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Women in the American Welfare Trap

By Catherine Kingfisher

Publication Year: 2011

In the United States, a majority of the poor and those who work with the poor are women. Recipients of public assistance and the welfare workers who serve them are both trapped at the bottom of the American welfare system. How do they perceive their place in society? How do they assess their self-worth in the hierarchy of a bureaucratic system? In this ethnographic study of a welfare office and two welfare rights groups, Catherine Pelissier Kingfisher addresses these issues in a thought-provoking analysis, based on the women's conversations with each other.

Women in the American Welfare Trap addresses a range of significant issues: policy formation and implementation, the role of men in women's economic lives, low-income women's beliefs and aspirations, and the possibilities for women cooperatively working to change the welfare system. Indeed, Kingfisher demonstrates that women who are often viewed as victims without control actively work within the confines of the system to exert their autonomy.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

This book, like most of life's projects, is a coproduction. It is, perhaps, a cultural peculiarity that we claim ownership of what we produce, and that we often privilege single authorship of books, poems, paintings, and songs over collective production. Even at the level of the actual writing...

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1. Producing the World in Everyday Talk

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pp. 1-15

Rita Moore and Judy Reynolds sat on opposite sides of the table in the vast bureaucracy known in the United States as "welfare." Rita, a diabetic in her late twenties, had been on and off the welfare rolls for almost ten years; she had experienced battering, divorce, rape, and homelessness...

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2. The Welfare Trap I: Recipients

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pp. 16-42

The 79 recipients I worked with can be divided into two groups, reflecting the women's differing degrees of involvement with welfare rights and in the study. I spent the most time with (and thus focus my analysis on) 16 women, 6 of whom were core members of either the Madrid Welfare...

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3. A Tenuous Advocacy

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pp. 43-55

In his work on stigma, Coffman (1963) notes that one approach to managing what he calls "spoiled identity" consists of aligning oneself with groups of similarly situated individuals. This allows the otherwise stigmatized individuals to construct a universe in which they have legitimacy...

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4. "Us"

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pp. 56-71

The above are typical of the negative responses I received from acquaintances when I told them about this study. The key issue in all of the responses is abuse of the system. The second and third examples, for instance, portray a flagrant misuse of funds intended for basic necessities...

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5. "Them"

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pp. 72-81

The women's characterizations of Assistance Payments workers were overwhelmingly negative. Attributes they assigned to workers, listed in order of frequency, included the following: workers are arbitrary; they don't explain things; they are nice and helpful; they punish you if you...

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6. The Welfare Trap II: Workers

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pp. 82-97

Just as poverty is feminized, so the majority of front-line workers in the U.S. welfare system are women (Ehrenreich and Piven 1984; Fraser 1989; Gordon 1990; Withorn 1984). Women's associations with public assistance in this study were thus not limited to receiving it, but included...

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7. Good and (Mostly) Bad Clients

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pp. 98-116

In the last chapter, I explored the various pressures experienced by AP workers in the Kenyon County welfare office. At the most general level, the women shared the constraints of occupational segregation and a household division of labor in which they were assigned primary responsibility...

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8. Further Productions: Attitudes and Policy

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pp. 117-130

All of the workers in the Kenyon County welfare office had difficulties with management, work loads, and clients. They all participated in constructing deserving and (mostly) undeserving clients. There were, however, two distinct worker cultures in the office which workers...

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9. Trapped as They Are

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pp. 131-156

When Anne made the above comment she was expressing comembership. Specifically, workers and recipients are the same insofar as both are trapped in the welfare system, and both suffer from an "overwhelming sense of powerlessness." These feelings of entrapment and powerlessness...

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10. Conclusions

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pp. 157-161

At the end of the day, nothing much changed. The hierarchical relationship between workers and recipients, and between each group of women and the welfare bureaucracy, remains intact. The counter-hegemonic discourses produced by the women in this study have not overturned the...

Appendix A

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pp. 163-188

Appendix B

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pp. 189-194


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pp. 195-201


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pp. 203-206

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202465
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812215151

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poor women -- United States.
  • Welfare recipients -- United States.
  • Human services personnel -- United States.
  • Public welfare -- United States.
  • Aid to families with dependent children programs -- United States.
  • Welfare rights movement -- United States.
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