Back to home page
ISR Issue 49, SeptemberOctober 2006
R E V I E W S
Latinas at the low end of the wage scale
and Jeanne Theoharis
NOT WORKING: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare Reform
New York University Press, 2006
308 pages $22
Review by DANIELLE HECK
BOTH DEMOCRATS and Republicans have hailed “welfare reform” as a success story-in which poor mothers have “traded a welfare check for a paycheck.”
But the real story is devastating, especially for immigrants.
Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis, authors of Not Working, note that the repeal of welfare entitlements in 1996 not only eroded workers' rights in general, but
also served as a covert means for immigration reform, as it created new lines of stratification between citizens and noncitizens, making citizenship a requirement for most social entitlements in U.S. society. Only legal immigrants who could provide proof of 40 quarters (or ten years) of work in the U.S. were exempt from the cutoffs.The new law immediately made more than one million legal immigrants ineligible for food stamps. Half a million elderly and disabled immigrants became ineligible for Supplemental Security Income. For those who still did qualify, the new system created time-limited and work-based welfare and imposed strict “moral regulations” over access to benefits.
Bill Clinton set the stage for this attack three years earlier when he declared: “We must not-we will not-surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice,” portraying immigrants as welfare cheats who were taking advantage of America's generosity.
Although such racial stereotypes of immigrants-and Blacks-were crucial in passing the welfare cuts, politicians simultaneously declared that systemic racism was no longer an issue. This was their excuse, as Marchevsky and Theoharis note, to roll back social protections that had been won in civil rights struggles a generation earlier: “Indeed, it would take a New South Democrat like Bill Clinton-celebrated by African-American novelist Toni Morrison as the nation's 'first black president'-to ring in America's post-civil rights era and its triumphal event, the dismantling of welfare.”
Not Working focuses on the experience of poor Latinas in the Los Angeles County city of Long Beach. Poverty in LA was nearly triple the national average in 2003, and more than 30 percent of immigrant families in LA lived below the poverty line.
The authors supplement the women's firsthand accounts by documenting the history of racial discrimination in Long Beach, which went from being an all-white community, the first West Coast city to host the Ku Klux Klan, to a key destination for immigrants-who, by 2000, made up 28 percent of the population.
Many of Long Beach's poor Latinas have extensive work histories, but the work that's available to them is not plentiful, stable, or well paid. Leticia Ramirez, for example, explained to Marchevsky that her job required a daily commute of fifteen miles to a factory where she handled boxes of shampoo, working on her feet for eight-hour shifts-for $32 per shift.
Latinas struggle daily to maintain dignity and rights in the face of sanctions and punitive rules that try to “regulate and relegate them into a class of flexible workers.” For example, a mandatory state welfare-to-work program called Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) is focused on “jobs first.” Participants are urged to take any job, regardless of pay or work conditions, and are directed away from any further training or education programs-which leads them away from professional careers or skilled trades.
Even being late for “job club,” which only teaches soft skills (interviewing, resume preparation, and job search), can result in a report to one's case worker and a loss of benefits. Maria Sanchez explained one such incident:
I called [the GAIN worker] and I told her, “You know, my son is very sick.”
“I don't care,” she said, “I want you here at such and such hour.… You can do it.”
I didn't say anything. I was quiet. So she said, “Obligations are obligations.”
I told her, “My son comes first.”
The authors point out that workfare is part of a larger attack on all workers, with welfare recipients replacing unionized workers, driving down wages and forcing more Americans into poverty.
Since workfare jobs did not have to be newly created jobs, workfare was often used to undermine the successes unions had been gaining in the service sector by replacing full-time salaried workers with part-time below-minimum wage employees. In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, for example, fired 22,000 municipal workers and replaced them largely with workfare workers.By documenting the harsh effects of welfare reform, Not Working exposes the bipartisan rhetoric about “personal responsibility” for what it is-a cover for ten years of attacks on the poor.