Justifying welfare fraud

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Justifying welfare fraud

Changes in Israeli welfare policy reveal a conflict between poor mothers and the government over who deserves state support

by Shiri Regev-Messalem on Monday, November 14, 2011 - 10:51am

Districts of IsraelDramatic changes to welfare law in Israel over the past decade have resulted in a conflict between poor mothers and the state over the value of caretaking and conceptions of citizenship. In the past, entitlement to welfare benefits emphasized mothers’ care responsibilities such that poor women who stayed at home to care for their children could receive benefits. Nowadays, however, entitlement to state support revolves around liberal principles that emphasize women’s labor force participation. If a poor mother is not working in the paid labor market, her eligibility for financial assistance from the state is now more limited. To get by in this new social welfare environment, many poor women commit what the state defines as welfare fraud – they work under the table while receiving welfare benefits.

But how do these poor women view what they do? Do they view their actions as welfare fraud or do they have a different moral interpretation? To answer these questions I interviewed 49 women who received welfare and explored how they made sense of their situations.

Competing conceptions of citizenship

The women justified the fraud they committed in a variety of ways; the most common one being their acute need for financial support. Yet, a more careful examination of their beliefs revealed that at the core of their justifications is the strong belief that mothers who take care of young children are deserving of state financial support. These women therefore resisted what they viewed as an unjust workfare ideology that was suddenly imposed on them by the state, and called for a welfare policy that embraces maternal care as an important civic contribution. The sense of moral entitlement was so powerful that although they viewed themselves as upstanding, law-abiding citizens, they almost unanimously justify welfare fraud.

These justifications for welfare fraud are best understood as a reflection of the battle between the women’s and the state’s competing conceptions of citizenship. Building on the idea that social rights are necessary to enable the disadvantaged to acquire full membership within society, changes in welfare laws do not simply reflect a change in the distribution of benefits. Rather these changes redefine new boundaries of citizenship. They alter the definitions of who is “deserving” and who is “undeserving” of benefits, as well as to what extent, and on what grounds. In other words, they can be seen to dictate who belongs and who does not belong. These cutbacks in state benefits for poor mothers therefore represent to these mothers their exclusion from full and equal membership within the Israeli society—their exclusion from citizenship.

Struggling for inclusion

Accordingly, poor women’s justifications for welfare fraud reflected women’s struggle for deservedness and inclusion. The claims for citizenship made by these poor Israeli women challenged the exclusion of maternal care responsibilities from the definition of the ideal citizen. Hence, women’s justifications for welfare fraud conveyed not merely a collective ideology but a gender-based ideology that contested the state’s definition of a “citizen” as only those people who participate in the paid workforce.

The claim for recognition of their social contribution through caretaking highlights the fact that the unpaid work these women do, caring for children, is in reality a necessary social function to ensure future generations of workers and citizens. This focus on unpaid care work so central to family life unmasks the false notion, now reflected in Israeli welfare law, that  “workers” and “citizens” don’t need care themselves nor need to provide care for others.  As such, these poor women’s political views provide bottom-up support for feminists who argue that workers “independence” is disingenuous because every worker is necessarily either previously, currently, or in the future dependant on the care of others. Thus, the interviewees called to expand the characterization of citizenship to encompass women’s unpaid care work.

These interviews also revealed the ways in which these women viewed moving beyond the impasse with the government.  Some interviewees pointed to changes in the paid labor market norms in order to better address workers’ care responsibilities. Other interviewees stressed that caring for children requires—and deserves—the support of the state outside of the paid labor market. In other words, they viewed caretaking as a worthy social contribution in itself.

Reclaiming citizenship

My research seeks to shift our understanding of the phenomenon of welfare fraud from one of unlawful acts to one of reclaimed citizenship. It reveals that fraud is not merely a criminal activity, or a survival act, but an attempt to alter the social boundaries—it is a cry of inclusion.

This view has several implications for our understanding of welfare policies and citizenship. First, it reveals that struggles between competing discourses of citizenship can result in conflicts between the state and marginalized groups. Such struggles can manifest themselves in unexpected forms such as in the case of welfare fraud. Second, by focusing on the views of women on welfare, this project highlights that practices which take place in the private sphere may, in fact, constitute another form of civic involvement. Such political participation is especially important because disadvantaged and marginalized groups—who have less access to formal forms of political participation—are those that most often use these unstudied forms of engagement. Specifically in this research, the focus on a bottom-up examination of legal non-compliance within the private sphere broadens our perception of citizenship to more fully encompass women’s experiences, ideologies, and resistant acts.

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Shiri Regev-MessalemShiri Regev-Messalem received her Ph.D. in law from Stanford in 2010 and is an academic instructor at the Micro-finance and Economic Justice Clinic at Tel-Aviv University.  She was a graduate dissertation fellow at the Clayman Institute from 2010-2011.