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Abstract

Welfare reform transferred considerable discretion over eligibility standards and benefits to individual caseworkers, contributing to a highly diffuse, yet system-wide, practice of discrimination against nonwhite and foreign-born families within the new TANF program. Based on a two-year ethnographic study of welfare reform's impact on Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles County, this article documents a pattern of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment and disentitlement within L.A. County's welfare system following the passage of PRWORA. The vast majority of eligible immigrant families in our study lost some or all of their cash and food stamp benefits, and were systematically denied access to the work and social supports promised under welfare reform, including childcare, training and education, and transportation. Our research illuminates how race, gender, and immigrant status intersect to block Latinas' access to welfare entitlements, and to maintain their position in low-wage and unstable employment. We describe the racial effects of three tactics used by welfare officials in L.A.: unlawful reductions or termination of immigrant benefits; harassment and humiliation through Job Club; and the tracking of immigrants away from education and into low-wage jobs. Placing the current welfare debate in the context of postcivil rights politics, we also question the refusal of mainstream policymakers and welfare researchers to engage issues of racial discrimination and inequality in their evaluation of PRWORA.

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