A review of the 2019 book by Maggie Dickinson, published by the University of California Press.
Charting the history of so-called welfare reform and of transformations in the labor market, Maggie Dickinson’s Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net deepens our understanding not only of federal food assistance in the United States, but also of how an increasingly degraded labor market contributes to economic precarity. Dickinson dissects the anomalous character of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which for the better part of the last half-century has expanded its benefits even as other forms of social welfare have dwindled or become harder to obtain. In recent years, though, the federal government has reformed SNAP to include work requirements, thus turning it from an entitlement-based program into a form of “workfare.” Dickinson explores the implications of this shift on working-class families through a multi-year ethnography of the North Brooklyn Pantry in New York City. She unveils the complex web of labor required to navigate the welfare system, which proves to be marked by gendered and racialized dynamics that further complicate recipients’ ability to survive.
Welfare policy once championed the nuclear family with a male breadwinner as the path out of poverty, supporting racist stereotypes holding that poverty was due to Black men’s disinterest in being supportive, present fathers and Black mothers’ proclivities to “cheat the system.” Today, however, the U.S. welfare state has been restructured to focus less on family makeup and more on each individual’s commitment to being a worker. Women, still expected to perform unremunerated caring work for their families, are coerced into low-paid, precarious jobs that demonstrate their ability to earn wages. In this vein, many scholars, including Dickinson, have described the experiences of poor women navigating a defunct social safety net and degraded labor market, all while caring for their children. However, largely missing from this scholarship is a discussion of how SNAP can help fathers to maintain their social networks and continue to provide a semblance of care for their families.
Feeding the Crisis helps to address this gap. Dickinson shows that for fathers alienated from their families as a result of incarceration, addiction, poor employment prospects, or just a run of bad luck, the importance of SNAP benefits is immeasurable. For instance, Jimmy, a middle-aged white North Brooklyn father, had unionized, well-paid employment until he was laid off as a result of downsizing. Following decades of offshoring industrial jobs and deskilling work more generally, Jimmy found that the value of his labor had sharply decreased. No longer able to find a paying job with his skill set, Jimmy experienced a mental health crisis, relapsed into alcoholism, and was eventually estranged from his wife and child out of caution for their well-being. Amid this dire situation, Jimmy was able to receive SNAP because of his mental illness, which he used to help feed his child, thus allowing him to maintain (in part, at least) his role as a father, caretaker, and provider.
Volunteers at the North Brooklyn Pantry are also part of what Dickinson describes as a cyclical labor process, whereby some clients of the food pantry eventually become volunteers engaged in unpaid “compassionate labor” (p. 102). Volunteering, seen by many as a benefit to the community, is viewed by current and former clients as a means to secure more food for their families and also tend their social ties. Although emergency food programs cannot legally provide food in exchange for work, SNAP and other public assistance programs do allow volunteer placements in these very institutions. Workfare programs that exchange work for cash assistance are often subsidized by a person’s SNAP benefits, effectively decreasing the total state-provided support that they receive. Although public–private partnerships sustain emergency food programs through both work and food supply, the state’s involvement nonetheless remains masked by the food pantry’s charitable mission. Clients of organizations like the North Brooklyn Pantry are thus dissuaded from collective action, as these settings offer few opportunities for people to advance shared political demands.
Beyond the caring work that a person performs for their community and family lies the labor of maintaining their “work-ready” body. Dickinson argues that, during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City was treated as a business in which “the working class [was seen] primarily as employees instead of [as] citizens” (p. 119). Thus, Stephanie and Dominic, a white couple in their thirties, fell victim to the recession and tightened labor market, losing their stable employment while taking care of Stephanie’s young child. Bureaucratic neglect led them to receive an incorrect amount of food stamps for several months, which only furthered their food insecurity. Dominic, formerly incarcerated, was expected to complete a job readiness program in order to begin receiving cash assistance, but he was sanctioned because of his failure to acquire the appropriate professional attire. Stephanie was able to find seasonal employment and Dominic eventually found a temporary job as a janitor, but the wages were not enough to keep the couple out of a homeless shelter. By the time their SNAP case was addressed, Stephanie and Dominic no longer had access to a kitchen where they could cook meals. Frequenting food pantries and soup kitchens as well as buying cheap foods, Stephanie saw her health deteriorate, developing high blood pressure and chronic dental infections. The couple did everything in their power to secure work, but in doing so, they had to place their own health on the back burner, decreasing their productivity and potential as workers. Through cases like these, Dickinson highlights how public health interventions in New York City are understood as costs to the economy rather than as essential support for people’s physical and mental well-being. Poor people on the cusp of economic despair are expected to maintain their work-ready bodies first, because, if they cannot work, then they will not be able to eat. Yet if they cannot eat, they cannot maintain the work-ready body required of low-wage work. In sum, this paradoxical and cruel approach to food assistance abandons those who are unable to work, as well as those who do work but receive no formal recognition for their labor.
Dickinson’s findings suggest that recognizing a right to food in the United States would be instrumental in alleviating some of the hardships of poverty. Moreover, Dickinson argues for a federal jobs guarantee to create adequate employment that pays livable wages and provides benefits. She pushes for a broader definition of what counts as “formal” work and advocates for the recognition and remuneration of caring labor in all capacities. Feeding the Crisis offers compelling and important contributions to the anthropology of work, highlighting the urgent need for both scholars and policymakers to understand how food access and the broader emergency food system are connected to the labor market, welfare reform, and public health interventions. Its rich descriptions build on a growing body of scholarship documenting how poor people navigate the intrusive surveillance and burdensome bureaucracy that stand in the way of much-needed welfare assistance. Perhaps Dickinson’s most vital contribution, however, is her nuanced ethnographic analysis of the livelihoods and subjectivities that stem from welfare reform and job market precarity.
Katherine Mott is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Syracuse University, with research interests in urban poverty, food access, and labor. In 2019, she earned an M.S. in Food Studies, during which she researched the role of a longstanding full-service independent grocery store in one of Syracuse’s low-income neighborhoods. Her current research looks at the politics of nonprofit poverty governance.