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Cheating WelfarePublic Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty$

Kaaryn S. Gustafson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814732311

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814732311.001.0001

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Living within and without the Rules

Living within and without the Rules

(p.93) 5 Living within and without the Rules
Cheating Welfare

Kaaryn S. Gustafson

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on welfare recipients' compliance and noncompliance with welfare rules and regulations based on the results of interviews with thirty-four individuals in a Northern California county. It first assesses the financial needs that went unmet in interviewee households and how the interviewees attempted to meet their needs. It then examines the interviewees' difficulties understanding the rules and seeing them as logical. It shows that in some cases, or at least to some extent, the interviewees complied with many of the welfare rules, fulfilling work requirements and reporting earnings to the welfare office. In other cases, however, the interviewees went outside the rules—taking “side jobs” that paid cash and that they did not report to the welfare office, or receiving undeclared support from friends or family.

Keywords:   welfare recipients, Northern California, compliance, noncompliance, welfare rules, work requirements, side jobs, financial needs, interviews

The welfare recipient interviewees led their economic and family lives wandering a maze of welfare rules and regulations. They also lived within a maze of family needs—both economic and otherwise. Sometimes the interviewees lived within the rules, both specific and abstract, of welfare. At other times, however, they lived without the rules—sometimes because they did not know the rules, sometimes because their economic or family needs outweighed their compliance with the rules, sometimes because they were simply flouting the rules.

The discussion that follows makes clear that in some cases, or at least to some extent, the interviewees complied with many of the welfare rules, fulfilling work requirements and reporting earnings to the welfare office. In other cases, however, the interviewees survived by going outside the rules—taking “side jobs” that paid cash and that they did not report to the welfare office, or receiving undeclared support from friends or family. The first two sections of this chapter describe the financial needs that went unmet in interviewee households and how the interviewees attempted to meet their needs. The next sections describe interviewees’ difficulties with the rules—difficulties understanding the rules and difficulties seeing the rules as logical.

The Gap between Needs and Resources

The economic, and one may even say the existential, instability of welfare recipients is frighteningly real. Bayview County had a high cost of living at the time of these interviews. Between the time of the first interview in late 1998 and the last interview in early 2002, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Bayview County (as calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) rose from $812 per month to $1,155 per month.

Many of the interviewees had suffered at least one bout of homelessness. Moving out of homelessness proved difficult for them. Veronica explained (p.94) that when she and her six children had fled her abusive husband they had all stayed in a shelter. She estimated that she had submitted applications and credit checks at hundreds of dwellings, but none had offered to let her move in. “And it wasn’t because I have bad credit, it’s because I had six children.” She eventually found an apartment for $950 a month.

Two others, Shanelle and Lisa, had also been homeless in the past. Lisa explained that even when she was approved for Section 8, a government program providing housing subsidies in the form of rental vouchers, she had difficulty finding landlords who would accept Section 8 renters. Both said that the experiences of homelessness made paying rent their number one priority. Shanelle said “the fact that we’ve already gone through that homelessness… I guess, that’s why, I, regardless of whatever, my rent is paid.” Lisa said, “Once you been homeless with kids, out there, you going to make sure that … your rent is paid.” Shanelle and Lisa both described going hungry and sometimes having to provide their children with inadequate meals in order to have enough money to cover the rent. Shanelle, who had worked as a prostitute to support her drug habit before she quit drugs and got into recovery years earlier, said that if she could no longer receive welfare she would “probably, you know, prostitute in order to pay the rent.” Sarah, a forty-one-year-old mother with a teenaged son at home, echoed Shanelle’s statement, saying that in the case her welfare benefits and housing subsidy ended, “I’m going to have to try to find me a job or … go to the oldest profession or something. Because I would be homeless again.” Many of the interviewees who had housing expressed fears that they would soon lose it and would not be able to find new housing.

Most of the interviewees who described their housing situations as stable received support through the Section 8 program, which subsidizes low-income tenants in the private rental market. Of the thirty-four interviewees, only seven received housing subsidies through the Section 8 program. The high costs of housing in the research county made it difficult for the interviewees to survive financially, even when employed.

The interviewees in this study generally devoted most if not all of their welfare grants to their housing costs. Even those interviewees living in homeless shelters or transitional housing had to contribute their welfare grants to cover housing expenses. Simple details of life were complicated for welfare recipients. While the interviewees received food stamps, the food stamp benefits were often not enough to provide food for the entire month. In addition, the food stamp benefits could be used only for food. Interviewees (p.95) discussed the problem of providing enough food, especially toward the end of the month. They routinely struggled to find money for day-to-day needs such as clothing, shoes, laundry detergent, household cleaning products, and feminine hygiene products. One woman, Pam, talked about the frustration of running out of toilet paper and having no money to buy more.

Veronica, a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two children and caretaker of three (sometimes four) others, told me that she had occasionally not had enough money to buy toothpaste, bath soap, or laundry detergent. She told me that when she had no laundry detergent she filled the bathtub with water, poured in some dishwashing detergent, threw in the children’s school uniforms, and told the kids to strip down and dance on their clothing. Veronica worried that the children in her care, most of whom were relatives she had spared from the foster care system, would “get tore apart” because of her poverty. She worried, she said, “because they don’t have all of their needs. They have most of their needs, but not all their needs. And they probably have none of their wants right now. You know, ’cause I’m struggling, I really am.”

Tanya, a mother of three who had more income flowing into the household than many of the other interviewees, spoke vividly about the difficulties of living with very little income:

Because living off the amount we have to live off is … it’s, you know, there’s nothing more devastating than being, than having to turn around to your kids and say, “You know what? I can’t afford to get meat tonight.” Or, you know, “Can, you know, can you handle eating just pasta? Cause I bought two hundred pounds of pasta at the canned food store and some tomato sauce. Is that cool?” You know? And if we can get some change together, we get some lettuce. You know, I mean, it hurts! It’s really hurts! And I went through that last year. It was really bad; it was really, really bad. ’Cause I had to pay for car insurance. And I decided not to pay my electric bill last month, all right, so I could pay the phone bill and the car insurance. And it’s like this juggling act. So this month I paid the electric bill and it was $180. And I just kind of went, [sighing laugh] what could I cut out this month?

