It occurs to me now that poverty is often associated with parasites—and not just in literal ways. In every election, I can count on one or another politician to rail against people who “live off” taxpayers’ money, receiving food stamps, rent assistance, or medical services while making no discernible effort to become self-sufficient. California, where I have lived nearly half my life, is particularly hostile to the poor. Before he conjured up the “welfare queen” on the presidential campaign trail, Ronald Reagan had won the California governorship in 1966 on a promise to end “freeloading at the expense of conscientious citizens.” At that time, the number of Californians who were benefiting from federal assistance—Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC—was growing by as many as 40,000 new recipients each month, according to a press estimate. One out of every 13 Californians was receiving some form of government help. That statistic could be interpreted in different ways: unemployment was growing; or the state’s cost of living had risen and wages were not keeping up; or changing sexual mores had led to higher divorce rates and elevated levels of poverty. Reagan’s explanation was simply that people were getting help they did not need. In 1971, he tightened eligibility rules for welfare, dropping from the rolls people who had employment income; lengthened state residency provisions; and required that welfare recipients allow access to their income tax records. That combination—tougher qualifications and state monitoring—set the tone for how the poor would be treated in the state.
Over the next two decades, California introduced a series of changes to shrink the pool of welfare applicants, limit the time they could be on the program, and screen them for fraud even before they could receive aid. Welfare fraud investigations included financial record checks, interviews with the applicant and/or family members, and unscheduled home visits. Although welfare fraud was a real problem, it took on mythical proportions, driven in part by sensational media coverage. In 1994, Governor Pete Wilson introduced electronic fingerprinting of welfare applicants, a process akin to booking a suspect charged with a crime. The fingerprinting program was supposed to cut fraud—duplicate applications, for example—but the amount of money recouped by the state was relatively minimal, while it cost millions of dollars to implement. (At that time, the state already spent $72 million a year, or about 10 percent of welfare funds, on fraud detection. The new requirement cost another $17 million a year.) In addition, welfare fraud was no longer treated as an administrative violation, and was increasingly referred for criminal prosecution.
By the time the fingerprinting program was terminated—nearly 17 years later—only 50 percent of people eligible for food stamps in California were receiving them, one of the lowest rates of participation in the country. But welfare recipients in the state still undergo a draconian screening process that includes submitting their names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, which are matched against financial records and state and federal law-enforcement databases. They must agree to a reduction or termination of grant if a partner moves in, if they receive additional support from another job or agency, if they are convicted of a crime, or if they are found to use drugs. They must be photographed. After they begin receiving welfare payments, they must fill out paperwork regularly to keep their eligibility current. Their information is made available to the police without warrant. These policies, the law professor Kaaryn Gustafson has argued, have blurred the lines between the welfare system and the criminal justice system. Welfare applicants are treated as potential criminals, and their lives are under a form of social control that resembles the social control of parolees.
I had no opinion on Pete Wilson while I lived in that apartment building in Koreatown; the governor was as remote to me as an actor in a drama series on television. But I wonder what my neighbor Jean, who lived on Social Security, thought about his increasingly cruel policies toward the poor. Often, I would see her carrying small grocery bags into the building, shuffling past the art deco water fountain that had long ago stopped working. The landlord gave her a discount on the rent, she told me once, and charged her with being his assistant. I doubted he needed her services, because he lived in the building himself and was much younger and sprightlier than her.
Laila Lalami is the author of four novels, most recently The Other Americans, a finalist for a National Book Award.
Excerpted from Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami. © 2020 by Laila Lalami. Editor’s note: As we went to press, the publication dates of some of the titles included in our Spring 2020 Book Guide were being delayed until summer and even the fall. Check in with your favorite bookseller to confirm when this book will be released, and consider supporting them with an order or pre-order.
• By Laila Lalami
• Pantheon, 208 pages, $25.95