Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
They Say Cutback, We Say Fight Back!

They Say Cutback, We Say Fight Back!: Welfare Activism in an Era of Retrenchment

Ellen Reese
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    They Say Cutback, We Say Fight Back!
    Book Description:

    In 1996, President Bill Clinton hailed the “end of welfare as we know it” when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The law effectively transformed the nation’s welfare system from an entitlement to a work-based one, instituting new time limits on welfare payments and restrictions on public assistance for legal immigrants. In They Say Cutback, We Say Fight Back, Ellen Reese offers a timely review of welfare reform and its controversial design, now sorely tested in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The book also chronicles the largely untold story of a new grassroots coalition that opposed the law and continues to challenge and reshape its legacy. While most accounts of welfare policy highlight themes of race, class and gender, They Say Cutback examines how welfare recipients and their allies contested welfare reform from the bottom-up. Using in-depth case studies of campaigns in Wisconsin and California, Reese argues that a crucial phase in policymaking unfolded after the bill’s passage. As counties and states set out to redesign their welfare programs, activists scored significant victories by lobbying officials at different levels of American government through media outreach, protests and organizing. Such efforts tended to enjoy more success when based on broad coalitions that cut across race and class, drawing together a shifting alliance of immigrants, public sector unions, feminists, and the poor. The book tracks the tensions and strategies of this unwieldy group brought together inadvertently by their opposition to four major aspects of welfare reform: immigrants’ benefits, welfare-to-work policies, privatization of welfare agencies, and child care services. Success in scoring reversals was uneven and subject to local demographic, political and institutional factors. In California, for example, workfare policies created a large and concentrated pool of new workers that public sector unions could organize in campaigns to change policies. In Wisconsin, by contrast, such workers were scattered and largely placed in private sector jobs, leaving unions at a disadvantage. Large Latino and Asian immigrant populations in California successfully lobbied to restore access to public assistance programs, while mobilization in Wisconsin remained more limited. On the other hand, the unionization of child care providers succeeded in Wisconsin – but failed in California – because of contrasting gubernatorial politics. With vivid descriptions of the new players and alliances in each of these campaigns, Reese paints a nuanced and complex portrait of the modern American welfare state. At a time when more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, They Say Cutback offers a sobering assessment of the nation’s safety net. As policymakers confront budget deficits and a new era of austerity, this book provides an authoritative guide for both scholars and activists looking for lessons to direct future efforts to change welfare policy.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-748-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Chapter 1 Welfare Reform and Its Challengers
    (pp. 1-21)

    Many books about the politics of welfare reform in the United States provide a top-down perspective. They tend to focus on the role that political, cultural, and economic elites have played in pushing for welfare reforms and in shaping the design of federal welfare reform acts—in particular, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).² Similarly, both feminist and race-centered scholarship on welfare reform highlight the influence of hegemonic ideologies; they emphasize how racist stereotypes of the poor, expectations that poor mothers must work, the stigma of single motherhood, and heterosexism shape the content of, support for,...

  6. Chapter 2 Policy Implementation as Policymaking: The Case of U.S. Welfare Reform
    (pp. 22-46)

    The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, justified through all sorts of negative stereotypes of the poor, represented a massive defeat at the national level for welfare rights advocates. At the same time, the provision of state and local discretion over the design and implementation of welfare reform policies directed energy towards state and local campaigns. Thus, while federal welfare policies have historically provided elites with “multiple veto points” through which they have limited welfare rights,¹ the decentralized and institutionally complex nature of welfare policymaking also provided flexibility and multiple routes for welfare...

  7. Chapter 3 Challenging Welfare Racism: Cross-Racial Coalitions to Restore Legal Immigrants’ Benefits
    (pp. 47-71)

    In 1996, as mounting attacks on welfare recipients coincided with a backlash against immigrants, Congress denied federal public assistance to most legal non-citizen immigrants for their first five years in the country through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).³ This new rule applied to all four major public assistance programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI, which provides cash aid to elderly and disabled immigrants), Medicaid, and Food Stamps. One month later, Congress passed a highly punitive immigration reform act, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which aimed to restrict illegal...

  8. Chapter 4 Battling the Welfare Profiteers: Campaigns Against Welfare Privatization
    (pp. 72-97)

    Scholars on “mixed governance” point to various forces that have contributed to support for the privatization of welfare and other social services in wealthy democratic countries since the 1980s. Declining tax bases and increased demands for state services, especially specialized services, put pressure on states to contract out services to private agencies in order to cut costs. Because private agencies tend to employ non-union workers, their services tend to be cheaper than the unionized public sector.² Criticisms from both the left and the right also undermined the legitimacy of the welfare state, paving the way for public-private partnerships in the...

  9. Chapter 5 Confronting the Workfare State: Community and Labor Campaigns for Workfare Workers’ Rights
    (pp. 98-126)

    The expansion of welfare-to-work programs alarmed both union and welfare rights activists. They feared that welfare-to-work participants would become extremely exploited workers and that governments and other employers would use them to displace and erode the bargaining strength of higher-paid unionized workers. To address the problems associated with the spread of “workfare,” unions and community groups in at least five areas—Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and several counties in New Jersey—organized welfare-to-work participants as workers rather than as welfare recipients. While the expansion of workfare programs did create a new population of workers for unions to...

  10. Chapter 6 But Who Will Watch the Children? State and Local Campaigns to Improve Child Care Policies
    (pp. 127-165)

    In addition to sparking campaigns over workfare workers’ rights, the implementation of new welfare-to-work requirements also gave new life to long-standing struggles over policies that regulated the care of children. This chapter examines three types of struggles over child care policies that ensued in Wisconsin and California in the wake of welfare reform. First, some welfare rights activists defended poor mothers’ right to take care of their children, pushing for various exemptions from welfare-to-work requirements. Second, child care providers and children’s advocates pushed for improvements in child care providers’ rights as workers, such as higher wages and better working conditions...

  11. Chapter 7 Challenges and Prospects for the Welfare Rights Movement
    (pp. 166-188)

    As other scholars have shown, the design of U.S. welfare policies, including those governing welfare-to-work programs, reflects the influence of dominant-class interests and ideologies: minimizing the redistribution of income, keeping the wage floor low, reinforcing the work ethic, normalizing forced work, and creating legal challenges for the enforcement of federal labor laws.¹ Scholars have also documented how corporate interests promote the privatization of welfare programs, while neoliberal rhetoric fuels policies that portray unionized public-sector workers as costly and inefficient.²

    Feminist and critical race scholars extend these insights, drawing attention to how gender and racial politics have interacted with class politics...

  12. Appendix Data and Methods
    (pp. 189-190)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 191-232)
  14. References
    (pp. 233-274)
  15. Index
    (pp. 275-296)