In the US being monitored is the price to pay for accessing public benefits


For low-income Americans to receive public benefits they are legally entitled to, they must submit to widespread monitoring of their intimate and personal affairs. This monitoring includes sharing a trove of personal documents and information, unannounced home visits from caseworkers, mandatory face-to-face meetings with caseworkers to review one’s grocery, hygiene, and parenting choices, electronic and physical surveillance, mandatory drug testing, and investigations by fraud control agents.

The vast sums states spend on cross-referencing databases, monitoring people, and drug testing them to investigate potential welfare fraud substantially exceeds the amount of money states save by cutting off benefits in fraudulent cases. Thus, rather than focusing resources to ensure that benefits are provided to all who are eligible, public benefits systems focus on limiting the aid provided, which has a punitive effect on recipients and undermines their ability to support themselves and their families.

While this monitoring is not new, its depth and breadth has increased with the development of new technologies. In “First They Came for the Poor: Surveillance of Welfare Recipients as an Uncontested Practice,” Nathalie Maréchal recounts the history of the United States subjecting low-income Americans to surveillance through the public benefits system, which has allowed states to dramatically increase eligibility requirements, impose shorter time limits on how long people can receive benefits, and reduce the amount of benefits they do provide.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, technological advancements in information management and networked databases allowed states to collect more and more information about recipients, classify them, and ever more closely scrutinize their behaviour. As welfare recipients were increasingly stigmatized, the focus shifted from eradicating poverty to denying benefits to those deemed unworthy, and systems of surveillance justified such decisions.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act allowed states to much more closely examine the personal and sexual lives of women and thereby restrict women’s sexual and reproductive choices. For example, the 1996 Act provided states could condition single mother’s receipt of benefits on their ability to identify the biological fathers of their offspring, exclude newly born children from being included in benefit calculations, and prohibit women from receiving additional benefits if they had more children.

Restrictions on welfare benefits have been accompanied by reporting rules that impose onerous eligibility verification requirements, which can be so time-consuming that they interfere with welfare recipients’ abilities to obtain work or care for their families.
While poor people lack the means and resources to challenge the disproportionate monitoring they experience, it is too often invisible to the rest of society. Maréchal also notes that these hidden practices stand in sharp contrast to the amount of information people who are wealthier have to share in order to obtain benefits from tax deductions. In public debates about government surveillance of everyday people, we need to consider how poor people’s very survival has been conditioned on invasive, habitual, and routine monitoring.

First They Came for the Poor: Surveillance of Welfare Recipients as an Uncontested Practice

Author: Nathalie Maréchal

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