Like the other participants, Tanya struggled with the very basics of subsistence.

Shanelle, who admitted to taking occasional sides jobs such as braiding hair, said that the money from those jobs went for household basics:

(p.96) And it was like, okay, we got an extra roll of toilet paper for the month ’cause I done worked a little. … You know what I’m saying? Or, you know what, kids, instead of us having to eat chicken livers, we going to eat a chicken today, I mean, you know what I’m saying? It’s not like, oh, well we about to go out and buy us some cars.

Like other mothers in urban areas, Shanelle worried about her inability to buy burial insurance or life insurance for her kids, stating, “Lord, Lord, please, if any[thing]—forbid—happens to my kids, I wouldn’t have no money to bury them.”

The welfare system prioritizes fraud prevention over poverty alleviation. To prevent fraud, the welfare office collects vast amounts of information about welfare recipients and their families. Those who want to receive welfare have to fill out extensive paperwork at the time of their initial application and again yearly for their annual renewal of aid. In addition, they have to submit the monthly CA-7 forms describing any changes in their income or household circumstances. Paperwork problems routinely tied up recipients’ assistance payments. Annette described the frustrating experience she was having at the time of our interview:


  • This month, I didn’t get my food stamps, and I still ain’t got them. You know why they didn’t? Because they sent my renewal papers or the paper that asks about the absent parent. That paper say, “Do you know any relatives of the father.” So, I left it blank. They sent it back. So that’s the reason they cut my food stamps off, right. ’Cause I left it blank. There are no other relatives. Now, I got his name on there and everything. That’s what they ask. And because …

  • So, one line.

  • Yeah. Well, and because they ask whether he has any scars or tattoos. I didn’t put that down there. I kid you not, that’s why they did that.
  • Annette explained that her failure to write “Don’t Know” on the blanks in her renewal papers was not the only problem with her paperwork that month.

    And another thing … they wanted to know why my phone is in my mother’s name. Well, I had her to write out a statement last year, so it’s in the file. We was told at the time, it’s been eleven years ago, because I was pregnant with [my daughter], when she first came. So, at the time, I was (p.97) eight months pregnant, and my sister had ran up the other apartment bill accepting for collect calls from her man in jail, so they had it turned off. At the time, I was pregnant, was getting ready to move, and needed a phone. So my mom had the phone turned on in her name. She had credit, ’cause, you know, if you don’t have credit you gotta pay a deposit and all that kinda stuff, so she got it turned on. Well, it’s been, like I said, almost eleven years and, so what! I pay the bill, it’s no big deal. But that’s why I haven’t gotten any food stamps this month, because of that. They did send a check. It was late, but they did send a check. They didn’t send the food stamps. And as of … the last time I went in there was Tuesday of this week, and as of Tuesday they still have not released my food stamps.

    To receive aid, Annette had to document the small details of her life, such as the misrepresentation she was making to the phone company.

    Jane refused to fill out paperwork even when she knew it would hurt her not to do so. She simply described the paperwork as a nuisance. For example, she owned a car of such low value that owning it would not put her above the assets limit for welfare receipt. She did not report ownership of her car, she said, because of

    all the crap that I would have to go through—like all the proof and the paperwork and all the extra, extra stuff that I would have to do just to have them say it’s okay to have my car. I just filled out my renewal papers two days ago. And this whole thing went through my head. And it was just like, hell no.

    In other words, Jane avoided following rules when compliance was inconvenient.

    The documentation of daily life is a form of state surveillance to which welfare recipients submit but also a form of surveillance they resist, sometimes to their detriment. It was this routine documentation that the interviewees described as invasive and oppressive.

    Bridging the Gap between Financial Need and the Welfare Grant

    There were a number of ways that welfare recipients bridged the gap between their welfare benefits and their financial needs. The following sections describe the strategies interviewees discussed.

    (p.98) Legitimate Employment

    Employment is not necessarily a way out of poverty, or even a way off welfare. The dividing line between the welfare poor and the working poor is a blurry one. While the lawmakers who instituted welfare reform hoped that increased employment among welfare recipients would make them economically self-sufficient, most of the welfare recipients who took jobs and subsequently left welfare earned too little to bring economic stability to their households. A University of Wisconsin study summarizing a number of earlier studies on adults who had left the welfare system after reform found that “about two-thirds of leavers [nationwide] work in the first years after exiting and that they earn between $6.50 and $7.50 per hour. Poverty rates are quite high, more than 50 percent in the early years after leaving” (Cancian et al. 2002, 606).

    Many parents participated in the wage labor force while receiving welfare. Kiki, one of these parents, was laid off from the administrative job she had held for five years and applied for welfare while still receiving Unemployment Insurance payments. During her two years on aid, she had managed to find a series of part-time jobs, but nothing stable, well paid, or full time. She described welfare as “a little bit of supplement.” Despite working, Kiki was homeless.

    Work and education do not necessarily provide stable routines for families. Welfare recipients often have temporary jobs or rotating shifts. Since the jobs they can obtain are marginal, they do not have control over what their schedules will be. Policy makers’ assumptions that work will provide stability to otherwise chaotic families do not bear themselves out. Jade, a mother of two, provided in-home health services as needed, but the needs varied. Veronica had a “temp” job at a warehouse an hour away from her home. She usually worked the late shift, from 3:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., returning home around three or four o’clock in the morning. She had to rouse her kids at 6:30 a.m. to get them off to school. Sometimes she learned only in the afternoon that she would be working that evening. Veronica then had to contact a friend to take care of her kids. She relied on two buses for each leg of her journey to and from work. In chatting with me after her interview, Veronica said that because she was often on the streets in the wee hours of the morning as she returned from work, she was routinely offered money for sex by men who assumed she was a prostitute and was also hassled by police who made the same assumption.

    Natalie, a thirty-four-year-old mother caring for a nine-year-old and a thirteen-year-old, was grateful for the fact that she could work and receive (p.99) welfare, saying, “It’s pretty good! I like the program. I love the program. I think it’s really great.” Natalie enjoyed working, enjoyed getting out of the house. Still, she admitted that her ten-dollar-an-hour job as a security guard did put a strain on her and her family. She worked nights, leaving her two children home alone.


