“I am a statistic”: engineering counterinsurgency against the Welfare Rights Movement

by Yvonne Bramble

“We got a dictionary and found that anonymous meant nameless. We understood that what people thought about welfare recipients … was that they had no rights, they didn’t exist; they was a statistic and not a human being. So we thought that would fit us very well.”—Johnnie Tillmon[1]
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In 1963, after eight months on welfare, Johnnie Tillmon and five of her friends began organizing welfare recipients in their public housing project in the Watts neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles. The goal was “to be independent and if you weren’t independent, to be treated with dignity.”[2] Where caseworkers manipulated and abused welfare mothers, raiding their homes in the night and inspecting every aspect of their lives for vice, this organization—Aid to Needy Children (ANC) Mothers Anonymous—and others like it across the country would stand up for them and their families.[3] Throughout the 1960s, welfare recipients developed the self-organization necessary to place pressure on the critical chokepoints of benefit distribution and eligibility determination, from local welfare offices to Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Across the country, poor Black women developed a grassroots anti-poverty movement, channeled into the fight for access to the historically discriminatory welfare system. This protest took place in San Bernardino on June 30, 1966, in coordination with dozens of similar protests across the country.

By 1966 this network of local groups became a nationwide Welfare Rights Movement, with over 30,000 members in the umbrella National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) by 1968.[4] By this time, Tillmon served as national chairman and a leader of this movement of poor, mostly Black women.

As the national movement reached its peak, welfare caseloads in Alameda, San Francisco, and Santa Clara Counties increased by 168, 165, and 239 percent respectively over the course of the decade).[5] [Click to see California Caseload Chart] Local welfare rights organizations in Oakland, San Francisco, and Richmond played a critical role in ensuring that all women could receive the benefits that might allow them to weather the worsening job market amid the skyrocketing costs of housing, transportation, and other essentials. These women developed their class consciousness not “on the shop floor” but within their everyday lives, “in government welfare offices, the supermarket, and within their homes,” thereby centering the realm of social reproduction within the terrain of class struggle.[6] In so doing, these poor women refused the state-mediated market demands on their productive and reproductive labor while drawing on a larger critique of racial capitalism advanced by the radical and Third World left.[7]

Map of select regions of the San Francisco Bay Area showing the number of families in each tract receiving welfare per 1,000 people in the total population of that tract. Based on IPUMS geographical census data. Created by author in QGIS. [Click on map to see full size.] Map of the concentration of Black people in the bay area by census tract as of 2017. The historical population centers of Black people are also the historical centers of welfare receipt and welfare rights activity. [Click on map to see full size.]

In this article, I examine the ongoing partnership between technology companies and the state in beating back this self-organization among the country’s poorest workers during the second half of the twentieth century. My focus here is specifically on the political history of the Earnings Clearance System, a computerized batch processing and information management system that emerged out of California’s Welfare Reform Act of 1971. I show how technocratic appeals to the transparency, efficiency, and immateriality of computation were leveraged to isolate, impoverish, and further exploit families on welfare. As the Welfare Rights Movement inched the state closer to financial crisis by ballooning the welfare rolls, state bureaucrats and technology companies leveraged the seemingly neutral terrain of technology. Through the development and maintenance of computer-based fraud auditing systems such as the Earning Clearance System, state functionaries sought to secure global capitalist development from the encroaching “entitlement” of the poor.

The late 60s and 70s mark a crucial period in this history of counterinsurgency as the technology industry entered the on-the-ground implementation of welfare policy for the first time under the direction of Governor Ronald Reagan and Democrats in the California state legislature. I argue that politicians and administrators saw in cheaper, faster, and more adaptable integrated circuit-era computers the key to “resolving” many of their social and economic crises.[8] Meanwhile, technology companies, eager for any edge in an increasingly competitive and expanding world market for computers and computational services, happily obliged them. These companies encouraged dreams of total control over the poor despite the very real technical limitations pervasive in this era of computing.[9]

The state and county governments of California, in partnership with computer corporations, thus waged a war on the Welfare Rights Movement through such administrative and technological reforms. The politicians cloaked their reactionary aspirations to eviscerate welfare benefits and punish the poor by appealing to computing technology’s putative “neutrality,” “efficiency,” and “transparency.” These regulatory technologies and techniques that were pioneered in California were later adopted by other state governments, and eventually cemented into the national welfare structure through Reagan’s Presidency. And yet, as I show, in response to these reactionary assaults, activists affiliated with the Welfare Rights Movement developed an incisive critique of the state and capital’s ideological production of computational transparency. They also enacted that critique through legal challenges to the Earnings Clearance System, and their lawsuits drew attention to the profound non-transparency of welfare administration technologies.

