Cheating Welfare

Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty

238 pages

July, 2011

ISBN: 9780814732311



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Kaaryn S. Gustafson is Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine.

All books by Kaaryn S. Gustafson

Over the last three decades, welfare policies have been informed by popular beliefs that welfare fraud is rampant. As a result, welfare policies have become more punitive and the boundaries between the welfare system and the criminal justice system have blurred—so much so that in some locales prosecution caseloads for welfare fraud exceed welfare caseloads. In reality, some recipients manipulate the welfare system for their own ends, others are gravely hurt by punitive policies, and still others fall somewhere in between.

In Cheating Welfare, Kaaryn S. Gustafson endeavors to clear up these gray areas by providing insights into the history, social construction, and lived experience of welfare. She shows why cheating is all but inevitable—not because poor people are immoral, but because ordinary individuals navigating complex systems of rules are likely to become entangled despite their best efforts. Through an examination of the construction of the crime we know as welfare fraud, which she bases on in-depth interviews with welfare recipients in Northern California, Gustafson challenges readers to question their assumptions about welfare policies, welfare recipients, and crime control in the United States.


  • “A fascinating account of the welfare system seen from the perspective of welfare recipients.”

    —Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College

  • “Gustafson's book is a devastating expose on welfare reform's criminalization of poverty. It puts into sharp relief how welfare policy today reinforces the cultural biases against the poor while actually working to make the poorest of the poor even poorer. Steeped in deep understanding of the history of welfare policy, Cheating Welfare poignantly relies on first-hand accounts from clients to specify the ways that the current system works to undermine their attempts to achieve self- sufficiency. The contemporary integration of welfare policy and criminal law is put under a brilliant light for all to see. This is a most timely and critical book that should be read widely.”

    —Sanford Schram, author of Welfare Discipline: Discourse, Governance and Globalization

  • "Cheating Welfare is simultaneously compassionate and scholarly. Gustafson provides a rare insider perspective on how citizens understand and use welfare. The stories that she relates are a testament to the resilience and strength of people caring for others as best they can in the face of great adversity. Her discussion of necessary, sometimes inadvertent, non-compliance as a form of resistance brings a more complex understanding to theories of rule abidance. This compelling book is a must-read for students, policymakers, and scholars who wish to have informed opinions based on how policies actually shape the behavior of and outcomes for low-income citizens in the context of their complex lived reality.”

    —Corey Shdaimah, author of Negotiating Justice

  • The 1990s ushered in an era of neoliberal changes in the US in public policies aimed at the poor.  Key to these modifications  was a shift in ideological thought that mandated personal responsibility for all.  Poverty researchers have always paid attention to the hegemonic discourses that shaped public policy, ranging from regulating the behaviors of the poor, to determining which poor are worthy of assistance, to punishing the poor (e.g., Loïc Waquant, Punishing the Poor, 2009;  Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor, 1989).  Gustafson (law, Connecticut) continues this tradition  by focusing on how US welfare policy has increasingly become criminalized  despite the polyvocality of welfare recipients.  She examines the similarities and differences of 34 female and male respondents concerning their knowledge, perspectives, and experiences  of the rules and sanctions governing welfare.  The author begins by offering a comprehensive overview of US poverty embedded within a criminalization of poverty,and draws upon rational choice theory to conceptually frame her arguments.  She adeptly demonstrates the need for a new paradigm that embodies the words of the Founding Fathers to "promote the general Welfare" of all US citizens.  Students and researchers alike will benefit from her multidisciplinary  approach.  Summing Up:Recommended.  Most levels/libraries.


  • The book is a readable account of welfare mothers (and a few fathers), emphasizing how these people understand and often violate the rules they are supposed to follow. It would be useful in a course on welfare or perhaps as supplementary reading in a course on poverty.

    —C. Emory Burton, Contemporary Sociology

  • I am drunk on the virtues of Cheating Welfare, and think that all serious law and society scholars should read it. Even to one who is steeped in the historical and contemporary record of poor people’s treatment by the government of the United States, Gustafson’s work is surprising and very instructive.

    —Felicia Kornbluh, Law and Society Review

  • States and county governments are spending tens of millions more on investigating fraud than they are reaping in repayments.  But even in an age of spending cuts, no one questions this regime.  Punishment and policing seem to be more important than balanced budgets.  Criminalizing poverty, writes Gustafson, has "diverted public attention away from poverty and from the nearly forgotten policy goals of protecting low-income adults and children from the effects of economic instability."

    —Annelise Orleck, Women's Review of Books

  • Cheating Welfare offers insight into decision-making among welfare-reliant women (and a few men) in a context that raises, if it does not necessarily answer, crucial questions about how to structure effective relief policies, the naïveté of deterrence theories, the relationship between the welfare state and the prison, and the manner in which poor Americans are increasingly pinioned …trapped in a world in which little remains but bad options, and where rule-breaking may be the only way to get by.

    —Stephen Pimpare, Critical Social Policy

  • Three categories of welfare recipients emerged from these interviews, the Informed, the Misinformed, and the Preoccupied/Disengaged. Gustafson's main contribution to our understanding of welfare is to show how these categories differ from our assumptions regarding recipients. Through liberal use of interviewee quotes, matched with relevant background on their lives, Gustafson proves that the welfare recipients differ in significant ways from each other and also from the monolithic stereotype. In doing so, Gustafson shows that by listening to the voices of the poor we can better understand the shortfalls of policies designed to help the poor.

    —Ezra Rosser, Yale Human Rights & Development