Article Title

The Bootstrap Trap

Abstract

In the mid-1990s, Congress fundamentally altered the public safety net when it passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, otherwise known as welfare reform. Under the PRWORA, cash assistance was no longer an entitlement for income-qualifying families; instead, recipients faced work requirements and lifetime limits on receiving benefits. Bipartisan reformers sought to transform welfare from a program believed to trap poor mothers in a "culture of dependence" into a program that would promote a culture of "self-sufficiency" and "personal responsibility." This shift in culture, it was argued, would ultimately lead to upward mobility. This Article shows how, ironically, over twenty years after welfare reform, the private safety net that many struggling families rely on—the credit system—disincentivizes the very self-sufficient behavior that welfare reformers had hoped to promote. Using the sociological concept of narratives, the Article shows how parents who have most internalized narratives of self-sufficiency are particularly at risk of financial ruin under the new regime. On a broader scale, this Article argues that, to better understand the relationship between law, inequality, and poverty, we need to further investigate how people experience and internalize structural conditions and how these structural conditions become sources of personal meaning and determinants of behavior. Such inquiries can lead to unexpected connections between seemingly disparate areas of law and policy, and ultimately to innovative policy interventions.

Finally, this Article moves to the prescriptive. It argues for a public financial services program, Financial Services for Family Security (FSFS). FSFS would provide services such as financial advising, no-interest small loans, and debt management help, all aimed at increasing the financial resilience of struggling families.

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