  • By the time I’m at work, the kids are asleep. They’re fed, they’re in bed. And then I go home from work—that’s a school, school night—I’m home in time for them to get off to school. So that kind of works out. But it’s a killer though, eleven to seven. That graveyard shift.

  • When do you sleep?

  • Never. [laughing] Never! There’s always something in the house that has to be done.
  • Natalie’s odd working hours were not unusual for wage-earning welfare recipients. A study of welfare recipients participating in post-reform programs in three different states found that almost half “worked irregular hours, including evening and weekend shifts” (B. Fuller, Kagan, and Loeb 2002, 3).

    Because she worked, Natalie received a welfare check adjusted down to reflect her earnings. While Natalie’s cash grant from the welfare office was small, she and her children relied on that money to stay afloat financially. In fact, at the time of our interview Natalie was trying to figure out why she had not received her welfare check on the first of the month. The delay had prevented her from paying her rent in full, and she was anxious to resolve the problem because she had already received a thirty-day-notice from her landlord. While Natalie found work personally fulfilling, her job was not financially fulfilling.

    Workers with few skills have little weight to bear in negotiating the terms of their employment. The work requirements under CalWORKs, which sanction individuals who do not meet their work requirements, put additional pressure on poor families to accept low-paid, dangerous jobs with no hope of advancement. Veronica described one of her experiences as an employee:


  • Last year I worked at a job where … I worked there for nine months. I worked hard, because I was supposed to be working eight hours. But I was working ten to twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week. And they kept saying, “We’re going to make you permanent.” You know, so I’m like, yes, I know I got me a permanent job. So after ten months of me working (p.100) there, ten months of me working there, I found out that they were playing with my emotions and they let everybody go. So I had to start all over again, which is hard because they’re doing a lot of people like this, where they’re saying they’re going to make the person permanent. You know, getting their hopes up. “Okay, I’m gonna have me a job.”

  • So they won’t leave and go somewhere else?

  • Right. So around Christmas they said, “Bye.” And they did a lot of people like this. And they had [said] to all these people, “We’re gonna make you permanent.” And they didn’t. Which is wrong. Because I coulda been looking for a different job.
  • I:

  • What job was it?

  • This was a warehouse job in, uh, South Bayview. And it’s a step up from slave labor, um, because it’s supposed to be after forty hours you don’t have to come to work. This place, if you don’t come on the Saturdays or Sundays, you get fired. And, um, they had gave me a raise ’cause I really worked hard. Everybody else was getting paid $5.75. Doing a job where they should have at least been making nine dollars. But I guess that’s … well, that’s to me what welfare reform does. If you could pay someone five dollars what usually you could pay them to do for ten. … You know, that’s what they’re doing. They’re giving everybody who doesn’t have a lot of experience of working or doesn’t have a GED, they’re giving them jobs that are really jobs for a lot less money. I mean, these are half-assed jobs.
  • According to Veronica, on-the-job injuries occurred frequently at the work site. She said these injuries included employees passing out from chemical fumes in unventilated areas. She said, “If someone’s mean to me and or something goes wrong on the job and I complain and they’re permanent, I’ll get fired. So it’s kinda hard for CalWORKs workers.”

    Veronica also described applying for a job at the warehouse for a big department store. Veronica said that applicants were asked if they were receiving welfare and, if so, were asked to fill out additional forms. The job was advertised as paying $6.75 an hour. She said, “When they hired me, it wasn’t that much. It was $6.00.” She attributed the pay differential to her status as a welfare recipient.

    A number of the interviewees described their need for medical insurance as one reason they remained on welfare. Many explained that the low-wage jobs available to them offered no medical insurance. Many, especially those who had health problems or whose children had chronic health problems such as asthma, said that they were better off using welfare and receiving (p.101) MediCal than they would be working without insurance and finding themselves facing a family medical emergency. Kiki, for example, described her family’s need for medical benefits as her biggest barrier to employment. These interviewees were weighing and benefits and disadvantages of working and determining that the risks of uninsured employment were too high.

    While it was certainly not the case that most of the interviewees wanted to remain on welfare, there was little evidence that welfare reform succeeded in its promise to “make work pay” or that there were substantial incentives for welfare recipients to take employment. For the most part, the jobs available to them would not only leave them in poverty but also provide them no benefits. Unlike the jobs held by those in the upper-middle class, the jobs welfare recipients worked offered little opportunity for advancement, no personal satisfaction or prestige, and even more stress than home life.

    Side Jobs: The Underground Labor Market

    To earn extra money, a lot of the interviewees explained that they took jobs that paid in cash and that they did not report the earnings to the welfare office or on any tax forms. These jobs were generally low-paid service jobs and were irregularly available. Braiding hair, cooking, babysitting, and doing household chores for others were typical examples of these jobs. Jamilla, a mother with four children and little education or work experience, stated: “I was doing hair from the time that I got fired up until now.” She continued, “I braid hair so I can pay my rent, you know, and buy food or, you know pay [utilities] and water.” These little bits of income were important to someone with such desperate financial needs.

    Many of these side jobs were done for other low-income people who would have difficulty paying the market rate for the services they received. For example, Barbara, who had received some training as a nursing assistant, took side jobs caring for the ill and elderly poor.

    Oh, well, you know, I do the nursing, the home help, and I go help older people. You know take care of themselves. And then I have one lady that I went to, she have … she was very ill. … This lady was just eighty-two. And she had had several strokes so she couldn’t get up and around. And she kept her arm like this [gesturing] because her body wouldn’t move. So that’s why she sleeps in one spot and gets those ulcers, decubitis. So, uh, but she’s in the hospital now. So I don’t know if she’s gonna get out or what. But, um, I took care of her. And you know, when someone needs a nurse’s assistant and they know about me, then they call me and I help. Morning care, you know, the aid and stuff.

    (p.102) Barbara’s role in the underground economy was important not only to her economic survival but also to the survival—physical and economic—of the persons she cared for. Her cash aid from the welfare office was only $505 per month, while her rent alone was $750. Without the money from side jobs, as well as help from her estranged husband, her adult children, and members of her church, Barbara would not have been able to stay afloat financially.

