Like many graduate students, I have a very difficult time explaining my project. In my mind it feels enormous and abstract; on paper it feels niche and surely uninteresting to anyone else. Presentations often leave me floating somewhere in the middle, my eyes searching over the audience for any hint of recognition:
“This means a lot to me. Is it anything to you?”
I was hesitant upon first hearing the date for my AADHum Intensive. The previous semester, I had begun mapping out the hierarchy of bureaucratic relationships in my project. I had only just started to think about them spatially when I received the email accepting me into the AADHum Scholars cohort. As I went through my first couple of meetings with Trevor and Jessica, I had a sense I was moving toward some insight, yet I feared I might instead fall again into abstraction. What, in fact, did I want to find out from this mapping exercise?
Presciently, Trevor and Jessica suggested I move away from the map I had been working on in Carto. Instead, I should work out exactly what I had in mind—a series of 10 paper maps, allowing my hand to move farther than the software would allow. To all our surprise, I returned a few days later with 8 or 9 workable models, each unique in scope, argument, and audience. Some were more traditional maps of Los Angeles, others more experimental representations of information flowing up and down the state, and still others more infographic, focusing in on the data exchange between the welfare bureaucracy, employers throughout the state, and the communities who relied on both.
The exercise was freeing; the dense ball of ideas I carried around every day disentangled, even if just for a moment, into discrete ideas, audiences, frameworks. We decided to focus my AADHum Intensive on exploring these maps with the audience. By getting people’s thoughts and reactions, perhaps I could confirm the best approach or at least find a starting point.
Honestly, the Intensive hardly went to plan. Yet, in some ways, it was exactly what I needed.
Beginning with a description of the broader scope of my dissertation research, I moved into a discussion of the case study which has occupied most of my attention so far—the California Welfare Reform Act of 1971. The act required the development of the Earnings Clearance System (ECS), a computing system designed to combat welfare fraud by matching previously unlinked government data-banks. For then-Governor Reagan and his ilk, no longer could people cheat the system by hiding the full extent of their wages. Now, the state could verify workers’ eligibility and benefit-levels automatically using data that came directly from every legal employer.
Scholarship like Rickie Solinger’s Beggars and Choosers, John Gilliom’s Overseers of the Poor, and Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality, had investigated some implications of systems like ECS, often asking how the computers and their supposed objectivity affected the poor and working-class communities they targeted.
Still, they paid little attention to the iterative design of ECS-like systems. Despite fiery rhetoric from the new right since introducing these systems, no politician can simply snap their fingers and reform a government bureaucracy—especially not one as complex and little understood as welfare. President Johnson’s chief advisor for domestic affairs, Joseph Califano, admitted as much before the Senate Labor Committee; the 1965 riots in the predominantly Black neighborhood, of Watts, L.A. revealed a stunning lack of data on “urban disturbances” or the makeup of its rapidly-widening welfare rolls. Federal officials’ ability to assess the impacts of investment in social programs, he argued, “more nearly resembles the intuitive judgement of a benevolent tribal chief in remote Africa than the elaborate sophisticated data with which the Secretary of Defense supports a major new weapons system.”1
The racial and colonial tone of his remark points toward the critical question in my own work: Why use computing systems as part of welfare reform, in this way, and at this time? What, in fact, would constitute an “elaborate” or “sophisticated” approach to welfare reform? And, what capital investments in land, labor, and technology would be required to make such reform possible?
If these questions seem straightforward, they owe a lot to the Intensive.
I thought I was offering some clear questions about California’s welfare system, but the reactions from the audience surprised me. Rather than hear about the bureaucracy, people had many more questions about the communities affected by these systems and how they resisted authority. They wondered about the value of mapping state surveillance systems and the ethics of probing the situated knowledges of these communities. All valuable questions no doubt, but not the ones that really drove me. Clearly, I had made a wrong turn somewhere.