In charting this history, I join digital media studies scholars such as Lisa Nakamura, Tara McPherson, and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in pushing media studies to center race and gender in analyses of computing technology and its industrial history under capitalism.[10] Today, the technology industry acts as part of a new vanguard of global capitalist development that relies on socially vulnerable and largely female workers of color, whether within the U.S. or the neocolonial periphery.[11] Workers at the bottom compete for a chance to avoid obliteration while firms at the top compete to exploit both the winners and the losers in formal and informal work arrangements.[12] But beyond the more obviously exploitative shopfloor of electronics assembly or the labs of the “bold” and the “brilliant,” an analysis of the entangled histories of welfare struggles and computing indicates the need for a digital media studies that directly explores the question of social reproduction—an issue so often raised by Marxist feminists over the past century of organizing and scholarship.[13]

A social reproduction analysis of computation must attend not only to more recent struggles against subsuming reproductive labor through the mechanism of digital media—broadly construed under the lens of “free labor.” We must also reckon with how computing technologies have long been enlisted to manage, police, and assault the social reproduction of working-class women of color and their communities.[14] In other words, while digital media scholars have usefully drawn attention to the ways in which digital technologies under late capitalism exploit “affective” or “consumptive” labor (both of which are forms of reproductive labor), my analysis reveals the deeper roots of social reproduction struggles against computation. Ultimately, the confrontation between the Welfare Rights Movement and welfare administration technologies teaches us that the political question confronting digital media studies today is not simply the surveillance of poor women or the invasion of their privacy.[15] Rather, it concerns the raced, classed, and gendered subordination of poor women as an ever-expanding segment of the increasingly immiserated global working class.[16]

Engineering the crackdown

Democratic Governor Pat Brown and his bid to defeat the Republican upstart and former Hollywood House Un-American Activities Committee snitch Ronald Reagan signals the vanguard of capitalist reaction against the Welfare Rights Movement in California. While Brown remained popular during his first term—enough so to win re-election over former Vice President Richard Nixon in 1962—he turned decisively in his second term against the Left and the Black, poor, and immigrant communities that had driven California’s population boom since World War II.[17] Rebellions in Watts and other cities across the United States that challenged systemic racism and poverty, overt police brutality, and state disinvestment among working-class communities of color were critical in the leadup of the November 1966 gubernatorial election.[18]

Aided by the white press’s mischaracterization of the rebellions and the threats they represented to white workers,[19] Reagan and other right-wing politicians seized upon these uprisings along with activists’ increasingly militant opposition to the Vietnam War to liken city streets to “jungle paths after dark.”[20] Brown feebly attempted to address such concerns, including collaborating with local white capital to cut government funds to welfare rights and anti-poverty groups that had been allotted via the programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other grassroots grant initiatives.[21] However, he was easily outflanked by Reagan and his ilk who cast the Republicans as the “law and order” party that could mop up the mess that Brown and other moderate Democrats left in pursuit of President Johnson’s war on poverty. New blood would be needed.

Police occupation of Black neighborhoods across the North and West spurred the waves of police brutality and subsequent rioting and rebellion that white reactionaries like Brown and Reagan later latched on to. One such act of brutality was the murder of Matthew Johnson as he ran away from police in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco in 1966. The San Francisco police attempted to crack down on potential rioting through typical fascist tactics including marching up to the local community center where dozens of children were hiding and shooting right in through the windows. Hardly a month earlier, in San Jose, a police officer beat a 24-year-old Black man to unconsciousness for the crime of having his car break down by the side of the road. Three days later after this same officer beat a 14-year-old Mexican boy, local Chicana activist Sofia Mendoza exclaimed, “How can this happen? Do you have a police force or a Gestapo?

From his first term in 1967, Reagan’s welfare reform plans moved to take advantage of the counties’ dissatisfaction with having administrative responsibility over a welfare system that remained largely beyond their control.[22] The goal, beginning with the development of the Uniform Welfare Information System of 1966, would be to study, define, and rationalize all state and county welfare processes through a unified electronic data processing system.[23] Of course, California was not alone in the push to expand uses for computers—previously only a military technology—into civilian governance during this period.[25]

Reagan’s turn to computing as a putative “solution” to the crisis instigated by the Welfare Rights Movement can be situated in the context of a broader appeal within dominant U.S. political culture to computing technology as a means to resolve all manner of so-called “crises.” For example, as explored by Jennifer Light in From Warfare to Welfare, the “urban crisis” of rioting and increasingly militant protesting against race and class oppression inspired a ready expansion of computer applications into the fields of city management, police operations, and urban renewal—derisively called “Negro removal” by activists. Throughout the early 60s computing technologies were readily adopted by some of the nation’s most populous cities, from Los Angeles to New York,[25] with smaller cities and towns eager to join the movement.[26] This was achieved through partnerships forged between defense “experts” and state government leaders, both of whom stood to gain from the transfer of military technologies to “civilian” contexts. While for state actors the application of computing technologies to city and state management was perhaps a means of consolidating power under the guise of techno-scientific objectivity, for military contractors it represented an opportunity to

“diversify markets, to profit from the growth of federal domestic spending, and to keep their institutions in operation for the long term.”[27]

