Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1983

Abstract

When lawyers confronted the welfare system in the 1960's, they charged it with oppressive moralism, personal manipulation, and invasion of privacy. They focused attention on the "man-in-the-house" rules that disqualified families on the basis of the mother's sexual conduct and the "midnight raids" in which welfare workers forced their way into recipients' homes searching for evidence of cohabitation.1

When I represented welfare recipients from 1979 to 1981, the workers showed little interest in policing their morals or intruding on their private lives. The "man-in-the-house" rule and the practice of unannounced or nighttime visits had been repudiated.2 Yet the pathologies emphasized by the lawyers of the 1960's seemed to have been mitigated at the cost of exacerbating others that were in some respects their mirror images: indifference, impersonality, and irresponsibility. The new pathologies were typified by cases in which newly arrived Cuban refugees were denied assistance because they could not produce appropriately certified copies of birth certificates for their children or in which people who sought assistance from the wrong worker were sent away without explanation, thinking mistakenly that they were entitled to nothing.

I have a particularly vivid memory of a woman whose grant was terminated when she failed to produce a recently dated letter from the school of one of her children verifying his enrollment. She had produced letters from the three other schools her children attended and had produced letters from all four schools on three prior occasions within the preceeding six months. But this time she was unable to get the letter from one school because it was August, and the school office was closed. After the school office opened, she brought the letter to her worker, who responded that it was too late: "There is nothing I can do." What she meant (as she explained to me later after the woman's checks had stopped) was that there was nothing she, as an "ongoing" case worker, could do but that the recipient could have been immediately reinstated simply by filing an application with the "intake" unit. If the literary personification of the pathologies of the old regime was Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, with his relentless intimacy and psychological omnipotence, the personification of the pathologies of the new regime is Kafka's Doorkeeper, who stands, passive and inscrutable, before the door to the Law and announces only when it is too late, "this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it."'3

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