Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

Excerpt

Mention the word welfare in a room full of people in the United States and you can expect to see brows furrow and mouths tighten in disgust. Welfare, the colloquial term for some public benefits in the United States, no longer holds its original meaning: well-being. Instead, it has become a pejorative term used to label “welfare mothers” or “welfare queens.” And while welfare use has always carried the stigma of poverty, it now also bears the stigma of criminality.

Welfare rules assume the criminality of the poor. Indeed, the logics of crime control now reign supreme over efforts to reduce poverty or to ameliorate its effects. As government policies targeting the poor have changed with time, so have the experiences of poor families who use welfare. Many of today’s welfare policies are far removed from basic goals of ensuring the well-being of families. Rather, policies are, first and foremost, intended to deter welfare use, to guard against misuse, and to punish welfare cheating. Policing the poor and protecting taxpayer dollars from fraud and abuse have taken priority over providing security to economically vulnerable parents and children. Today’s welfare system treats those who use public benefits, or who even apply for benefits, as latent criminals. Nationwide, welfare recipients are treated as presumptive liars, cheaters, and thieves. Their lives are heavily surveilled and regulated, not only by the welfare system, but also by the criminal justice system. Changes in public attitudes and government practices have led to what can be described as the criminalization of poverty.

The term criminalization is used in this book to describe a web of state practices and policies related to welfare. There are several different strands of criminalization. First, there are a number of practices involving the stigmatization, surveillance, and regulation of the poor. These practices are historically embedded in aid programs to the poor but seem to be expanding.

Second, many welfare policies and practices assume a latent criminality among the poor. Reforms over the last two decades have been aimed at excluding from welfare those individuals who have engaged in illicit behavior in the . . .

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