Workfare National and Local

Part 3: Broken Windows, Workfare, and the Battle for Public Space in Giuliani’s New York

Workfare in Theory

A more thorough examination of the theory and practice of workfare is in order so as to better understand the relationship between broken windows policing and the imposition of welfare-to-work policies on both the federal and state levels. As sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward aver, “relief arrangements are ancillary to economic arrangements,” such that these arrangements exert a regulatory effect on labor by expanding to placate the unemployed in times of economic crisis, later to rapidly contract and send aid recipients back into the labor market.1 In capitalist economies, they note, labor is distributed according to financial imperatives characterized by economic flux.2

Constant changes regarding how labor is distributed thus necessitate some level of unemployment. When mass unemployment occurs in capitalism’s most volatile phases, however, people lose their affective attachment to the welfare state and so the regulatory capacity of relief institutions weakens.3 It is for this reason that the Fordist welfare state was more amenable to working class life: without mass public spending on programs for the poor, capitalism’s penchant for volatility could threaten its own legitimacy as an economic system. Under the workfare paradigm, however, the threat of ‘welfare dependency’ undergirds both rhetorical and material shifts in the restructuring of aid programs through the concurrent restructuring of the individual. As Peck submits, this “new imperative is to end welfare, not poverty per se; the objective is to correct those individual behavioral dysfunctions—such as moral laxity and inadequate work discipline—that are seen as a cause of poverty but more importantly as a consequence of the welfare system.”4 Workfare thus enforces mandatory participation in work programs in order to attain relief while simultaneously forcing the poor into a sustained yet always tenuous relation to the labor market5 in which “civil rights, including rights of access to state support, intervention, and benefits, are presented as the flipside of civic responsibilities.”6

PRWORA and Neoliberal Rationality

Bill Clinton signed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law on August 22, 1996, signifying the culmination of his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Perhaps more than any single piece of legislation before or since, PRWORA embodied the transformation of poor relief form welfare to workfare. Though most welfare recipients already participated in some form of employment when the act was ratified—often part-time or irregular—the changes to the welfare programs marked by PRWORA would “necessarily disrupt these informal arrangements and lead to lower family incomes.”7 Here the constructions of deservedness outlined above are again useful, as those who relied on insubstantial employment under past welfare programs such as AFDC in the attempt to make ends meet were construed as pathologically dependent on welfare under PRWORA and punished by the state for their inability to procure steady yet unskilled and desocialized employment through the actual dissolution of work opportunities.

Rather than offering carrots to incentivize fuller participation in the labor force, PRWORA brandished the nightstick in order to ‘enable’ a more productive work ethic. Within this rubric the actions of aid recipients are intrinsically attached to the notion of rational choice and imbued with a mythical sense of agency: they are freed from the constrictions of a faulty welfare program and can make their own choices and conclusions about the kind of life they want to lead. This fabrication of neoliberal rationality is inherently contradictory, however, as the encouragement of individual choice vis-à-vis the free market is ineluctable from the high level of scrutiny and moral regulation under workfare.8 Rather than simply exhibiting a presumed overreliance on welfare, however, “the more insecure factions of the American proletariat are now dependent on poverty-level wage labor, the brittle social economy centered on the family, and the parallel circuits of informal and criminal enterprise.”9 Just as the broken windows theory was premised on the restoration of order to the streets of New York through the punishment of the most minor offenses, workfare presupposed economic order vis-à-vis the castigation of moral-financial deviance from the proper behavioral norms developed for the poor.

PRWORA effectively marked the undoing of AFDC and the subsequent implementation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a rhetorically coded program whose key features included setting a five-year cap on the amount of aid recipients are allowed over the course of their lives, while making assistance contingent on employment after two years, regardless of the type. Emblematic of new workfare regime, TANF cut aid budgets by one-fifth without any supplementary job creation.10 This is not to glorify AFDC, however. By the time the time of its collapse the program’s value had decreased by 47 percent since 1975 and covered over 16 percent fewer single-parent families.10 Rather, the replacement of AFDC with TANF marked a reification of this trend and a concretization of the US workfare regime. Yet though Clinton’s brand of welfare reform radically altered the reach and effectiveness of means-tested programs, it left universal programs such as Medicare and Social Security—the two largest social expenditures in the country, at $143 billion and $419 billion in 1994—entirely unencroached upon.11 In contrast, AFDC had cost $22 billion and food stamps $23 billion.11

