Photo Credit: Matt York/AP
For many, the Fourth of July was a moment to continue calls to defund the police and vocalize opposition to racialized police violence. And rightfully so—defunding the police has become an intuitive and effective slogan to highlight unethically inflated police budgets that detract from money spent on housing, education, unemployment benefits, and a variety of other social welfare programs.
But as state and local governments express willingness to alter police practices, advocates must remember the deep roots between mass incarceration and the welfare programs we are seeking to give more financial support.
By way of background, much of United States welfare law rests on differentiating deserving from undeserving poor people. While President Bill Clinton is notorious for having passed the 1994 crime bill that has fueled mass incarceration ever since, he also passed the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The Act realized decades of conservative moralizing about personal responsibility, fears of welfare “fraud,” and fear mongering around crime. For instance, almost all states have a work search requirement for unemployment benefits designed to weed out possible “fraudulent cases” or “welfare cheats.” SNAP, a food assistance program, also sharply limits assistance to unemployed persons. Means-testing like this cuts across our entire welfare system and results in a complicated web of eligibility requirements, which makes receiving assistance incredibly difficult. It is also deeply stigmatizing and reinforces the state’s police power over poor people by subjecting them constant paperwork requirements and eligibility checks just to survive.
Within this division of the deserving and undeserving, the United States has consistently considered persons affected by the criminal justice system as the least deserving. The 1996 welfare reform bill prevented anyone with a felony warrant or violation on their parole or probation terms from receiving food stamps, social security, housing assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The bill also prohibited those convicted of drug-related felonies from receiving TANF and food stamps, but gave states the ability to opt out of the ban. Some states have chosen to opt out, but felony drug rules still exist, at least in part, in over 30 states. One survey estimated that from 1996 to 2011, across 12 states, over 180,000 women were denied TANF benefits as a result of the felony drug policy. To those seeking the means of survival, the message is clear: people punished by the criminal justice system’s wellbeing matters less than those of other Americans.
The criminalization of welfare, then, is a reminder that calls to divest from police and reinvest in social services must also be accompanied by calls to address the surveillance and stigma that currently comes with receiving assistance. Welfare programs often mirror many of the tactics and organizing principles of policing. Through surveillance and an onslaught of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, one feels “the psychic weight of living their lives under the watchful eye of the state.” For example, in San Diego, recipients of CalWORKs are subject to unannounced home visits by a plain-clothed welfare officer employed by the prosecutor’s office. Moreover, people might misunderstand a program’s confusing and, oftentimes, hidden guidelines, subjecting them to sanctions like a decrease in benefits or being cut off all together. Taken as a whole, welfare programs force poor people to divulge the most intimate parts of their lives, fact check those disclosures, and then punish people for noncompliance. This is a system that sets poor people up for failure and reenacts policing in the provision of welfare.
Linking the critique of police violence to a critique of current welfare practices can also expose the similar racialized logics that underlie the two systems. Broadly speaking, both welfare and policing are ways to enforce control by punishing deviance. That is, those with racial and economic power dictate how we should live and those who do not meet those expectations are punished with impunity. In welfare programs, the enforcement comes through means testing and differentiating deserving and undeserving poor people. Similarly, police target poor populations of color and cast the decisions black and brown people make as failures to live up to the expectations of whiteness. In both settings, marginalized people’s relationship with the state is overtly punitive and casts them as outsiders to be controlled rather than members of a community deserving support and care.
Working in tandem, our policing and welfare systems function to punish poverty. For example, police violently criminalize homelessness through anti-loitering laws and encampment sweeps, meanwhile underfunded public housing programs fail to deliver affordable housing. In theory, defunding the police would address this by taking away the money that fuels police harassment of the homeless and shifting money into providing those same people with shelter. The problem, however, is that welfare programs, both in ideology and bureaucratic design, are not well suited to provide the kind of assistance that is necessary to address racial disparities. Take mental health services as an example. Police are frequently called on to manage alleged mental health crises, especially when the person is poor or black. Presumably, then, defunding the police would shift that responsibility to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. But mental health itself is an industry with a long history of racialized violence and distrust amongst people of color. Additionally, racial disparities exist within forced hospitalizations, which can be just as traumatic and stigmatizing as criminal incarceration.
To be sure, many abolitionists are already doing inspiring work trying to imagine community organizations that avoid the pitfalls of traditional welfare and policing. But as the slogan “defund the police” gains momentum across the country, it is imperative to think of “the police” less as individual officers and more as an organizing logic that controls and punishes marginalized communities. Shifting more money to education and welfare is simply not enough when the logic of policing seeps into those institutions’ daily practices.
Given how many of the disparities and racist logics that pervade policing also apply to our welfare system, calls to defund the police risk a dangerous oversimplification by framing the argument merely in terms of altering government budgets. Policing tactics of surveillance, sanctions, and stigmatization pervade welfare systems by design. Giving those same systems more money—without also altering their punitive attributes—risks instituting policing by another name.