Confronting Government After Welfare Reform: Moralists, Reformers, and Narratives of (Ir)responsibility at Administrative Fair Hearings

Lens, Vicki A.

Almost 40 years ago, the Supreme Court, in the landmark case Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), provided welfare participants with a potentially potent tool for challenging the government welfare bureaucracy by requiring pre-termination hearings before welfare benefits were discontinued or reduced. In 1996, with the passage of the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the rights talk of Kelly was officially replaced with the discourse of individual responsibility. Using observational data of administrative hearings and interviews with administrative law judges and appellants, this study explores how fair hearings have been affected by this official re-conceptualization of rights. I find that hearings are not a panacea for challenging the more punitive aspects of welfare reform, but nor are they devoid of the possibility of justice. While hearings can replicate in style and substance the inequities, rigid adherence to rules, and moral judgments that characterize welfare relationships under the PRWORA, they can also be used as a mechanism for creating counter narratives to the dominant discourse about welfare. This study identifies two types of judges moralist judges and reformer judges and examines how their differing approaches determine which narrative emerges in the hearing room.


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Social Work
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December 18, 2012