Neoliberal Safety Nets: Looking at the Relationship Between Local Labor Demand and Welfare Sanctions

So I think this blog has a theoretical apparatus to discuss the simultaneous rise and expansion of both a carceral state and a market-conforming, submerged, “nudging” state, both targeted to different geographical and socio-economic spaces.  But what about the spaces in-between? How has the regulation of conduct among the working poor changed in the past 20 years?

I’m currently enjoying Discipling the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race by Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram.  They look at the historical evolution of the governance of the working poor through several lens, including local devolution, the marketization of poverty (“how privatization and the ‘business model’ have turned service provision into a site of profitable investment and a tool for servicing employer needs”) and competitive performance systems.  (I saw at a recent talk that Wendy Brown’s critical thoughts on neoliberalisms have also taken a turn towards an analysis of “devolution” and “responsibilization” involved in current governing practices – see a writeup of a similar talk here.)

But I wouldn’t bring this all up unless there was a cool graph to show you.  Part of their analysis is an in-depth look at how the post-End of Welfare As We Knew It system in Florida has evolved over the past 2 decades.  It’s a system, like all the states, that is very dependent on sanctions to remove people from the welfare rolls.  Florida “is a national leader in the use of sanctions (penalties for noncompliance) to bring client behavior into line with expectations.”

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits in cases where clients are deemed to be out of compliance with program requirements. They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence—the threat that puts muscle behind directive program rules and incents client cooperation with supervisory administration.”  They are the stick compared to the carrots of welfare benefits.  TANF, the replacement of old welfare, “specified stricter work requirements, set narrower exemption criteria, made a broader scope of behaviors subject to sanction, and gave states more options in designing penalties.”  A quarter of the caseload reductions between 1997 and 1999 came from sanctions.

So here’s a hypothesis.  The authors note that in the past “local control allowed agencies to provide welfare in a manner calibrated to local labor market needs (Piven and Cloward 1971). This dynamic took its most overt forms in southern welfare agencies that served large numbers of African American agricultural workers…Local officials provided subsistence benefits in a highly seasonal manner, doling them out when the fields lay idle and shuttering their operations when hands were needed in the fields.”  Such practices went away, but perhaps they’ve come back through a devolved, market-focused and sanction-driven neoliberal safety net?

The authors test this with the Florida market.  Look at the relationship in that first graph!  They find, in my favorite graph of the week, a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand:

If sanctioning is calibrated to seasonal changes in labor needs, sanction rates should rise during the months when employers need more hands on deck to serve the influx of visitors. As a first cut at this question, we can simply plot how monthly changes in state tourism revenues align with monthly changes in the risk of a WT client being sanctioned…Figure 8-1 plots these monthly hazard ratios against monthly tax revenues generated by the Florida tourism industry. At this high level of aggregation, we observe a remarkably tight relationship. The correlation between the two series is an astonishing r = .95….

 A county-level analysis also allows us to provide a further test of the RCM’s prediction that efforts to discipline labor participation become more intense when African Americans are more prevalent in the welfare caseload…

Consistent with the predictions of the RCM, the significant seasonal relationship observed when blacks make up 28 percent of the caseload (the 10th percentile value in our sample) becomes far stronger as the black percentage rises to 43 percent (the median) and then 68 percent (the 90th percentile value). Here, as in other areas of our analysis, we find that disciplinary poverty governance operates to service local labor markets and pursues this agenda more vigorously when confronted with black policy targets.

That relationship is robust at the county-level and shows significant relationship with the percent of African-Americans in the community.

I’m not even sure where to begin.  Is this an old thing from the South coming back with new force (as the Piven citation suggests, something similar to what Perkinson argues about the prison industry) – suggesting neoconservative thought is more telling than neoliberalism?  How does this play with low-wage, precarious work when employers have monopsony power?  What is your take?  And what else is worth reading on the interaction between precarious, working-poor labor and the government?

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7 Responses to Neoliberal Safety Nets: Looking at the Relationship Between Local Labor Demand and Welfare Sanctions

  1. Corey says:

    I don’t know, I kind of look at this the other way around; clearly the law allows for certain kinds of sanctions on welfare recipients, but when tourism-related demand dies down, welfare agencies are more lax in enforcing compliance. The result sounds at least quite counter-cyclical.

    Isn’t this exactly how you’d want a welfare system to work?

  2. chrismealy says:

    I’m tagging this Speenhamland so I can find it later.

  3. Pingback: Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude « Ned Resnikoff

  4. AF says:

    Interesting correlation. I wonder whether it is in fact attributable to heightened enforcement. Isn’t it possible that the increase in labor demand causes the increase in the rate of sanctions rather than vice versa? For example, if the people most likely to comply with the welfare requirements are also the people most likely to find seasonal jobs, they may leave the welfare rolls during the high season, which would increase the rates of non-compliance of those remaining on the rolls through selection effects. Alternatively, if exceeding the maximum income requirements leads to violations you’d expect to see more violations during high season. Indeed, in a system designed to spur welfare recipients to work, you would expect it to become more difficult to comply with program requirements as labor demand increases. To be sure, you could argue on this basis that the system works to discipline low-wage labor by design. But i don’t see the evidence that agency discretion is increasing this effect.

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  6. Pingback: What Is Welfare For? — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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