Elevate Difference

Living on the Edge in Suburbia: From Welfare to Workfare

Living on the Edge in Suburbia is Terese Lawinski’s comprehensive examination of welfare in the United States using ethnographic research on suburban families in Westchester County, New York. Lawinski leaves no stone in the welfare debate unturned, from the infamous myth of the “Welfare Queen” (introduced to America’s vocabulary by a Reagan campaign speech in 1976) to the fallacy of “illegal immigrants” coming to the U.S. in droves looking for easy money.

With the recession weighing on almost everyone’s mind, Lawinski’s book is timely and relevant. Many suburban Americans like the ones profiled here are losing the economic security they took for granted and are being forced to turn to government programs to get by. But misconceptions about how the system works and who benefits from it (and how much they benefit) shape the general public’s view of welfare as a cushy, well-funded government trust fund for lazy people.

The vitriol aimed at immigrants and people of color is growing as working class and middle class Americans draw an ever deeper line in the sand between “deserving” and “undeserving” aid recipients, as well as “acceptable aid,” like unemployment, versus “unacceptable” programs like Medicaid, TANF, and food stamps. Lawinski addresses this phenomenon adeptly and swiftly.

The word welfare is often associated with so-called urban problems (i.e., people of color, most often women). Instead of yet another examination of the stereotypical recipient of public assistance (young, poor, black, female), which often only serves to further reinforce welfare fallacies, Lawinski focuses on a variety of families, many of whom slipped into the vicious cycle of public assistance after relatively minor circumstances propelled them into major financial crises. Lawinski makes it a point to emphasize the fact that once a family (or individual) is stuck in the system, a myriad of confusing and conflicting rules make it nearly impossible to get back out without an additional support network.

Lawinski does a thorough job of putting the current welfare system in an historical context. She draws connections between society’s disdain for “welfare mothers” and the beginnings of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC), part of 1935’s New Deal. At the time, mothers had to show government workers that they "deserved" assistance, which was usually limited to white widows who met “suitable home” requirements. Racist overtones took over the welfare debate when programs were opened to women of color.

Lawinski points out that one of the biggest offenses of President Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is that states began to claim the new law a success based on the number of people collecting benefits rather than the number of people living in poverty. As Lawinski explains, welfare rolls were cut by fifty percent, or even more, due to new regulations, but that didn’t mean people had found gainful employment (or any at all).

Where AFDC had once allowed people to survive (however meagerly), the 1996 welfare reform program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), left families without even that ability. After AFDC changed to TANF under PRWORA, lifetime limits (five years maximum by federal law, although individual states can further restrict time limits, and many do) meant that recipients were being cut off from public assistance without the means to support themselves. Additionally, TANF work requirements prevent the job training or education opportunities that are necessary for true self-sufficiency, and in a Catch-22, also reduce benefits. For those who can meet work requirements or attend education programs, the next hurdle is inadequate or nonexistent childcare subsidies.

In the epilogue, Lawinski offers solutions and guidelines with the Obama Administration in mind, but in the current political climate, it is doubtful that public aid will get the national attention and restructuring it needs.

Written by: Stephanie Sylverne, September 30th 2010

I agree with assisting the American people but in order to assist, there needs to be conditions put into place to get them on their own two feet and helping themselves more. In a lot of ways the welfare system holds them down by allowing too many people to abuse the aid and by not following up on progress they should be making to help themselves. Sadly, if people go at all over their threshold amount, they are cut off so no one tries. Not because they don't want to get out of the slump they are in, but because they are afraid to lose any help they are currently receiving. The dollar amount they can't go over is not enough to live off of so they are stuck on welfare because the type of jobs they would be able to get easily would not be nearly enough to put food in their mouths and a roof over their heads. Also, they need to reorganize the benefits by the region in which that person resides, NOT go off of what state they live in because what a person can live off of in a rural or urban area is not what someone in a more "mainstream" area could ever survive off of. Also, they need to SHOW that they are actually out there doing something to better themselves whether it be going to school or looking for employment, not just say the have been looking for work with absolutely no proof. How about making it a requirement that if they want help from the state they need to get a minimum of a GED. Otherwise, they don't get aid. How bout they sign an agreement that they will prevent pregnancy while receiving aid and won't get any additional monies if they choose to have more chilren while receiving aid. No it's surely not against your human right, unethical or mean to say, it is a binding agreement that if I help you, you will help yourself! Also, they should be made to take random drug tests, I'm sorry but if you can't afford food then you can't afford drugs and surely can't get a decent job if you are on drugs, especially if the possible future employment requires drug testing. How about making people go through a series of tests so they have an idea of what types of jobs and how much education is needed for each individual to get on their own feet. Even if it involves forcing an education on them, it will help both in the long run. How about programs for shared living. Partnering families up so that their expenses are lower for housing and having car pools to get people to work and home. I understand that they don't have enough man power to check up on everyone but perhaps if they made that a priority they could afford the man power by actually cutting costs on how much "free aid" they are giving out!
How about having people pitch in and do the work for them if they are receiving aid, for free! We are at a stale mate and it needs MAJOR restructuring! I think we can all agree on that.

"The dollar amount they can't go over is not enough to live off of so they are stuck on welfare because the type of jobs they would be able to get easily would not be nearly enough to put food in their mouths and a roof over their heads"

That is basically the crux of the problem. The public aid system keeps people stuck between a rock and a hard place. Recipients are degraded for being on public aid for long periods of time yet no supports exist to help them get off of assistance.

As far as job or education requirements, the PRWORA Act that replaced AFDC with TANF does have work requirements. In fact, very few people get TANF benefits in comparison to AFDC. And those who do are limited federally to 5 years in an entire lifetime. So "generational welfare" is now nonexistent.

I hear a lot of people mention pregnancy and drugs. That is a complicated issue because even though it appeals to people on an emotional level, it is unconstitutional and violates US citizens' rights to privacy. (and directs a lot of hate and anger towards women; never heard anyone suggest poor men get vasectomies mandated by the gov)

The US government (an entity of, by, and for the people) and its programs exist to assist the people of the United States and is funded by the people of the United States. A vast majority of so-called welfare recipients do contribute to public aid through taxes. On top of that, recipients of other government programs like social security and unemployment are not subjected to the same kinds of humiliations and privacy violations that those receiving public aid are.