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Social Text 18.1 (2000) 109-134

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The State, the Clock, and the Struggle:
An Inquiry into the Discipline for Welfare Reform in Montana

Janet L. Finn and Lyne Underwood


"Ending welfare as we know it" has become the mantra of U.S. social welfare policy in the 1990s. Structural understandings of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment have been disparaged or ignored in favor of behavioral judgments of the poor in the rhetoric of public policy makers. 1 State after state has taken up the cause of "workfare," mandatory labor in exchange for limited public assistance. The state of Montana is no exception to the national trend. In 1995, the state of Montana began to implement Families Achieving Independence in Montana (FAIM), a federally sanctioned, state-based alternative to the welfare reform policy laid out in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). In keeping with the spirit of dominant discourses, FAIM's stated goal is the replacement of "welfare dependency" with "self-sufficiency."

In this essay we examine the crafting of FAIM and the concomitant disciplinary practices that state welfare administrators imposed in the implementation of welfare reform in Montana. Particular attention is paid to the strategies and tactics employed in the disciplining of welfare workers who bear the most direct burden of responsibility for implementing the "reforms." Central to FAIM is the stated goal of "changing the culture of the welfare office." We address the varied efforts by state administrators to articulate and realize this goal; the range of disciplinary practices imposed on both welfare workers and welfare recipients in the process of implementing FAIM; the contested discourses and actions surrounding this goal; and the forms of struggle emerging on multiple fronts in response to welfare reform.

This essay is the product of ongoing dialogue among welfare insiders and outsiders during the course of FAIM's development and implementation. Janet L. Finn, a professor of social work and anthropology at the University of Montana at the time of this study, began tracing the politics and history of FAIM in 1995 through her course Gender and the Politics of Welfare. In 1996-97, Finn worked as a co-investigator on a pilot study that brought university students and faculty, welfare recipients, and local service providers together to assess the impacts of FAIM on community-based organizations and public assistance recipients. 2 She also served on the advisory board to a local welfare advocacy organization and has participated [End Page 109] with its members in developing community forums and legislative initiatives related to welfare reform. Lyne Underwood worked as an eligibility technician (frontline welfare worker responsible for determining one's eligibility for public assistance) for the Missoula County Office of Public Assistance for five years. In 1996, as part of the implementation of FAIM, Underwood's job title changed to "FAIM coordinator," and her responsibilities were reconfigured to emphasize the goals of "ending welfare as we know it." Underwood left her job as a FAIM coordinator in January 1999 to pursue her interest in bilingual education. Finn and Underwood began their ongoing conversations about welfare reform in 1995 while working together in a local social justice organization. The dialogue expanded through Underwood's participation as a member of Finn's Gender and the Politics of Welfare course in the fall of 1998.

This essay draws from the authors' direct participation in diverse aspects of FAIM's implementation; media accounts of welfare reform; FAIM newsletters and policy documents; and interviews with welfare recipients. We argue that local public assistance offices and the state-sanctioned policies and practices that inform and constrain them are key sites for examining and engaging with the disciplinary practices and struggles of late capitalism. 3 Newsletters and policy documents produced by the state welfare department offer critical windows into understanding the making of certain kinds of welfare workers armed with the ideological and material resources and authority to (re)form particular kinds of welfare recipients--conscientious clock-watchers, collaborators in their own...


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