Criminalizing the Poor: From Welfare to Cellfare

By Christopher Petrella

The atrophy of the social welfare state and the growth of the penal state represent a double criminalization of poverty.


On August 22, 1996 President Bill Clinton signed into law his now infamous Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act thereby “end[ing] welfare as we have come to know it.” The Act replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF establishes a lifetime limit of 60 months (5 years) for federal assistance, mandates that single parents participate in work activities for an average of 30 hours per week, and caps federal block grant contributions to states at $16.6 billion per year. (As a result of inflation the real value of the TANF block grant has already fallen by 28%.)

And despite few fluctuations in the poverty rate since TANF supplanted AFCD, the participation rate among eligible families has plummeted by 52% since 1995.

Over the same time period—and despite flat to declining crime rates— the U.S. prison and jail population has increased by 44%. Perhaps a quickly expanding prison population is precisely the unspoken foundation upon which “welfare to workfare” rests. We haven’t “ended welfare;” instead we’ve invisiblized it by shifting its beneficiaries from the public square to the prison yard.

The atrophy of the social welfare state and the growth of the penal state represent a double criminalization of poverty. Considering TANF/AFDC data alongside trends in incarceration is necessary for rethinking the role of the state in provisioning basic social services. The transition from welfare to workfare and the proliferation of bodies behind bars taken together “work to marginalize populations—by forcing them off the public aid rolls, on the one side, and holding them under lock, on the other—and eventually pushing them into the peripheral [and deeply precarious] sectors of the labor market.”

The shared historical roots and political convergences of the assistantial and penitential functions of the state are further validated by the fact that the “social profile” of their respective beneficiaries is uncannily similar. For instance, 50% of former AFDC recipients throughout the early 1990s lived at or below half of the poverty line. Today, 65% of inmates in the United States inhabit the same category.

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