Academic journal article Social Justice

Some New Killing Trick: Welfare Reform and Drug Markets in a US. Urban Ghetto

Academic journal article Social Justice

Some New Killing Trick: Welfare Reform and Drug Markets in a US. Urban Ghetto

Article excerpt


USING ETHNOGRAPHIC DATA COLLECTED OVER A PERIOD OF ALMOST FIVE YEARS, this article puts faces on statistics about decreasing welfare rolls. It details how eight inner-city youth in AIDS-afflicted families and subjected to the defunding of General Assistance in Michigan found alternative economic resources in drug markets. I articulate the growing irreconcilability between the realities of inner-city life and recent federal policies designed to further restrict the availability of resources to the poor. These policies include the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), (1) the denial of disability benefits to those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the partial recision of -- and extensive restrictions upon -- the Legal Services Corporation, including a specific prohibition against challenges to welfare reform.

The narrative voice briefly introduces participants who saw alternative economic activities involving drugs as their only hope for providing an AIDS-afflicted loved one with otherwise unavailable necessities. Part II situates these data within the larger project and discusses its design, data-gathering strategies, and analytic procedures. Part III juxtaposes the defunding mechanisms implemented in Michigan with the economics of inner-city Detroit. Part IV centers on the features of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, since national legislation replaced waivers granted under AFDC that served as welfare "reform" demonstration projects like the one in Michigan. In Part V, I argue that overwhelming evidence makes clear how concurrent social policies were designed to exacerbate the legal vulnerability of those at greatest economic risk. I conclude that young black people -- young black men in particular -- whose economic survival effectively relies on activities deemed cri minal were used as a wedge issue in the effort to rescind policies of redistributive justice.

Part I. The Narratives

Shit, man, I can't believe how fucking scared I was....

After what sounded like a gunshot ricochet, I rushed to the front porch, where all I could see was a burning cigarette tip, shaking uncontrollably. As my eyes adjusted to the total darkness of a street where street lamps had been shot out, I saw Erwin huddled in a corner, dressed all in black, holding his face between his hands and rocking hard.

Are you okay? Your mother and I were with Alesia, and everybody else was asleep and the noise on the porch made us hit the deck....

Erwin, whose family refuses to use his street name of "Squatter," (2) was 19 years old but looked about 12; he continued rocking. We sat together in silence for a while. Eventually, he said:

Fuck, man, t'ain't like the movies, man. I be so fucking scared. When the set be decidin' to deal, I figured it'd be boss, like, cool, man. Fuck, I'se standin' on the corner and I'se like, what if they don't show, man? What if it's some setup and he arrests me? Then this fucker shows up and be like, 300 pounds of mean, man. What if the money's short? I done count it like ten times, but what if some got lost? And worser, what if the shit I get is cut with, like, rat poison, man? What if it kilt some kid, man?

Squatter's fear was tangible; perspiration poured down his face. This was the first Friday evening of many weekends I would spend at a respondent's home, conducting an ethnographic study of AIDS-afflicted inner-city households. Alesia, Erwin's 22-year-old sister, had contracted HIV when she was 18, from a "finance" about whose past she knew very little. When she enrolled in the study, we discussed the nature of ethnography at some length, and she had invited me to come stay with her, Erwin, and their mother Levonia, so as to better understand their life. My one prior meeting with the family had become a marathon night in the Emergency Room after her health had then taken a quite dramatic downturn. …

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