Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

By Kornbluh, Felicia | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty


Kornbluh, Felicia, Law & Society Review


Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty. By Kaaryn Gustafson. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 238 pp. $28.00 paper.

Readers who browse book review columns for the pleasure of imbibing treatments of scholarly books that appear balanced, that feature sober assessments of a work's significance followed by a few critical zingers, will be disappointed by what follows. As I consider Kaaryn Gustafson's recent book, I find it impossible to assume the usual stance of sobriety; I am drunk on the virtues of Cheating Welfare, and think that all serious law and society scholars should read it. Even to one who is steeped in the historical and contemporary record of poor people's treatment by the government of the United States, Gustafson's work is surprising and very instructive. Although it is understated and obeys academic forms, Cheating Welfare offers data that are scandalous and enraging. As an intervention into major schools of sociolegal inquiry, such as the writing on "legal consciousness," resistance, legality, and rule-breaking, Gustafson's work is respectful and often devastating. It is equally devastating, if somewhat less polite, in its engagement with major currents in qualitative social science, especially in its critique of researchers who have allowed their work to be used by public welfare departments and policymakers who are more interested in pursuing impoverished rule-breakers than in alleviating poverty. Gustafson's first-person reflections upon her research process are courageous and important.

The main contribution of Gustafson's book lies in its linking of social welfare with criminal justice. She argues that, after the Republican Congress and the Clinton Administration reformed welfare in 1996, the federal and state governments "wove the criminal justice system into the welfare system" (p. 51). She supports the claim with data about the number of prosecutions for "welfare fraud" (approximately 20 percent of the caseload in the county she studied was being investigated for fraud in a year, p. 169); details about the civil and criminal processes in which poor people become enmeshed when welfare department employees refer their rulebreaking to the criminal-justice system; and descriptions of national initiatives such as Operation Talon, in which public benefits personnel lure people with outstanding warrants into their offices so that police may pick them up, "transforming welfare offices into traps for hungry law-breakers" (54).

The unity between anti-poverty policy and policing that Gustafson finds reminds me of the nineteenth- and early-twentiethcentury unity between "Charities and Corrections." Social historians of a preceding generation taught that charities and corrections were the two signal modes in which state authorities and professionalizing elites dealt with poor and working people; "charities" were primarily for women and "corrections" for men. Gustafson suggests that sociolegal scholars should refresh our sense of this unity, while acknowledging that there is no longer much of a distinction in the gender of who deserves charitable interventions and who needs to be corrected. Those who study welfare law must take account of the literal criminalization of anti-poverty policy, and those who study criminal law must consider the ways in which low-income defendants are affected by the state of welfare, including in the prosecutions they experience for welfare fraud.

The interviews with welfare recipients quoted in Cheating Welfare focus on what people understand about the rules, their compliance, and their moral assessments of the system. …

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