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It’s Not Just About the Money: Governmentality and Resistance in Post-Reform Welfare Offices (WP-06-17)

Celeste Watkins

The substantial decline in the welfare rolls, expansion of collecting child support, and increased labor-force participation among low-income mothers in the late 1990s demonstrated that welfare reform, along with a booming economy, compelled many welfare recipients to restructure their relationships with the state. This working paper draws upon Foucaultian concepts of “governmentality” and “resistance” to explore how power and regulation were deployed in local welfare offices in ways that encouraged these outcomes. It uses interview data from 30 female clients who participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program along with ethnographic data collected in some of the TANF offices frequented by study participants. It considers the governance of low-income mothers within (and outside of) these institutions and explores how women who relied on these bureaucracies read and responded to attempts to transform their conduct.

Analysis shows that a casework model of surveillance-based support and cultural narratives about impoverished mothers were deployed to justify and enforce the new welfare policy. The working paper also examines the ways that TANF-reliant mothers contested or co-signed regulation through their engagement with the office, including methods that might be considered subversive or even “deviant.” It analyzes “the concealment strategy,” the calculated presentation of information regarding one’s case to a welfare caseworker, and the purposeful omission or alteration of details. The author contemplates whether and how this might be conceptualized as not only a choice driven by economics, but also as a form of resistance to increasing social regulation.

Celeste Watkins, Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University

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