those eligible for public assistance were receiving it. By the early 1970s, after the policy and legal victories of the Civil Rights and Welfare Rights movements, over 90 percent of those eligible were receiving assistance.

Remarkably, these higher participation rates held on into the 1990s, even as public officials allowed inflation to cut the real value of welfare benefits in half and began to focus more attention on “bad behavior.”

Federal welfare reform in 1996, however, was a game-changer. A torrent of new behavioral restrictions and degrading procedures emerged across the states. Predictably, the percentage of income-eligible families receiving public assistance declined from 84 percent to 40 percent between 1995 and 2005.

Although levels of need expanded greatly during the Great Recession that began in late 2007, TANF caseloads largely held steady at these low rates, leading most policy analysts to conclude that participation among income-eligible families have declined even further.

In the years since federal welfare reform, the size of the TANF block grant that funds aid for poor families with children has not been adjusted for inflation. As a result, its purchasing power has declined by about 25 percent since 1998 (the first full year the program was in full operation in the States). In 2013, federal expenditures on TANF fell to $17 billion, its lowest level in seventeen years.

Make no mistake: The steady accumulation of degrading rules and procedures has combined with the recurrent demonization of welfare itself to deter people in need from signing up for benefits, suppress welfare spending, and reduce fiscal pressures for taxes on the rich.

What happens to all these people in need who are poor enough to qualify for benefits but do not receive them? In our present era of mass imprisonment and criminal control, far too many get swept up into the vast apparatus of the carceral state.

Most, however, do what poor people denied aid have always done: they join the ranks of the most desperate job-seekers, willing to take the worst jobs and fearful of doing anything that might raise the ire of the low-wage employers on which they depend.

Profiting From the Poor

Over the past four decades, neoliberalism has become the default logic of poverty governance. The boundary between state and market has become blurred, as privatization and cross-sector collaboration have become the norm and the state itself has been restructured to follow market logics, buttress market forces, and service dominant market actors.

As the state has been marketized, its welfare operations have been redesigned to generate profitable sites for corporate investment and services for employers. Thus, even as welfare programs have continued to serve low-wage labor markets by excluding and expelling people in need, they have also become their own markets for “spinning the poor into gold.”

Today, private welfare contractors — like their counterparts in the private prison industry — run their agencies as businesses undertaken to generate profits, and in welfare programs around the nation, a wide assortment of other market interests gather at the banks of the budgetary stream, hoping to turn social needs into revenue.

Indeed, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that many of the new welfare restrictions being rolled out across the states are, in fact, designed to shift expenditures from the poor to corporate interests.

Today, for example, welfare programs in thirty-seven states deliver benefits via EBT cards, through systems administered by private banks that charge for their services. Kansas lawmakers’ fealty to banking interests was even more apparent, dictating under the HOPE Act that recipients could only withdraw $25 in welfare benefits per day (which is actually $20 a day from ATMs that do not dispense five-dollar bills).

The provision mandates repeated banking transactions, with the government adding a one-dollar charge on top of the bank’s ATM fee and ensuring that both charges are deducted directly from the welfare recipient’s benefit amount. The banks are paid additional welfare funds to run the benefit delivery system and also profit from the large number of welfare recipients who lack bank accounts and are forced to open one with a contracted institution.

Similar stories accompany many of the new behavioral rules and surveillance procedures in state welfare programs. Mandatory drug testing, for example, has repeatedly been exposed as a sham, with very small numbers of welfare recipients testing positive and costs to taxpayers exceeding any savings from denials of benefits.

Yet despite these dismal results and a series of legal decisions suggesting the requirement is probably unconstitutional, Republican lawmakers continue to push drug-testing regimes for welfare recipients.

In addition to working as a political strategy, these provisions generate lucrative contracts for corporate providers. In one of the most notorious cases, Florida Gov. Rick Scott transferred his $62 million worth of shares in Soltanic Corp. to his wife just three months before mandating that welfare recipients and state employees undergo drug-testing procedures provided, in substantial part, by the very same Soltanic Corp.

A Feature, Not A Bug

It’s easy to shake our heads in dismay when conservative lawmakers foam at the mouth about poor people spending their welfare benefits on things like cruises and fortunetellers. But we should resist the liberal urge to dismiss these new welfare rules as nothing more than ill-informed extremism, contradicted by well-established facts.

The new strictures being passed by state governments reflect important political forces and do important political work. They shore up and mobilize the conservative coalition, uniting its disparate elements against the common enemy of the undeserving poor. They cultivate popular understandings and resentments that transform the political landscape while dividing potential allies in the fight for social justice.

They make it harder for families in need to gain access to assistance and, by pushing desperate people into the labor market, work to suppress wages. They are engines of corporate profit in a welfare system increasingly designed to service market interests.

Outlandish welfare restrictions, then, are not a bug in the political economy of social policy today — they are its defining feature.