But despite this contemporaneous expansion of computing into various administrative contexts and despite Reagan’s own enthusiasm for leveraging new technologies to manage what was derisively dubbed the “Frankenstein monster” of the vast and winding welfare bureaucracy,[28] little progress was made on the Uniform Welfare Information System before the budget item was completely deleted. Dissatisfied with this lack of progress on the issue, Reagan pushed the welfare issue in earnest during his second term, proposing an increasingly expansive vision of welfare reform and automation. Beginning in August of 1970 with a secret task force of state officials, most of whom were “purposely chosen for their lack of familiarity with welfare,” several initiatives were developed to combat rising welfare caseloads, which were a direct result of Black women activists’ concerted organizing throughout the 60s. The task force’s mission was to get costs, “fraud,” and error under control.[29]

The task force’s first initiative involved another complete restructuring of the state’s plan for a uniform welfare information system. The new plan would involve not only a system for batch processing and managing information on all welfare cases and their characteristics at the state level, but it would also establish an online, nominally real-time system that would link the state with all 58 county welfare offices. Reagan’s new appointees, none of whom were experts in the technology, imagined a computer system with the reliability to satisfy the following “needs”:

These may sound like a set of largely trivial tasks today in our era of desktop computing, cloud processing, and user-friendly data management software. But all of this was still being dreamed up in 1971. There were no computers that were not gigantic and based in central locations, and much programming was still being done on very minimal text-only terminal displays. Consequently, data entry and updating would have to be done on dummy terminals without independent processing power in each of the county offices. This would then require a dedicated staff for sorting, entering, and flagging for correction the rapidly changing —often extremely complex —information regarding each individual case, the individuals to whom each case was linked, and their data points. Finally, once this information was entered and re-entered into the database maintained at the state’s central mainframe system, another dedicated staff of computer professionals and secretarial staff would be required to check over this information again, maintain its compatibility with information coming in from other offices, and ensure reliable data transfer back to the counties and up to the state welfare department, the legislature, and the federal government in both regular and specially requested reports. In such a system of information processing, there are many opportunities for error, miscommunication, and overall breakdown in the chain of command.[31] In real-time systems—which, at this time, had only been implemented by large organizations like big banks and airlines—the question of human error would become more and more impossible to ignore.

Yet, despite the substantial technical and organizational problems that pervaded such proposals, computation was nevertheless enthusiastically heralded as a panacea for the “crisis” of the welfare system at this moment. One explanation for this enthusiasm perhaps lay in the financial rewards that politicians stood to gain from funneling public funds into private hands through multi-million-dollar hardware, software, and analysis contracts. The shrewd public servant stood to make a pretty penny off of the rapid growth of the industry, with the federal government alone spending over $1.9 billion on computer salaries, services, supplies, and site preparation costs in 1969.[32] At the time, the industry’s growth rate was second only to aerospace manufacturing, another primary industry for the war-centric cities of the California coast.[33] Meanwhile U.S. imperialist outposts in Israel,[34] Mexico,[35] Hawaii,[36] Native American reservations,[37] South Africa,[38] Canada[39] and South Vietnam[40] were investing in their first computers as some of the largest industries in the U.S. were betting on automation against increasingly militant unions.[41]

“Computers, like Coke, are beginning to turn up everywhere,” observed a 1969 article on the installation of the first computer in the British neocolony of Barbados. The article continues, presciently, “It’s a sure sign that soon it will be impossible to get away from them anywhere.”[42] Likewise, the tech industry’s goal was never “efficiency in government”—despite the high-minded rhetoric of some of their internal debates—but profit.[43] Technology companies such as Space General Corporation and Arthur Young and Company received hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue producing overly vague and congratulatory reports for the state, with the legislature repeatedly giving the go-ahead on a nearly impossible task. These companies told politicians and program administrators who wanted to appear tough on welfare fraud and rising caseloads exactly what they wanted to hear. In turn those politicians continued to ask for technical systems either beyond their capacity or their budgets as determined by the legislature.

With this broader momentum in favor of computerization and Reagan’s full support at their backs, the California Department of Social Welfare’s (DSW) new management was able, within two months, to essentially bully the Department of Finance into approving the proposal for a statewide computerized welfare management system.[44] Despite objections from counties like Santa Clara that maintained their own extensive welfare computing systems, the DSW then released a public call for proposals from interested computing systems contractors. Such companies would have only thirty days to return a detailed plan to the state, essentially ruling out any but the largest and most flexible technology companies of the time. Only three made the review committee’s final cut at the end of November.

But by then the Department of Finance, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and several of the county governments had raised their voices louder in opposition to the entire project. They took issue with the competitiveness of the vendor selection process, the feasibility of the proposed system, and the role of the counties in both funding burden and administrative control. Even Reagan could not fight the rest of the executive branch on system implementation. Thus, by January of 1973 the project was officially dead with no more funding possible or recommended by any other governmental unit.

Computing spread not coincidentally through the channels already carved out by capitalist imperialism, from apartheid South Africa, where computer companies debated the usefulness of segregation in their low-skill card-punch machine operator jobs, to apartheid Israel, where new companies and the government hoped to poach dissatisfied or recently laid off American programmers through this 1971 advertisement in Computerworld