Citizen Control: Race at the Welfare Office


  • Linda Nguyen and Kamilah C. Taylor are graduates of the Political Science Department at Seattle University. The authors will share all data and coding for replication purposes. The authors would like to thank the following individuals for their advice and/or comments in the planning, research, and writing of this article: anonymous reviewers of the article, Selene Barnes, Angelique M. Davis, Mako Fitts, Bridget Donovan, Diana Meña, Ángela Ortez, Gary K. Perry, Hoa T. Pham, Andrea Y. Simpson, and Grace M. Taylor. They would also like to express their gratitude for generous support for this project by Seattle University's Endowed Mission Fund.



Individual relationships to the state are shaped through encounters with a variety of institutions. Little scholarly attention has been devoted to how citizenship is shaped through everyday interactions with the social service arm of the state through local “welfare” offices. In Washington State, one-third of all residents are served by the state's primary social service agency. Does this state agency send different messages about citizenship to individuals according to race? We examine this question through encounters of individuals with front-line welfare office staff.


Using a systematic audit method, we collected data from 54 Community Service Offices in Washington State to explore messages sent to individuals.


We find consistent relationships between race and the quantity of information received and the quality of the interaction with the representatives of the state.


Our findings provide evidence that the state reinforces notions of both belonging and marginalization through patterns of racialized encounters with the state.