A few days later, I spoke with a faculty mentor, Dr. Perla Guerrero. Reflecting on her experience in the audience, she confirmed my suspicions: my continued disorientation and my audience’s unexpected responses reflected both a lack of clarity about the project’s core question(s) and my own. Her suggestion? Focus on a much more grounded element of the project and work my way back up to the larger theoretical questions that initially motivated me. Perhaps then I’d be able to articulate what I intended to do and to better decide how to act on it through mapping.
What I needed was a mooring, something specific to hold onto that I could trace through time and space. More than the abstract connection between communities and technologies I had been describing, I needed concrete relationships, real life stories…
At Dr. Guerrero’s suggestion, I attended the Association for American Geographers conference a few days later. A panel on the legacy of the pivotal Black Marxist Geographer, Bobby Wilson, helped me see just what I had been missing. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore admiringly described, the strength of Wilson’s work lay in his stubborn concreteness. While he moved between levels of abstraction, he never lost sight of the specific race and class formations he sought to describe. He did this by situating them in space and place, titling his book on Birmingham not America’s Apartheid, but America’s Johannesburg, using the contrast of these two locations to reveal dynamics of racial violence and class exploitation.
What I needed was a mooring, something specific to hold onto that I could trace through time and space. More than the abstract connection between communities and technologies I had been describing, I needed concrete relationships, real life stories: a newly minted computer science graduate develops a system that leaves mothers miles away ineligible for already scarce public resources; a caseworker under pressure from newly computerized management, who has to tell a family she can’t help them; a mother, hearing talk of friends being removed from the program and who nevertheless finds a way to get the aid she needs.
I found one side of this history in legal scholar Kaaryn S. Gustafson’s Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty. Her analysis of welfare policy and its contradictory aims are deeply informed by her interviews with diverse welfare recipients in the immediate aftermath of President Clinton’s 1996 promise to “end welfare as we know it.” I realized I needed to uncover the other parts of this story, a history that could weave together the development of computing and welfare through a grounded look at the experiences of the people who made it happen, day by day, shift by shift.
Los Angeles provides a rich space for exploring these stories. The period between the 1965 and 1992 rebellions reveal the deep connections between intense poverty and unemployment in the urban core, and the growth of high-technology, defense-fueled industry in the surrounding hinterland. My project places welfare in this violent terrain, outlining the political and economic conditions that concentrated hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of labor in “more advanced” welfare computing systems, while continually cutting investments in both caseworkers and recipients.2 Throughout the summer I will continue work on a map of the demographics of welfare, poverty, and race in L.A. during this period, highlighting the effects of the 1971 Welfare Reform Act on the people of Los Angeles in preparation for a presentation at the 2019 American Studies Association conference.
Perhaps my Intensive did not go as planned, but, I owe my newfound clarity to my experiences in the AADHum Scholars program.
1 Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 50–51.
2 Tod Newcombe, “Prodigal System: California’s SAWS,” Government Technology, accessed December 5, 2018, http://www.govtech.com/magazines/gt/Prodigal-System-Californias-SAWS.html; Hector Tobar, “Sickout at Welfare Offices Creates Chaos on ‘Check Day,’” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1991, http://articles.latimes.com/1991-10-08/local/me-338_1_welfare-check; Josh Meyer and Douglas P. Shuit, “Angry County Workers Rally : Protest: Police Arrest 20 People during Noisy Demonstration. Union Members and Leaders Warn Supervisors of ‘massive Resistance’ to Any Layoffs.,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1995, http://articles.latimes.com/1995-07-07/local/me-21092_1_union-members; Josh Meyer, “County Employees Stop Work to Protest Cutbacks : Budget: Some Workers Call in Sick or Walk off Jobs to Fight Efforts to Cut as Many as 18,255 Positions and Slash Services.,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1995, http://articles.latimes.com/1995-07-12/local/me-23029_1_county-workers.
About the Author
Victor Bramble is a 2019 AADHum Scholar and a Ph.D. student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.