    It appeared that members of the community were aware that welfare recipients had trouble making ends meet. D’Nay explained that she had done a number of odd jobs for cash. They included babysitting and cleaning houses. She mentioned that her pastor, perhaps as an act of charity, had offered many of the odd jobs. He paid her to clean his house, iron his shirts, and clean the church. She never reported this income to the welfare office.

    In some cases, individuals were working multiple side jobs. Veronica, the sole caretaker for five—sometimes six—children, not only worked nights in warehouse jobs and went to school in the mornings to get her GED but also held a number of side jobs.

    I struggle here, I struggle there. See there’s, um, an elderly man that I clean his house. Three times a week. There’s another elderly lady that I cook dinner for. Say I might make five meals in a row for her and put it in the freezer. That way she can take it out and put it in the microwave.

    Veronica’s landlord also reduced her rent a little bit each month in return for her work on the property.

    Annette sometimes did hair and helped in her girlfriend’s cleaning business. She said that her work in the cleaning business allowed her to make it through the holidays the year before but that it required her to work at night, leaving her children home alone. When I asked Annette if she reported these earnings to the welfare office she said:

    Of course not! [laughs] Of course not! Every nickel … they want to have that, you know. Um-um. And you see, the thing about reporting things like that is, it’s never consistent. You know what I’m saying? You might have something this month. You might not have nothing for … like, I’ve been working for my girlfriend maybe about a couple times this whole year. Now, if I reported that I worked like the end of last year—end of last year I worked with her a lot. You know what I’m saying. But they’ll still be going off of what you did a long way—months ago.

    (p.103) She added, “You can’t make it. And that is the only part that’s consistent, basically. Other than that, there’s nothing consistent, you know.”

    Side jobs offered none of the protections that aboveboard employment provided, including means of enforcing the employment contract itself. Shanelle said, “They worry about people … doing the welfare fraud” but explained:

    You know … I’ve held, I had a couple of jobs but you know what. They don’t give you nothing to say about [pay]. You know what I’m saying. I had a job, it was under the table; because it was under the table, they [shorted] me. You know what I’m saying, when it came time to getting paid.

    Thus even attempts by welfare recipients to avoid the reporting rules by taking side jobs sometimes backfired. By working outside the formal labor market, recipients who took side jobs had no way to ensure that their labor was compensated fairly, or even at all.

    Some of the unreported wage earning was quite entrepreneurial. Tammy, a mother of four with very little experience in the paid labor force, admitted that she sold cupcakes to pay the bills. Through cupcake sales she had saved enough money to buy an old car. None of this money had she reported as income to the welfare office. She said that this underground economy was part of the normal landscape of her neighborhood. “Some people like to sell the little Icees and stuff. That be helping with the money during the month.” Without the cupcake money, it is unclear how Tammy would have made it through the month. She had four children, and the youngest, subject to the family cap, received no cash welfare benefits. In addition, Tammy’s welfare check was reduced as a result of the sanction she received for her noncompliance with the welfare-to-work rules. Working outside the home for the mandatory work hours would have allowed her to receive her full benefit and an additional $225 in earnings, at the most. Tammy did not say how much money she made by selling cupcakes, but if she made more than $330 a month or so, she was coming out ahead. And by working at home she saved the work-related expenses of transportation and clothing. For Tammy, cheating the welfare system by baking and selling cupcakes made more economic sense than participating in the welfare system’s welfare-to-work program.

    Child Support: Formal and Informal

    Many of the interviewees relied on the strength of their ties to other people and financial help from family and friends to pay for their basic needs. Financial support from children’s parents, usually fathers, came in two different (p.104) streams: (1) formal child support, paid to and distributed through the state child support collection system; and (2) informal child support, meaning cash or goods provided to the caretaking parent without the state acting as intermediary. Several of the women interviewed received regular and sizable financial support from the noncohabiting fathers of their children.

    There were significant financial incentives for parents to avoid the formal child support system. If a court found a father liable for support, the money got funneled into the county coffers while the parent (usually the mother) on welfare saw only an extra fifty dollars added to the cash grant (known as a “child support disregard”). The rest of the money went to “repay” the state for the welfare benefits provided to the children. Thus child support payments did not provide substantial benefits to children on welfare. In addition, court-ordered child support sometimes resulted in a father having his paycheck garnished for the funds, leaving him with little control over his earnings. In those cases where the fathers were paying child support through the formal child support system, the mothers described the way the welfare system discouraged men from paying, and women from seeking, child support through the system. Jane, whose ex-husband paid child support through the formal system, complained:

    [The governor] says they have to go after the deadbeat dads, to benefit the mothers. That’s a bunch of crap. My ex-husband makes $11.75. They take one hundred dollars a week out of his paycheck and we get something called a disregard, which I think the terminology sucks. It needs to be changed. My child is not a disregard. Any money for her is not a disregard. But that’s what they call it, so. I get fifty bucks a month, but I’m in a statistic that says that they give me five hundred and something a month, when in actuality they only give me a hundred and something because my ex-husband pays four hundred dollars a month in child support that I don’t see. And in the paperwork they tell me that my basic need is much higher than my allotted grant. So now my ex-husband only makes $11.75 an hour, forking out a hundred dollars a week. If I go to him and say, you know, I need shoes for her, I need a little extra money for this or, you know, her school pictures were due—that’s another thirty bucks—he doesn’t have it. So, helping the mothers … it doesn’t help the mothers, it helps the state.

    According to the interviewees, the policy of passing only fifty dollars of a father’s child support through to a child on welfare discouraged both fathers and mothers from complying with efforts to participate in the formal child support system.

    (p.105) The father of Tanya’s middle child paid child support both through the formal system and informally: “He pays the [district attorney] $350 a month. And he also gives me, um, basically slips me $250 a month to pay for clothes for the kids and incidental stuff.” Under this system, Tanya and her children were able to add three hundred dollars a month to their welfare benefits. This money helped considerably given that her aid payments were $732 at their peak and only $611 a month while she was being sanctioned.

