Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare Reform

Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare Reform

Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare Reform

Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare Reform


"Original and insightful.Not Workingis a powerful book, connecting theories of the state, citizenship, and globalization with first rate ethnography. It is an instant classic and will remain the definitive book on immigrant women and welfare reform for some time." - Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, author of Dom'stica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence

"A smart, engaging, and groundbreaking study that exposes the racist underpinnings of welfare reform. A model of stellar scholarship and a must read for anyone seeking to understand poverty in relation to the meaning of American citizenship today." - Arlene Davila, author of Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City

"This highly significant contribution assures that Latina immigrants will no longer be invisible in scholarly research on welfare reform. This superb ethnography establishes a clear connection to the political, legal, and economic realities that is needed in reassessing the success stories of welfare reform. It should be read by all those concerned with social inequality, poverty, and justice in America." - Mary Romero, author of Maid in the U.S.A

"Not Workingis an empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated study of welfare reform's deleterious effects on immigrant Latinas struggling to make a life for themselves and their children. This is an incredibly compelling ethnography." - Sanford F. Schram, author of After Welfare: The Culture of Postindustrial Social Policy

Not Working chronicles the devastating effects of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that ended welfare as we know it. For those who now receive public assistance, "work" means pleading with supervisors for full-time hours, juggling ever-changing work schedules, and shuffling between dead-end jobs that leave one physically and psychically exhausted. Through vivid story-telling and pointed analysis,Not Workingprofiles the day-to-day struggles of Mexican immigrant women in the Los Angeles area, showing the increased vulnerability they face in the welfare office and labor market. The new "work first" policies now enacted impose time limits and mandate work requirements for those receiving public assistance, yet fail to offer real job training or needed childcare options, ultimately causing many families to fall deeper below the poverty line. Not Workingshows that the new "welfare-to-work" regime has produced tremendous instability and insecurity for these women and their children. Moreover, the authors argue that the new politics of welfare enable greater infringements of rights and liberty for many of America's most vulnerable and constitute a crucial component of the broader assault on American citizenship. In short, the new welfare is not working.


Myrna Cardenas and her three children live in a one-bedroom garden apartment in central Long Beach. With its collection of single-story row apartments organized around a communal courtyard landscaped with flowering bushes and imported palms, the “garden apartment complex” is a quintessential Southern California architectural form. Regional developers and architects of the early twentieth century drew upon the California landscape as a metaphor for the transformative power of this new American city, a classless society where newcomers could reinvent themselves and where even the most modest apartment renters, shut out of the dream of the single-family home, could enjoy a small patch of green outside their front door.

The courtyard complex where Myrna lives is located on the outskirts of Long Beach's renovated downtown shopping district and a few miles from one of the nation's busiest ports. This Spanish-style apartment complex was likely built to house sailors during the navy's heydays in Long Beach in the 1920s. Now, all of Myrna's neighbors in this apartment complex are migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During the weekdays, the courtyard feels abandoned; the muffled sounds of rancheras or midday telenovelas the only signs of life behind bolted doors and drawn curtains. In the evenings, however, the concrete walkway comes alive as residents open their doors to let in the ocean air, and sit on their front steps watching young children ride tricycles up to the front gate and back again.

In the 500-square-foot apartment that Myrna rents for $650 a month, a full-sized mattress is pushed up against the far wall of the living room for twelve-year-old Ana and five-year-old Jasmine. Their brother, James, a fourth-grade “citizen of the month” at Jefferson Elementary School, sleeps on a cot under the front window. Working 40-hour weeks at an Or-

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