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| 155 7 Contextualizing Criminality, Noncompliance, and Resistance The recipients of largess themselves add to the powers of government by their uncertainty over their rights, and their efforts to please. Unsure of their ground, they are often unwilling to contest a decision. The penalties for being wrong, in terms of possible loss of largess in the future, are very severe. Instead of contesting, recipients are likely to be overzealous in their acceptance of government authority. —Charles Reich, “The New Property” Just as the network of power relations end by forming a dense web that passes through apparatuses and institutions, without being exactly localized in them, so too the swarm of points of resistance traverses social stratifications and individual unities. —Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Welfare reformers of the 1990s hoped to create a new welfare system that would appeal to individuals’ economic self-interest, a system that would spur the poor to leave the welfare system and assume the risks of the labor market. The simplistic model of welfare reform excluded a number of important factors. First, the economic needs of welfare recipients exceeded either the money they received from welfare or the money they would be likely to earn in the low-wage labor market. For many welfare recipients, making the transition from welfare to work simply meant making the transition from a consistent source of inadequate income to an inconsistent source of inadequate income. This was not a risk that some were willing to take. Second, most welfare recipients already had unreported sources of income. Entering the full-time wage labor market would limit the time they could devote to side jobs such as housecleaning, cooking, and doing hair. Earning wages, even if low, would also diminish their chances of calling on the sympathies of family and friends for additional economic support. 156 | Contextualizing Criminality, Noncompliance, and Resistance Third, family obligations made it difficult for many welfare recipients I interviewed to meet their thirty-two-hour-a week work requirements, much less work a full-time job. The time required for caring for young children , a widespread distrust of child care providers, and the high costs of child care diminished the willingness and ability of many recipients to seek wage work. Further, many of the interviewees were caring for children with disabilities or had disabilities themselves; still others were in substance abuse recovery programs. While the interviewees saw working as creating physical and mental risks for themselves and their children, this was not a risk generally recognized by policy makers who instituted welfare reform. Indeed, many interviewees were willing to take these risks, for example, sometimes leaving their children home alone at nights. Still, the risks of such actions were high, and many were unwilling to assume them. Fourth, many welfare recipients were so far from employable that an expectation for them to enter the workforce without intensive intervention was unreasonable . Homelessness, lack of job experience, and lack of job skills rendered self-support through employment nearly impossible for many of the interviewees. In sum, for many welfare recipients the risks of working outweighed the risks—and punishments—they faced under the reformed welfare system. Many of the interviewees were complying with the CalWORKs requirement by meeting or at least trying to meet their work requirements . Nonetheless, the larger welfare reform goal of having parents endure the risks of the wage labor market without the welfare safety net was not a shared goal, or at least an immediate goal, for most of the interviewees. This chapter examines welfare recipients’ resistance to and investment in law’s legitimacy when their formal compliance with the law was often tenuous. On Being the Object of the Criminalization of Poverty Bayview County spent three million dollars on its CalWORKs and food stamp fraud investigation units in 2002-3. Thousands of California welfare recipients were swept up in welfare fraud investigations and prosecutions in the first five years after federal welfare reform. The aggregate numbers, however , fail to reveal how individuals become entangled in welfare fraud and welfare fraud investigations and prosecutions. Contextualizing Criminality, Noncompliance, and Resistance | 157 Fraud Investigations Many low-income mothers find themselves the targets of welfare investigations . While welfare fraud has not been a cause for feminist advocates or an area of inquiry for feminist social scientists, it is becoming a growing women’s issue. In Bayview County, hundreds of women each year have their lives opened up and disrupted through fraud investigations and prosecutions . While the state of...


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