Here is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline. She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated). Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions. After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor.
Workfare and Prisonfare
In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor. In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women. Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”. They are two sides of the same coin. While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.
We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”. Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem. Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.
There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”. The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”. Solidarity is not a societal value here. When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect. Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response. A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness. The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.
Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.
Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program. The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording: “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”. Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions. Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women. By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible. This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.
To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security. The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship. The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers. The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness. Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.
Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning: Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work: homelessness.
In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law. It used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently. They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.
The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision. The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not. All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts. Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.
This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …” The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision. The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles. This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.
While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.
The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs. Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage. There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.
“Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity” by Loic Wacquant 2009 – Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley and is a MacArthur Award Winner.
Observations of trials 2013