    With informal child support, the women sometimes got more money and the men were free from state regulation and the inflexibility of standardized payments. The women, however, put themselves at risk of penalties from welfare investigators. They also put themselves at the mercy of the fathers, who, if they had provided cash under the table, could, at their whim, report the mothers for welfare fraud.

    Patricia, a woman in her late forties, moved from the Midwest to California to be closer to her adult son and his wife around the time the young couple became new parents. She brought along her twelve-year-old daughter. When I first met Patricia outside the welfare office and explained that I was interviewing aid recipients about the welfare system, she said, “The system here is great!” While I heard many comments about the welfare system every day, I had never heard one this positive. Her interview revealed why she thought the system was great.

    While Patricia and her daughter received only “$493 or something” in cash per month, Patricia was also earning money as a nurse and receiving one hundred dollars per week in child support from her ex-husband, who lived in the state she had left. Though the child support payments were done formally through the court system, Patricia did not report these payments to the welfare office, and the office had not yet caught on, apparently because the payments were coming from another state.

    Others, too, received support from former partners—sometimes regularly, sometimes sporadically. Yvonne faced a welfare fraud charge at just about the same time she was expecting her second child. When the welfare office stopped her check because of her failure to report past earnings, Yvonne’s boyfriend set her up in an apartment for a while and paid for everything. That support, however, did not last long—apparently because of the objections of the boyfriend’s other girlfriend, with whom he lived.

    Natalie, separated from her husband and receiving welfare under the claim that she received no support from her co-parent, noted that her disaffected husband provided a “great deal” of financial support. According to Natalie, the kids’ father—who held two jobs—still paid for most of the clothing and (p.106) groceries in her household. While Natalie reported none of this to the welfare office, she prided herself on her unfailing efforts to submit her check stubs to the welfare office every month, proudly stating, “I follow the rules.”

    While welfare reform policies were intended to encourage welfare moms to work and to hold “deadbeat dads” accountable, the reforms may have unintentionally discouraged absent dads from working in the formal labor market. Shanelle reported that once the child support system caught up with the father of her three children, the state started garnishing his monthly paychecks almost five hundred dollars a month. Only fifty dollars of that money flowed to the children. Shanelle said that the kids’ father “came up with a master plan. Now he works under the table, so it’s not like, we’re not even receiving the fifty dollars anymore.” Shanelle’s story, like others, suggests that the child support system may be working at odds with itself in efforts to have fathers support their children who are receiving welfare.

    One of the few women who received regular child support through the formal child support system was Millie. Her two oldest children had the same father; her youngest, a child excluded from TANF benefits because he was born while Millie received welfare, had another father. Millie’s Cal-WORKs grant was soon to end because the support provided by the two fathers exceeded her maximum CalWORKs grant. She said, “I’m getting four hundred dollars from one father and three hundred dollars from the other guy. And no matter what, I’m only going to get fifty dollars, so I might as well and go ahead and just get the child support.” She said one of the fathers had consistently provided support without protest. The other started paying once he was contacted by the District Attorney’s Office. The welfare reforms of 1996 increased government efforts to pursue absent fathers for child support in an effort to shift the burden of support from the state to the fathers. Millie was fortunate to have had children with men who were economically secure.

    Support and Encumbrance from Other Family Members

    Many of the interviewees received substantial economic support from close family and, occasionally, friends. Natalie, a thirty-four-year-old mother with two kids at home, stated that her estranged husband provided routine help with clothing and food.

    He buys them school clothes. I don’t have to worry about that. Summer clothes. I mean, if we’re low in the house on food or something like that, he’ll, you know, give me money and I’ll go to grocery store. He’ll take me (p.107) to the store, stuff like that. Financially, he helps me out a great deal. And I can say that more than I can say about some parents. Some dads are just not in the home, don’t do anything.

    Jamilla, a young mother of four, admitted that her mother had been paying her rent and utilities.

    Other interviewees received support from members of their extended families. Renee, a twenty-year-old mother with a toddler, was living in her uncle’s two-bedroom apartment with his wife and two children. She had moved in with her relatives when she was pregnant. She contributed only fifty to one hundred dollars per month to rent and utilities. Her uncle and aunt provided child care at the times she worked and attended school. Without these supports, it is unclear how Renee and her child would have survived.

    While some of the interviewees had extended families that could provide economic assistance, some had extended families that proved more burdensome than helpful. Annette explained that not only had she never received any child support from her children’s father, but also that she could not rely on her siblings for support. She said, “I have two sisters and two brothers. All of which have children. Three of which have had substance abuse problems. You can’t really depend on people who have had substance abuse problems because you never know what they on.” She was caring not only for a niece but also for a foster child who was a distant relative.

    Shanelle, supporting her three children on her welfare check and sporadic temporary employment, also provided what financial assistance she could to her mother, who had quit her job. Shanelle noted, “We all family, ’cause it’s like, well, mama, I’m not going to let you starve.” Rather than relying on help from her family, Shanelle found herself providing for family members in circumstances even more dire than her own.

    Use of Other Government Aid Programs

    Many of the interviewees lived not only under the rules of CalWORKs and the food stamp program but also under the rules of other government aid programs. A number of the interviewees had household income that came from sources of government aid other than TANF cash aid, food stamps, and MediCal. Some also received subsidized housing in the form of Section 8 vouchers; some received SSI benefits. With different streams of government aid flowing to families, not all families receiving government assistance were suffering from the same levels of deprivation.

    (p.108) Families with a member who qualified for SSI received more income than families who relied only on CalWORKs cash benefits. Annette noted that her disabled daughter’s “SSI [check] is more, or almost, as the welfare check. And that, I can’t understand. Three people! How that happened, I don’t understand. How do you expect three people—three people—to make it on almost the same amount as SSI gives to one person.” Annette explained that if it were not for her daughter’s SSI check and her Section 8 housing voucher, she and her family would not have been able to make it. Because of her Section 8 voucher, Annette had to pay only $320 a month for her apartment. “And then another thing that helps is the baby’s WIC. I know it’s for the baby, but we all use it. Shoot, we all use it. So, the WIC, that really helps, you know the cereal and stuff.” Because Annette had a three-year-old foster child in her care, she also received money from the foster system. Annette and the five children in her care relied on a complicated mix of government aid programs to pay the bills.

