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Living on the Edge in Suburbia

From Welfare to Workfare

Terese Lawinski

Publication Year: 2010

Westchester County, New York, is thought of as suburban and affluent, but welfare reform hit hard here, too. The radical 1996 legislation created a temporary assistance program for poor families with harsher provisions than the program it replaced. It mandates "workfare," meaning that recipients must work as a condition of benefit receipt. But the work parents obtain in the so-called flexible labor market--jobs like home health care aide--are inflexible for them. One sick child can mean the loss of a job. In contrast to accounts of inner-city poor families, these suburban parents' stories reveal a broad array of precipitating circumstances leading to their downward economic slide and to welfare. They also provide insight into the bureaucratic machinations, rigid rules and mandates, disciplining techniques, and catch-22s that create an insecure environment for many families today. Many of these stories show that the need for welfare over time extends well beyond the federal government's five-year lifetime limit on welfare. Policies emphasizing work first also restrict access to education and further hinder parents' ability to gain a toehold in the economy. In this tale of people and policies, the author shows how the interests of governments are often at variance with those of vulnerable families, and how some government actions place more pressure on lives replete with stress.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

My relationship with Westchester County began in 1989 shortly after I met Steve Sullivan, when he picked me up from the train station and took me on a sunset driving tour of the village that I would move to a year later. That evening I did not see the poverty in the cities, nor did I imagine that I would come to study poverty in this wealthy county fifteen years hence...

List of Abbreviations

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p. xi

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-10

It was a few weeks before the November 2008 elections and the country was in the throes of an economic meltdown. I was seated among a small group of New Yorkers at a community meeting hosted by an antipoverty advocacy organization. The public was invited to engage in a dialogue with selected state legislative candidates on several issues pertaining to economic security...

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2. Living on the Edge in Suburbia

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pp. 11-22

I covered a lot of ground on foot and in my car uncovering poverty in affluent Westchester County. On my drive to see Latrice Parker at her apartment for a follow-up interview, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up a gallon of milk and apple juice as a small hostess gift. She had asked me to call her when I arrived in her neighborhood...

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3. From Welfare to Workfare

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pp. 23-34

A woman who lived in an affluent community called me to say that she spotted my flyer on the bulletin board of her neighborhood supermarket and was interested in scheduling an interview. As was my customary gesture to callers, I suggested that we pick a meeting place conveniently located close to her...

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4. The Business of Welfare

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pp. 35-67

In New York the business of welfare is primarily conducted within the Department of Social Services (DSS) in the counties. Poor people meet staff to apply for public assistance benefits, deliver requested documentation for eligibility and status changes, recertify for continued benefits, and conduct other related business. At a DSS Service Center (welfare office) a typical scene is of people waiting...

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5. Family Needs versus Welfare Limits

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pp. 68-88

The earlier snapshots of the suburban families and the experiences of recipients conducting their welfare-related business offer a glimpse of individuals’ lives and stresses. Latrice Parker experienced the effects of trauma as a teen when her family and home life became destabilized after her mother’s death. Her abandonment, weak family supports...

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6. Insecurity and Inflexibility of "Flexible" Labor

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pp. 89-125

Harriett Robinson was a homemaker for five years after her first child was born. She started working in the telemarketing industry in the late 1980s and recalled that her first check was $511 for her first two weeks of employment. She worked in telemarketing for about ten years. From the time of her first pregnancy, she relied on some form of public assistance. For the past four years, Harriett has been working...

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7. Work First, Workfare, and Education

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pp. 126-149

Personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and work-first ideologies are manifested in federal and state welfare legislation, policies, language, bureaucrats’ attitudes, workfare requirements, and even welfare office decor. In a New York DSS Service Center, framed posters on the waiting room walls inscribe an ideology of personal responsibility in English and Spanish...

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8. Divergent Interests

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pp. 150-161

A primary interest of the suburban parents that I met is to provide for the family and, as some have said, “do what I have to do.” For most people that meant working, rotating between the employment and the social service systems, and augmenting income with or solely relying on public assistance benefits, as well as deploying emergency and ongoing strategies to get by. For many, one such strategy is reliance on a network of kin support...

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Epilogue: A New Era—A Global Economic Crisis and the Obama Administration

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pp. 163-167

If ever there were a moment that illustrates inequality in the United States, we see it in the government’s response to the catastrophic economic meltdown during the final months of the Bush administration. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was signed by President Bush in October 2008. Almost overnight the federal government passed legislation to spend $700 billion to aid the failing economy...


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pp. 169-177


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pp. 179-188


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pp. 189-196

E-ISBN-13: 9780826517012
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516992
Print-ISBN-10: 0826516998

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 709606126
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Living on the Edge in Suburbia

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public welfare -- New York (State) -- Westchester County.
  • Welfare recipients -- New York (State) -- Westchester County -- Case studies.
  • Welfare recipients -- Employment -- New York (State) -- Westchester County -- Case studies.
  • Suburbanites -- New York (State) -- Westchester County -- Economic conditions -- Case studies.
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