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Policing Welfare

Punitive Adversarialism in Public Assistance

Policing Welfare

Punitive Adversarialism in Public Assistance

Means-tested government assistance in the United States requires recipients to meet certain criteria and continue to maintain their eligibility so that benefits are paid to the “truly needy.”  Welfare is regarded with such suspicion in this country that considerable resources are spent policing the boundaries of eligibility, which are delineated by an often confusing and baroque set of rules and regulations.  Even minor infractions of the many rules can cause people to be dropped from these programs, and possibly face criminal prosecution.  In this book, Spencer Headworth offers the first study of the structure of fraud control in the welfare system by examining the relations between different levels of governmental agencies, from federal to local, and their enforcement practices. Policing Welfare shows how the enforcement regime of welfare has been constructed to further stigmatize those already living in poverty and deepens disparities of class, race, and gender in our society. 

272 pages | 2 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society


“This highly original, insightful, and carefully researched book takes us into the inner workings of welfare fraud investigation units, revealing how the obsessions of policymakers with rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse are expressed in ways that at once ‘police welfare’ and the people who count on it to feed and house their children and extend the logics of policing into the administration of poverty policy in the United States. The analysis of the ‘welfare police’ and theory of ‘punitive adversarialism’ Headworth advances in these pages will shape political and urban sociology, the broad and interdisciplinary punishment and society literature, and work in legal theory and the life of the law for decades to come. This is precisely the book we’ve needed to grasp the work of the administrative state in what is shaping up to be the long twenty-first century.”

Reuben Jonathan Miller, author of?Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration

Policing Welfare is a breakthrough book, a close-up examination of how welfare fraud investigation units institutionalize surveillance and punishment as the chief imperatives of contemporary welfare bureaucracies in the United States. Spencer Headworth’s rich empirical study skillfully integrates insights from the sociology of law, stratification, and organizations to show how welfare enforcement erodes the dignity of impoverished citizens literally struggling to purchase a simple loaf of bread. It is a remarkable accomplishment that shows how debates on inequality and policing must be broadened to include welfare agents and the criminalization of poverty.”

Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, author of Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. The Strings Attached

Chapter 2. One Nation, Finding Fraud

Chapter 3. The Mill and the Grist

Chapter 4. The Welfare Police

Chapter 5. Occupational Frames and Identities in Fraud Control Work

Chapter 6. Fraud Control as Performance

Chapter 7. The Blame Game

Chapter 8. Finding Welfare Rule Violators

Chapter 9. Conclusion


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