    The interviewees who received government housing subsidies described them as crucial to their survival in an area with such high housing costs. Through the Section 8 program, Jane was able to rent an apartment that was listed at $875 per month and pay only $128. She described herself as unconcerned about the five-year limit on welfare cash aid so long as she remained eligible for her Section 8 voucher. She said, “Without Section 8, I’d be just as screwed as the next person. But because I have Section 8, I’m not really worried about it. Now, if something happens with that [the Section 8 program] … oh my goodness. I don’t know.”

    Lisa, a mother of three, received CalWORKs cash assistance for her two youngest children only. The oldest child, whose father was twenty years older than Lisa and who died of cancer, received Social Security Disability Survivor’s Insurance. This income was a reliable source of income, unlike the Cal-WORKs cash aid and food stamps, which varied dramatically on the basis of Lisa’s earnings, and unlike the fifty-dollar child support pass-through from the father of the younger children. The daughter’s Social Security income, though intended solely for the oldest child’s benefit, provided the entire family with some stability.

    Systems of Credit

    Interviewees turned to different strategies when money got extremely tight. Some families had more resources in the form of credit than others. Discussions with welfare recipients who had credit, however, revealed the processes through which credit histories become tarnished. For example, (p.109) Patricia had a strong work history as a nurse and, thanks to years of stable employment, had been able to secure credit cards. But her recent move to California, the resulting financial strain, and her inability to pay her bills on time were catching up with her.


  • Um… if you were to come up short of money, what would you do?

  • I’d just tell you—no, I can’t pay you. No, you just have to wait. I can’t pay! [laughs] I can’t do anything! But I really did need to pay a credit card. I’m forgetting them. I’m going to have to put them off. Because now, they’ll just take it out of my checking account. But even when they do that they still charge you a little charge. So, I’ll put them off. Besides, it’s my money. And that’s so weird to me. I already paid for what I charged. So why are you bugging me?!?
  • I:

  • So you juggle …

  • No. I just don’t … some people I just … they’re gonna have to wait. [laughs]
  • Patricia was actually short of money at the time we met. She had forgotten to turn in her CA-7 form on time, an omission that put her welfare check on hold. Twice during the interview, conducted in Patricia’s home, our conversation was interrupted by people phoning to demand money that Patricia owed—one call from a credit card company and one from the landlord reminding her that the rent was overdue. She told them both that they would have to wait, that when she received a check they would see money from her.

    Illegal Activity

    The interviewees who did not have credit had fewer options for making it through rough financial times. Several of the women said that, whatever happened, they would never go so far as to sell drugs or engage in prostitution to provide for their kids. Other welfare recipients, however, were a bit more equivocal about their willingness to engage in vice. When I asked Jane what she would do if she were to come up short of money in the following month, she replied:

    Call my friends. And, again, I am fortunate enough to have friends that do have money—that I could go to for help. And worst-case scenario, I have some clothes—not a ton—I have a few pieces, so I could get dressed (p.110) up and I could go out and meet somebody wealthy in Silicon Valley and we could have a nice dinner and get a few bucks. But I’m not that kind of person, so … [laughs] But don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind. [laughs] It has.

    A few interviewees—including Shannelle and Rhonda—acknowledged that they sometimes turned to prostitution when faced with financial crises. They did so not because it was a thrill or because they were inherently corrupt. They turned tricks only when they desperately needed to provide the essentials of food and shelter for their families. When asked what she would do if her welfare stopped (a looming prospect given that her youngest child was approaching age eighteen), Sarah forthrightly said, “I’m going to have to try to find me a job or … go to the oldest profession or something.”

    Welfare Rationality and Unmeasured Information Costs

    The welfare reforms of 1996 were intended to create incentives for welfare recipients to work, to create disincentives for welfare recipients to remain on aid for extended periods, and to punish welfare recipients who failed to satisfy the requirements of the welfare system or who failed to follow the rules. The reformers assumed that welfare recipients would have enough information about the incentives, deterrents, and penalties to make informed, rational decisions that would lead them away from reliance on government aid. Welfare researchers, however, have not gone far in finding out how welfare recipients obtain information about welfare rules or in examining what factors facilitate or hamper recipients’ access to accurate information. Some of the interviewees, however, provided some insights into the question of information access.

    Many of the interviewees described the application, renewal, and orientation processes as so overloaded with written forms that there was no way they could absorb all of the information. Tina, who had applied for welfare for the first time less than six months before the interview (and well after welfare reform had been implemented) said, “I don’t really know the regulations—the regulations or the rules.” When I asked her how the welfare office informed clients of the rules, she responded, “Well, they give you a, um … the reason why I don’t know is I didn’t read the book.” The book to which she referred was the one-hundred-plus pages of paper an applicant receives when requesting aid in Bayview County.

    (p.111) When asked how she was informed of the welfare rules, Kiki, a laid-off administrative assistant with a ten-year-old daughter, said:

    They just give you a whole bunch of papers and they tell you to read through them. And they get [a] little group thing. And then they “Start here, sign here, sign here, sign here, sign here.” They never have you really go over with you, go over this policy and procedures, in detail. You know what I’m saying? So they don’t go over, in great detail, about the different things that you know, the different policies and procedures.

    Kiki felt that because many individuals who were attending the group information meeting for welfare applicants were so desperate to “deal with their money” they did not take the time to find out the details of the welfare rules or spend time asking questions of the welfare workers.

    Some of the interviewees talked about the time costs involved in getting information. For example, Veronica, a woman parenting six children, received no assistance with child care from the welfare system. She lacked the information she needed to apply for child care assistance and lacked the time to obtain the information because of her efforts to meet her work requirements. She explained, “I keep making appointments, and then I get called in for work. Or when I was doing a day shift, when I get off work they’re closed. So it’s … and the jobs I’m getting, ask for a day off and they fire you.” Because Veronica could not afford to pay for child care, her children, who ranged in age from five to twelve, spent a lot of time at home without adult supervision. And Veronica spent a lot of time worrying about their safety.

