The Emperor's New Welfare: Reassessing
the “Success” of Welfare Reform
I was not supposed to interview Zoraida Torres. She didn't fit into my sample, but she contacted me after seeing a flyer for the study and insisted that she had an important story to tell about life on welfare. As I started to tell her that she didn't qualify to participate in the study because she received welfare only for her kids, I saw the look of disappointment in her face. Here I was, another authority figure with a notebook and a list of criteria, reminding her that she wasn't eligible.
After four months in the field, I am still having trouble tracking down the “right kind” of welfare recipient for this study. I am supposed to interview Mexican immigrant women who receive TANF for themselvesand their kids. Yet this seems to be the exception in Long Beach, wheremost immigrant parents are not eligible for welfare or have been deniedaccess, kicked off, scared from applying. I have talked to residents, teachers, community organizations who have all told me that most Mexicanfamilies in Long Beach receive welfare for their children only. When Isuggest to MDRC that I include these families in my sample, I am toldthat we are not studying adults in “child-only cases” because they are notrequired by federal law to go to work. This is a study of “welfare reform,” which is, in fact, a study of welfare-to-work, which is thus not astudy of the vast majority of immigrants who supplement their low payfrom cleaning hotel rooms and sewing in sweatshops with meager welfarebenefits for their kids. Today, in both research offices and welfare offices, “welfare” means “work,” and the welfare of those poor people who cannot work or who are not mandated by law to work, but work nonetheless, is deemed irrelevant to social policy.
Even more troubling is the fact that many of these people are legal residents, who like Zoraida have lived in the United States for ten or more