Complicated lives: engendering self-sufficiency after welfare reform in San Antonio, TX



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This dissertation is an ethnography of U.S. women negotiating the shifting terrain of reforms to federal welfare policies. Chapter one reviews literature relevant to the dissertation themes. I discuss the work of anthropologists relevant to understanding U.S. welfare reform and gender, public policy and kinship, as well as the concepts of neoliberalism and neoconservativism which frame my analysis of the ethnographic material. In chapter two, I introduce a context for understanding everyday life in San Antonio for low-income women. After providing a brief historical context for understanding the public housing and urban poverty in San Antonio, I parse out events and themes related to public housing that punctuate and constrain the lives women, including the disparities among different City neighborhoods and significance of public housing in women's lives. Chapter three critiques flexibility as a strategy to meet the requirements of welfare reform and attain economic self-sufficiency. I describe gendered and classed perspectives on the marriage promotion component of welfare reform and contextualize these programs with women's lives and relationship choices. In chapter four, I look at marriage and marriage promotion as a component of welfare reform. I review complications and obstacles that women associated with marriage, such as blended families, domestic violence, and barriers to continued public assistance. These factors all affect women's considerations about marriage as a timely and appropriate choice or a way to improve their social and economic situation. Chapter five explores child care dilemmas encountered by women receiving and leaving welfare for employment. While subsidized child care is an option for some women, the employment opportunities available to them require a high degree of individual flexibility are frequently inconsistent with the surprisingly inflexible available formal and informal child care arrangements. Without subsidies, women are often unable to secure and maintain low-wage jobs that are available to them. I understand this predicament in the broader context of the gendered aspects of neoliberalism and welfare reform.