Workfare and resistance in the US: the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics post 1996


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This paper focuses on the implementation of workfare in the US, with the aim of understanding the passive response of the unions and other progressive groups to the restructuring and retrenchment of the American welfare system. In particular, it considers the disparate efforts to organise welfare recipients and low-wage workers around the restructuring of social benefits towards work in the District of Columbia. Although the convergence of welfare recipients and low-wage workers through ‘work-first’ initiatives has the potential to spur political mobilisation and protest against the reform of welfare, it is found that at the local level campaigns against workfare are diverse and changeable, producing very little – it could be argued – in terms of long-term resistance. Identifying forms of dissidence in Washington DC as constitutive of the broader liberal regime of governance and re-regulation, this paper probes the forms, possibilities and problems of organising workfare subjects. This allows for consideration of the extent to which workfare programmes are being re-inscribed within emerging patterns of political-economic development and the potential for future action.