    Kiki said that merely asking questions about benefits could take a significant investment of time.

    You can call them at four. And sometimes you’re on the phone for forty-five minutes, sometimes longer, and you still, well about that time, I guess they want you to [inaudible]. You hang up the phone. Because there’s other things that you need to be doing. So sometimes you get better results if you go down there.

    Kiki then explained that visits to the office always required a long wait in line. She said that even when she finally reached her turn to talk with a caseworker, she often had to then ask for the supervisor to clear up a question the worker could not answer.

    (p.112) Tina, who waited three months for a response to her initial welfare application, did not press the issue of her wait with the office. Once she received notice that her application for cash aid had been denied and her application for food stamps had been approved, she assumed that her food stamps would be retroactive to the time of her application:


  • I called, as soon as I received my first notice saying how much I was gonna get, I called them and I asked them, Well, am I gonna be getting all the way back from … three months back. And, um, he told me yeah. And when I picked them up, they only had gave me $209. … I was grateful for that. I hate for to look crazy arguing on the phone. It’s a trip. I was grateful for what I had, so … I just took that.

  • That’s too bad.
  • TINA:

  • I know. I want to question it, but I know I’ll probably have to fill out another form, a load of paper.
  • Thus the time consumed by paperwork and dealing with the bureaucracy deterred Tina from seeking information, even information that might have increased her benefits.

    Yvonne complained that the workers in the welfare office “don’t really tell you all the rules.” She described the application process as less than fully informative and talked about how difficult it was to get in touch with a welfare caseworker, much less have an extended discussion with one. She said she learned about the welfare rules from other friends on welfare.

    Some of the interviewees stated that they received information about the welfare system from people who did not work in the welfare office. Renee, a young mother, explained that she had turned to the sister of her son’s father when her son was two-and-a-half and she found herself in financial straits. Renee said, “Oh, it was my son’s aunt on his father’s side. She took me down there and helped me fill it [the application] out. So, I mean, she was pretty familiar with the system.”

    Renee’s quasi-sister-in-law, however, was less than objective. The advice she gave Renee was, it appears, intentionally provided to get her brother off the hook for child support. When I asked Renee what advice the woman had given, she said, “And it’s basically to leave out the father, you know. To just, like, [write] ‘Oh, I don’t know where he’s at.’ Because if I do [give his information], then they won’t give me any money.” In either case, however, Renee’s consequent failure to provide information about her son’s father not only caused her hassles with the welfare office but also prevented her son from receiving any child support through the state’s child support system.

    (p.113) Gaps in Knowledge of the Essential Elements of Welfare Reform

    The federal welfare legislation Congress passed in 1996 imposed a strict sixty-month lifetime limit on receipt of cash aid for all adult TANF recipients in the country. States were given the option to establish even shorter time limits. California initially instituted an eighteen-month time limit for adults already receiving cash benefits and a twenty-four-month time limit for those who opened new cases. Initially, adults were ineligible for aid once they reached these time limits. The regulations, however, were modified in 2002 to allow recipients who reached their eighteen- or twenty-four-month time limits to remain eligible for aid so long as they fulfilled their mandatory work requirements (California Department of Social Services All-County Letter No. 02-33, May 1, 2002).

    Knowledge of the time limits varied dramatically among the interviewees. For example, Patricia, who had applied for welfare at the county office in the fall of 1998, did not know about the time limits during our interview in the early summer of 1999. On the other hand, Annette, a long-term welfare recipient who was well aware of the time limits, described herself as “pretty scared” about her time running out.

    Knowledge of the work requirements also varied. Annette, who had three children and was the foster parent of an infant, had heard about the work requirements well before she received a letter from the welfare office telling her to show up to an orientation. She prepared herself for the work requirements by signing up for cosmetology classes at Bayview Community College. Once she was there, she learned of a program the college had for welfare recipients. The next semester she dropped her cosmetology classes and signed up for the special classes the community college offered for welfare recipients:

    It’s your basic math, reading, writing. It’s, um, six or eight weeks of computers. The other thing is sociology and career development. So, see, this is working on you, not the career. This is working on you right now, your basic skills, brushing up on your math, showing you the basics of the computer. I think the computer part of it was too short for me, because I don’t know anything about computers, but it gave you a little bit of, you know, like … they tell you what icons are and different little things, showing you how to use the mouse. Because at first I was real upset trying to do that because when I moved that thing, it moved. You know, the cursor going all over the place, and I was trying to control that. I started using some strategies and whatnot, so, that’s what I’m doing right now.

    (p.114) Annette was not necessarily pursuing the rational path welfare reformers had hoped—getting off aid as soon as possible. Instead, she was pursuing an economically rational path that would maximize her skills in the workforce and ultimately her wage-earning capacity.

    Many of the interviewees, however, treated the work requirements nonchalantly, approaching them not as a first step in leaving the welfare system but instead as a mere hoop to jump through to receive aid. The interviewees who possessed basic knowledge of the work requirements generally knew about the sanctions. Still, for these individuals, the influence of the sanctions on their employment decisions was unclear. A couple women, including Tammy, who were aware of the sanctions and knew that only the parent’s portion of the grant would be cut under sanction said that the amount cut from the grant—roughly $125—was simply not enough of an incentive or deterrent to make them change their actions.

    For parents who were complying with the work requirements, cash grants varied from month to month depending upon recent earnings. As a result, most of the interviewees with jobs had a hard time predicting what their future checks would look like. As a result, some may not have been aware when they were being sanctioned. Those interviewees who were unaware of the work requirements were unaware of the sanctions.

    For welfare recipients, there were costs—both real and perceived—to obtaining accurate and detailed information about the welfare rules, regulations, and available programs. While some of the interviewees were willing to pay the costs of obtaining information, others would not or could not. In still other instances, individuals did not pursue more accurate information about rules or programs because they had no idea that the rules or programs existed.

    Rules and Arbitrariness

    The interviewees frequently commented on how they perceived the rules as arbitrary and the application of rules as unpredictable. For example, they complained they could not predict how large or small their next aid check would be because of the office’s accounting procedures.

