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.