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Welfare, Punishment, and Social Marginality: Understanding the Connections

The Politics of Inequality

ISBN: 978-1-83909-363-0, eISBN: 978-1-83909-362-3

Publication date: 19 July 2021


A growing body of work suggests that welfare and punishment should be understood as alternative, yet interconnected ways of governing poor and marginalized populations. While there is considerable evidence of a punitive turn in welfare and penal institutions over the past half century, recent studies show that welfare and carceral institutions increasingly comanage millions of people caught at the intersection of the welfare and penal sectors. The growth of “mass supervision” and the expansion of the social services sector help explain the blurring of welfare and punishment in the United States in daily practice. We suggest that these developments complicate the idea of an institutional trade-off and contend that welfare and punishment are best understood along a continuum of state management in which poor and socially marginalized populations are subjected to varying degrees of support, surveillance, and sanction. In presenting the punishment–welfare continuum, we pay particular attention to the “murky middle” between the two spheres: an interinstitutional space that has emerged in the context of mass supervision and a social services–centric safety net. We show that people caught in the “murky middle” receive some social supports and services, but also face pervasive surveillance and control and must adapt to the tangle of obligations and requirements in ways that both extend punishment and limit their ability to successfully participate in mainstream institutions.



Brydolf-Horwitz, M. and Beckett, K. (2021), "Welfare, Punishment, and Social Marginality: Understanding the Connections", Pettinicchio, D. (Ed.) The Politics of Inequality (Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 28), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 91-111.



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