PRWORA was not only a remarkably stringent measure intended to liberate the poor from their unwillingness to work: it was also financially inefficient. Above all is the fact that though PRWORA succeeded in removing aid recipients from the federal relief rolls, it did nothing to reduce the national poverty rate. By 2004 the poverty rate in the US had declined one percent from 13.7 to 12.7, statistically insignificant in demonstrating any viable causality.12 Moreover, the intensity of poverty itself increased. In 2002, Wacquant notes, “the gap between the average income of poor households and the federal poverty line (taking into account housing support, food stamps, and in-kind assistance) came to $2,913, which is 23 percent more than in 1996 in constant dollars.”12 Part of the reason as to why poverty intensified during this time can be attributed to TANF’s ineffectiveness at promoting the kind of liberal free-choice model it claimed to symbolize. By 2003, for example, more than 40 percent of households expelled from the program had been unable to maintain stable employment and had to engage in alternative economies in order to survive.13 It is thus unsurprising that a massive amount of income in the US comes from work in the underground economy, an estimated 8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).14 Workfare programs can then be understood to have a grave effect on households dually connected to the US penal nexus. The demographic profile of those who received aid under AFDC, for example, mirrors that of jail inmates, but with gender inverted.15 It is thus unsurprising that PRWORA also functioned in close relation to the prison system. Section 115 of the act, for example, denies TANF recipients assistance if they have been convicted of the “use, possession, or distribution of controlled substances,”16 while section 203 prohibits the payment of benefits to prisoners.17 It is through this process that those deemed newly enabled to work and better able to exercise their civic responsibilities under the rubric of neoliberal rationality become deeply enmeshed within the repressive state apparatus, from police to prison. They are the vagrants of welfare policy.

New York City: The “Workfare Pioneer”

Though Clinton launched the most intensive federal workfare programs in 1996, New York City can be understood as the original “workfare pioneer,”18 implementing a workfare program of its own before the ratification of PRWORA. The 1995 Work Experience Program (WEP), for example, marked similar initiatives to that of the federal plan, while also placing new restrictions on educational accessibility and municipal employment opportunities. New York’s own Personal Responsibility Act (PRA), enacted in tandem with the federal legislation, purported to encourage self-sufficiency and economic dependence but actually damaged any possibility for stable, long-term employment. In promoting a ‘work-first’ policy, TANF recipients under the PRA were forced to abandon their education. With public aid now contingent on employment, over 12,000 TANF recipients dropped out of college, while low-wage job employment and use of food pantries and shelters simultaneously increased.19 Even though data shows higher education, more than any other factor, is be linked to long-term self-sufficiency for former AFDC recipients, the PRA provided TANF recipients with short-term vocational training rather than supporting those in pursuit of four-year college degrees.19 Despite these sacrifices, by August of 2000 “the number of persons receiving public assistance in New York City had dropped to 563,246, the lowest level since January 1967. This figure represented a decline of 597,347 persons (51.5%) since March 1995.”20 Between 1995 and 1998, New York’s workfare program expanded, while welfare allocations were slashed in half.21

As we have already observed in the national data, the declining rates of public aid recipients cannot be attributed to falling poverty or unemployment rates. Programs like WEP, for example, created disincentives for staying on welfare by authorizing the state to sanction aid recipients.21 In New York, these programs served a dual function by replacing unionized workers in the public sector with workfare recipients, disempowering both unions and workfare recipients who were desperate for work while simultaneously only paying one-quarter the amount of benefits as it did before and saving an average of $2 billion dollars every year through welfare disincentives.22 Moreover, though workfare programs placed the onus on responsibility while decrying individuals who were not able to sufficiently support their families, the long hours worked for paltry welfare benefits (often less than $20 a day) required sacrificing the very kind of family time rhetorically championed by workfare programs like WEP.22 New York also emulates national trends in that its workfare programs did not lead to jobs; in fact, through its capacity to both depress wages and wage war on public unionized workers, by 1996 the city had lost nearly 20,000 municipal jobs, with workfare recipients assigned in smaller numbers to the Parks and Sanitation departments to replace the municipal workers who had been removed.18 By 1997 over 40,000 workfare recipients were refurbishing the parks, streets, and subways of New York City—the same areas that were simultaneously being ‘cleaned up’ by Bratton’s police force—without any kind of employment protections or regulations.23 Yet even with the job loss and intensification of poverty under New York’s workfare programs, in 1995 Giuliani voiced his opposition to job training of any sort.24 Further examination demonstrates that though Giuliani’s administration claimed that most exits from welfare rolls signified secure employment, over 33 percent of exits from the rolls ended in unemployment.24

Perhaps most troubling in assessing New York City’s workfare programs is the level of ‘disorder,’ or ‘vagrancy’ they created. At a time when the broken windows theory was being implemented as a viable policing strategy thought to ease the city’s gentry of its fear of Black lower-class ‘disorder,’ its laws constituted a self-fulfilling prophecy by further exacerbating the conditions it purportedly existed to protect against. Though unemployment fell considerably from 1992 to 1999 from 11 to 6.7 percent, underemployment remained unchanged.25 As one might deduce from the information provided above, the number of low-wage jobs (under $25,000 per year) boomed, making up 22 percent of total jobs in the city and four times as much as jobs paying between $25,000 and $75,000.25 The decentralized block-grant programs that were a cornerstone of PRWORA (in which the federal government supplied states with finite grants to use for welfare distribution) were also crucial to New York’s economic restructuring. By 2000, Giuliani had used this funding to alter training and job-placement programs in order to favor large firms while concurrently introducing private for-profit firms into the city’s social service network.26 This shift occurred in conjunction with a shift to performance-based contracting premised on the assumption that the market would provide the impetus for workfare recipients to improve their qualifications if they truly wanted to work for public benefits.26 Above all, however, New Yorkers found it increasingly difficult to feed their families under workfare. From 1995 to 1998 the number of Emergency Feeding Programs rose from 735 to 971, a factor of roughly one-third.27 Meals served per month during this period increased from 2.7 million to 5.2 million, and the number of people served by these programs grew 99 percent, from 209,280 to 615,858.27

