[COMM-ORG] query: Urban Informality and Social Welfare

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Wed Mar 17 09:06:08 CDT 2010

[ed: you may have community organizing examples that address Robert and 
Michael's query. If so, please feel welcomed to copy COMM-ORG. 
Otherwise, please reply to Robert at the address below.]

From: ROBERT P FAIRBANKS II <rpf at uchicago.edu>

Dear colleagues,

The purpose of this email is to solicit historical and contemporary 
examples of informal welfare provision in the United States, 
particularly in urban contexts. We are embarking on a new project – 
still very much in the early stages of planning – that seeks to map the 
architecture of the informal welfare state broadly and systematically.

Our use of the term informal welfare state denotes a myriad of 
nongovernmental strategies for meeting the needs of marginal populations 
in a time of fiscal austerity and government devolution. The activities 
of the informal welfare state may take the form of services, networks, 
or credit. By definition, none of these mechanisms are public 
institutions in the sense that they are owned by governments and 
administered by government-appointed officials. However, these 
configurations vary in their sources of funding and in the regulations 
to which they are subject. Indeed the components of informal welfare 
states vary along a number of dimensions: relationship to the state, 
administration, structure, purpose, and transaction medium.

We are particularly interested in informal poverty survival mechanisms 
working on the margins of, and yet in concert with, the formal social 
service system. How is the simultaneous need to service marginal 
populations and to exert social control met in informal ways? How are 
self-help movements moving to organize or appropriate segments of the 
formal social service sector? How are informal practices being courted 
or harnessed by the state in the era of welfare reform?

Our formative interests in this topic have been sparked by Fairbanks’ 
recent book How it Works: Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare 
Philadelphia. This book focuses on one particular example of the 
informal welfare state. Street level entrepreneurs in the neighborhood 
of Kensington have reconfigured hundreds of former working class row 
homes to produce the Philadelphia recovery house movement, an 
extra-legal poverty survival strategy for addicts and alcoholics located 
in the city’s poorest and most heavily blighted zones. This example 
highlights the neglect of informal provision in conventional accounts of 
welfare state programs and architecture. We hope you can help us 
identify other examples, in both the present and past, that will help 
facilitate a more systematic understanding of this elusive yet crucial 
sector of urban political economy.

Please send replies to rpf at uchicago.edu or mkatzpa at gmail.com.

Thank you,

Robert and Michael

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