New York City Public Benefits System Criticized as Punitive Surveillance System


The New York City public benefits system has been criticized for its punitive design, how it too often disciplines, rather than helps, people who are legally entitled to benefits. According to Mariana Chilton, the public benefits system is designed to control, surveil, and penalize low-income people, and it is women of colour who disproportionately bear these burdens. Chilton highlights how the violent treatment of Jazmine Headley and her baby in a public assistance waiting room in December 2018 is symptomatic of the many bureaucratic hurdles people face in obtaining benefits and the institutional abuse that they face in the process.


On December 7, 2018, Ms. Headley took her baby with her to a public assistance office in New York City. Ms. Headley relied on childcare benefits so her baby could receive care while she worked as an office cleaner. One day, without warning, her benefits had been cut off. The system provided her no way of resolving this issue without going in-person to the benefits office. Ms. Headley waited hours with nowhere to sit; eventually, she sat with her baby on the floor. After a security guard asked her to stand up and she refused, a video showed that Ms. Headley was violently approached by police, her baby was wrenched from her arms, and she was arrested. Ms. Headley was charged with resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration, and trespassing, and she spent several days in jail without bail. While charges against Ms. Headley were later dropped, what happened to Ms. Headley was not an isolated incident: instead, it is indicative of the punitive design of the public benefits system.


Recipients of public assistance and food stamps are subjected to heightened surveillance as part of a burdensome process that routinely results in eligible recipients being denied or cut off from benefits due to their failure to comply with one of the many arduous monitoring requirements. Peoples’ receipt of benefits to which they are legally entitled is conditioned on fingerprinting, fraud verification, employment or education assessments, drug and alcohol screenings, child support screenings, and childcare assessments. Many of these screenings must take place in-person, where people are required to submit documents to confirm and maintain their eligibility. People like Ms. Headley are required to maintain low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours and little to no opportunity for advancement, and then continue to regularly submit proof of such employment. These onerous requirements can impede peoples’ ability to support themselves and their families.


According to Chilton, the structure of the benefits system, the heightened surveillance of people within the system, and the poor treatment people suffer can keep them locked in poverty. She highlights how less punitive models can be more effective at helping people and increasing opportunities for them.

Writer: Mariana Chilton

Publication: The Nation

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