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Reform and Resistance: A Consideration of Space, Scale and Strategy in Legal Challenges to Welfare Reform

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This paper examines the law as a mechanism for resisting neoliberal policy change through a consideration of legal challenges to welfare reform in the United States. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 marked a sea change in both the content and scale of the American social welfare system. It has entailed a downward shift in policy creation and administration from the national to the state and local level, and conveys a heavy emphasis on the “responsibility” of single mothers to engage in waged labor. In addition to changing the scale at which the social welfare system operates, welfare reform has changed how the more oppressive aspects of this policy might be resisted. While some legal advocates are challenging welfare reform by working within the “policy scale”, others are invoking national level protections by appealing to Civil Rights legislation. By working against the scale imposed by neoliberal social policy, Civil Rights legislation presents the possibility for advocates to “re‐scale responsibility” from that of single mothers to submit to wage labor in order to survive, to the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens against identity‐based discrimination. Herein, I argue both that the law can serve as an important mechanism for re‐focusing the scale of resistance in efforts to challenge oppressive social policy; and that even in the face of policy that imposes a local scale, the national level holds potential as an important terrain of resistance.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, USA;, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 01 January 2006

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