It’s Not Just About the Money: Govern-mentality and Resistance in Post-Reform Welfare Offices

Publication Date: January 2006

Publisher: The National Poverty Center at The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Author(s): Celeste Watkins

Research Area: Economics; Human rights; Labor; Social conditions

Keywords: low-income families; women; welfare reform

Type: Report

Coverage: Michigan


The substantial decline in the welfare rolls, expansion of child support collection, and increased labor force participation among low-income mothers in the late 1990s demonstrated that welfare reform, along with a booming economy, compelled many welfare recipients to restructure their relationships with the state of Massachusetts.

This paper explores how power and regulation were deployed in local welfare offices in ways that encouraged these outcomes. It uses interview data from 30 female clients who participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program along with ethnographic data collected in some of the TANF offices frequented by study participants.

It considers the governance of low-income mothers within (and outside) these institutions and explores how women who relied on these bureaucracies responded to attempts to transform their conduct. Analysis shows that a casework model of surveillance-based support and cultural narratives about impoverished mothers were deployed to justify and enforce the new welfare policy. The paper also examines the ways that TANF-reliant mothers contested or co-signed regulation through their engagement with the office.