    Some of the interviewees described the welfare office’s rules and procedures as senseless or counterproductive. Shanelle, a twenty-nine-year-old mother of three, attended her CalWORKs orientation midway through her final semester of community college, completion of which would lead to an associate’s degree. She had planned to pursue a degree in social work and (p.115) bring her past experiences as a drug abuser, prostitute, and domestic violence survivor to her vocation. Shanelle explained, however, that the welfare office’s “employment counselor told me, she was like, you cannot go to school. If this is what you’re going to school for, you can’t go to school.” The CalWORKs employment counselor, according to Shanelle, said, “Well, maybe you need to repair TVs.” Shanelle was told that completing a liberal arts degree was not considered an approved work activity and that she would have to drop out of school right before midterms, which she did. A year later, she had still not found a regular job. If she had spent two or three more months in school, she would have been on the job market with an associate’s degree. Instead, she was on the job market with an eleventh-grade education.

    Shanelle also talked about a frustrating encounter she had recently had with the welfare office. Welfare recipients were required not only to submit proof of earnings with their monthly CA-7s but also to submit it at their annual recertification meetings for aid. Shanelle submitted her original pay stub with her recertification papers but did not submit a copy with her CA-7 form the same month, assuming that one copy in her file would be sufficient. Shannelle explained:

    So I get a letter saying that my CA-7 form was incomplete because I failed to give [it to] them. … I said, well, look. I called them up, saying, “My check stubs are there. I just had a renewal, all you have to do is go look in my file. It might be in with my CA-7.” “Well, it needs to be in with your CA-7 so you’re going to have redo.” “Okay, well, you send me back my check stubs. I can make some copies, and I’ll send them back.” I just got my check stubs in the mail, along with a letter saying that my cash aid will be discontinued [for failing to submit the check stubs]. [laughs]

    Shanelle offered this experience as an example of the way that the welfare system mechanically applied rules without regard for either efficiency or financial need.

    Numerous interviewees described the frustrations of submitting their monthly CA-7 forms and then receiving either a threat of discontinuance or an actual discontinuance of aid for failing to submit their forms. These situations not only required the interviewees to spend a significant amount of time and energy resolving the problems but also drove the already strapped families into financial panic. Interviewees described a sense of unfairness about their suffering when they had complied with the rules and when the problems were the result of administrative errors in the welfare office.

    (p.116) Pam, the persistently homeless mother of a ten-year-old daughter, described the intricate system of government programs as irrational and arbitrary. She found it unfair that her former partner, a drug user with little employment history, could receive much more generous benefits under SSI than she and her daughter could receive under CalWORKs. She also complained about the workers, saying, “They can do anything they want.” In her opinion, all they wanted to do was shovel paper all day. She believed they had no interest in either applying rules uniformly or helping individual welfare recipients.

    The Moral Catch: You Can’t Live on It, You Can’t Live without It

    At least for the participants in this study, economic need, not greed, fueled welfare cheating. The interviewees themselves realized they were in a moral trap. When I asked her what should happen if welfare recipients got caught cheating, Aliyah, who was lying to the welfare office in a desperate attempt to regain custody of her son, talked about the need to take risks. She said, “Well, I think that they should cut them off, you know. You know, people who have to take that risk and that chance to get on, they have to lie or get on. But I think that you have to try.” Hedging, then, on her support of cheating, she continued, “But it take away money from other people too.” Many of the welfare recipients knew they were cheating but also knew that they sometimes had to cheat.

    Renee, who had been able to find only temporary jobs despite persistent efforts to find work, admitted that she had knowingly failed to report the earnings from her last spell of employment, claiming that she could not risk a cut in benefits. Both Aliyah and Renee knew they were caught in a moral quandary, taking risks they would rather not take and hiding information they felt they were obligated to provide to the welfare office. Compliance was something they negotiated on a daily basis.

    Welfare recipients’ interactions with the welfare rules were varied and complex because their individual circumstances were varied and complex. Most of the interviewees relied not only on a mix of public benefits but also on a combination of formal employment, underground employment, and help from friends and relatives to survive. None of these provided a reliable source of income—not even the welfare benefits because of the frequent administrative problems. As a result, all of the interviewees were extremely insecure financially.

    (p.117) But getting a job and getting off welfare were not straightforward tasks for the interviewees. Most interviewees, if they could find wage work at all, lacked the skills to find jobs that paid well and provided family-friendly work schedules. For many, employment created other types of insecurities for their families. Many had to leave their children home alone, sometimes at night, while they worked.

    In some cases, they believed it made economic sense for them to stay on welfare while working on their employment skills. Some considered it a better deal to accept sanctions for failing to comply with the welfare-to-work requirements, to work sporadically in the underground labor market, and to risk getting caught for failing to report income to the welfare office. Many believed that hiding sources of income from the welfare office was not only in their interest but necessary to their economic survival.

    Welfare recipients are rational actors. They are pursuing financial self-interest. But they are also trying to take care of their families—and caretaking requires time. Working full time, or even part time, was not the most rational choice for some of the interviewees. In the context of welfare, economic rationality is gendered; it gives value to goals other than wage earning. Cooking, cleaning, walking children to school, taking children to medical appointments, and maintaining relationships with family members and church members are all tasks important to the long-term well-being of families.

    Moreover, rationality is bounded, with the boundaries often so close that they act as blinders to risk. Few people are able to obtain full and perfect information about the rules and regulations that govern them, but welfare recipients rarely have perfect information when getting a question answered may require a bus ride and a full day’s wait in a welfare waiting room. Choices of action are limited when the struggles of managing a family on inadequate financial resources absorb time and emotion. Simple rational actor models do not fit well for welfare recipients. Researchers should be careful, perhaps through qualitative research, to test their assumptions about how knowledge of rules and policies filters through written regulations and welfare officials to welfare recipients themselves.

    The individuals in this study made their decisions about working or not working, seeking other sources of income, and reporting their income on the basis of their knowledge of the rules, their perceptions of the risks of getting caught breaking the rules, and their assessments of the consequences of their choices. The following chapter examines the interviewees’ engagement with the rules, regulations, and risks more closely.