In turning from a statistical overview of workfare programs both federal and national to an analytical synthesis of zero-tolerance policing vis-à-vis the implementation of the broken windows theory, it crucial to recall the discussion of the Black Codes from above. Giuliani’s New York, perhaps the epicenter of new US workfare regime, marked a return to the criminalization of ‘improper’ (read: low-income) money management, but because these activities threatened capital speculation and the urban renewal of the city. Under workfare, one’s “neglect” of “their calling or employment” or “habitual misuse of time,” in the language of the Black Codes, are transmuted from the racialized legislation into the rhetoric of individual responsibility under the logic of free-market rationality. Whereas vagrancy was punishable in court under the Black Codes, workfare creates the conditions for such punishment. In New York City under Giuliani, the mayor’s administration spent only $223 million on public housing, a 44 percent decline in capital investment compared to his predecessor, David Dinkins.28 With the rise in homelessness, Giuliani also managed to sell 80 percent of city-owned abandoned houses to private developers, catalyzing capital investment and gentrification across the city.29 Between the increase in chronic underemployment in New York, the rise of unsustainable low-wage jobs, and the defunding of public housing, evictions and homelessness—codified as inherent disruptions to the sanctity public space—become an imminent reality, necessitating participation in a range of informal economies to make up for the lack of assistance under workfare.

  • Read Part 1 and 2.
  • Next: Part 4: “Broken Windows in Practice.”
    1. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Random House, 1971), 3. []
    2. Piven and Cloward, 5. []
    3. Piven and Cloward, 7. []
    4. Peck, Jamie. Workfare States, New York: The Guilford Press, 2001, 88. []
    5. Peck, 12. []
    6. Scraton, Phil. “Streets of Terror: Marginalization, Criminalization, and Authoritarian Renewal.” Social Justice, Vol. 31, No. 1/2 (95-96), Resisting Militarism and Globalized Punishment (2004), 143. []
    7. Frances Fox Piven, “Welfare and Work,” Social Justice Vol. 25, No. 1 (71), Disdained Mothers & Despised Others: The Politics & Impact of Welfare Reform (Spring 1998), 69. []
    8. Barnard Center for Research on Women, “Paradoxes of Neoliberalism,” S&F Online 11.1 (2012). []
    9. Wacquant, Loïc. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009, 97-98. []
    10. Wacquant, Loïc. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 56. [] []
    11. Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, 80. [] []
    12. Ibid, 97. [] []
    13. Ibid, 95. []
    14. Taylor Barnes, “America’s ‘Shadow Economy’ Is Bigger Than You Think—And Growing,” Christian Science Monitor. []
    15. Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, 98-99. []
    16. PRWORA, Section 115. []
    17. PRWORA, Section 203. []
    18. Piven, “Welfare and Work,” 73. [] []
    19. Delores Jones-Brown and Jacqueline Mahoney, “Work First and Forget About Education: New York City’s Personal Responsibility Act and the Creation of a Working Underclass,” Social Justice, Vol. 28, No. 4 (86), In the Aftermath of Welfare “Reform” (Winter 2001), 33-34. [] []
    20. Jones-Brown and Mahoney, 34. []
    21. John Krinsky, “The Dialectics of Privatization and Advocacy in New York City’s Workfare State,” Social Justice, Vol. 33, No. 3 (105), Privatization and Resistance: Contesting Neoliberal Globalization (2006), 158. [] []
    22. Krinsky, 162. [] []
    23. Piven, 73. []
    24. Krinsky, 165. [] []
    25. Jones-Brown and Mahoney, 39. [] []
    26. Krinsky, 166-67. [] []
    27. Jones-Brown and Mahoney, 38. [] []
    28. Jones-Brown and Mahoney, 40. []
    29. Robert Polner, America’s Mayor, America’s President? The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, inc.), 105, quoted in On the Issues. []
    Jacob Ertel recently graduated from Oberlin College, where he organized with Students for a Free Palestine and studied political economy. Jacob is currently based in New York City and is interested in the BDS movement, anti-gentrification, and internationalism. He has previously been published on Dissident Voice and Cyrano’s Journal. He can be contacted by email at:</a. Read other articles by Jacob.