We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

They Say Cutback, We Say Fight back!

Welfare Activism in an Era of Retrenchment

Ellen Reese

Publication Year: 2011

In 1996, President Bill Clinton hailed the “end of welfare as we know it” when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The law effectively transformed the nation’s welfare system from an entitlement to a work-based one, instituting new time limits on welfare payments and restrictions on public assistance for legal immigrants. In They Say Cutback, We Say Fight Back, Ellen Reese offers a timely review of welfare reform and its controversial design, now sorely tested in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The book also chronicles the largely untold story of a new grassroots coalition that opposed the law and continues to challenge and reshape its legacy. While most accounts of welfare policy highlight themes of race, class and gender, They Say Cutback examines how welfare recipients and their allies contested welfare reform from the bottom-up. Using in-depth case studies of campaigns in Wisconsin and California, Reese argues that a crucial phase in policymaking unfolded after the bill’s passage. As counties and states set out to redesign their welfare programs, activists scored significant victories by lobbying officials at different levels of American government through media outreach, protests and organizing. Such efforts tended to enjoy more success when based on broad coalitions that cut across race and class, drawing together a shifting alliance of immigrants, public sector unions, feminists, and the poor. The book tracks the tensions and strategies of this unwieldy group brought together inadvertently by their opposition to four major aspects of welfare reform: immigrants’ benefits, welfare-to-work policies, privatization of welfare agencies, and child care services. Success in scoring reversals was uneven and subject to local demographic, political and institutional factors. In California, for example, workfare policies created a large and concentrated pool of new workers that public sector unions could organize in campaigns to change policies. In Wisconsin, by contrast, such workers were scattered and largely placed in private sector jobs, leaving unions at a disadvantage. Large Latino and Asian immigrant populations in California successfully lobbied to restore access to public assistance programs, while mobilization in Wisconsin remained more limited. On the other hand, the unionization of child care providers succeeded in Wisconsin – but failed in California – because of contrasting gubernatorial politics. With vivid descriptions of the new players and alliances in each of these campaigns, Reese paints a nuanced and complex portrait of the modern American welfare state. At a time when more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, They Say Cutback offers a sobering assessment of the nation’s safety net. As policymakers confront budget deficits and a new era of austerity, this book provides an authoritative guide for both scholars and activists looking for lessons to direct future efforts to change welfare policy.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: A Volume in the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology

Title Page, Copyright, Foundation Information, Rose Series Information, Previous Volumes, Forthcoming volumes

pdf iconDownload PDF (101.9 KB)
pp. 1-10


pdf iconDownload PDF (12.1 KB)
pp. xi-xii

read more

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (16.6 KB)
pp. xiii-xiv



pdf iconDownload PDF (22.5 KB)
pp. xv-xvi

read more

Chapter 1. Welfare Reform and Its Challengers

pdf iconDownload PDF (311.6 KB)
pp. 1-21

Many books about the politics of welfare reform in the United States provide a top-down perspective. They tend to focus on the role that political, cultural, and economic elites have played in pushing for welfare reforms and in shaping the design of federal welfare reform acts—in particular, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).2 Similarly, both feminist and race-centered scholarship on welfare reform highlight the influence...

read more

Chapter 2. Policy Implementation as Policymaking: The Case of U.S. Welfare Reform

pdf iconDownload PDF (329.1 KB)
pp. 22-46

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, justified through all sorts of negative stereotypes of the poor, represented a massive defeat at the national level for welfare rights advocates. At the same time, the provision of state and local discretion over the design and implementation of welfare reform policies directed energy towards state and local campaigns. Thus, while federal welfare policies have historically pro-...

read more

Chapter 3. Challenging Welfare Racism: Cross-Racial Coalitions to Restore Legal Immigrants’ Benefits

pdf iconDownload PDF (399.1 KB)
pp. 47-71

In 1996, as mounting attacks on welfare recipients coincided with a backlash against immigrants, Congress denied federal public assistance to most legal non-citizen immigrants for their first five years in the country through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).3 This new rule applied to all four major public assistance programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families...

read more

Chapter 4. Battling the Welfare Profiteers: Campaigns Against Welfare Privatization

pdf iconDownload PDF (375.9 KB)
pp. 72-97

Scholars on “mixed governance” point to various forces that have contributed to support for the privatization of welfare and other social services in wealthy democratic countries since the 1980s. Declining tax bases and increased demands for state services, especially specialized services, put pressure on states to contract out services to

read more

Chapter 5. Confronting the Workfare State: Community and Labor Campaigns for Workfare Workers’ Rights

pdf iconDownload PDF (409.6 KB)
pp. 98-126

The expansion of welfare-to-work programs alarmed both union and welfare rights activists. They feared that welfare-to-work participants would become extremely exploited workers and that governments and other employers would use them to displace and erode the bargaining strength of higher-paid unionized workers. To address the problems

read more

Chapter 6. But Who Will Watch the Children? State and Local Campaigns to Improve Child Care Policies

pdf iconDownload PDF (550.5 KB)
pp. 127-165

In addition to sparking campaigns over workfare workers’ rights, the implementation of new welfare-to-work requirements also gave new life to long-standing struggles over policies that regulated the care of children. This chapter examines three types of struggles over child care policies that ensued in Wisconsin and California in the wake of welfare...

read more

Chapter 7. Challenges and Prospects for the Welfare Rights Movement

pdf iconDownload PDF (307.6 KB)
pp. 166-188

As other scholars have shown, the design of U.S. welfare policies, including those governing welfare-to-work programs, reflects the influence of dominant-class interests and ideologies: minimizing the redistribution of income, keeping the wage floor low, reinforcing the work ethic, normalizing forced work, and creating legal challenges for the enforcement of federal labor laws.1 Scholars have also documented how...


pdf iconDownload PDF (20.4 KB)
pp. 189-190


pdf iconDownload PDF (632.6 KB)
pp. 191-232


pdf iconDownload PDF (1007.0 KB)
pp. 233-274


pdf iconDownload PDF (228.3 KB)
pp. 275-286

E-ISBN-13: 9781610447485
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871547149

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: A Volume in the American Sociological Association’s Rose Series in Sociology