Austin Sarat


"For me the law is all over. I am caught, you know; there is always some rule that I'm supposed to follow, some rule I don't even know about that they say. It's just different and you can't really understand." These words were spoken by Spencer, a thirty-five-year-old man on public assistance (general relief), whom I first encountered in the waiting room of a legal services office. I introduced myself and told him that I was interested in talking to him about law and finding out why he was using legal services; I asked if he would be willing to talk with me and allow me to be present when he met with his lawyer. While he seemed, at first, both puzzled and amused that I had, as he put it, "nothing more important to do," he agreed to both of my requests.

As my research unfolded, what Spencer said in our first conversation, .. the law is all over," served as a reference point for understanding the meaning and significance of law in the lives of the welfare poor. His words helped me interpret how people on welfare think about law and use legal ideas as well as how they respond to problems with the welfare bureaucracy. In this paper I present that interpretation and describe what I call the legal consciousness of the welfare poor. I suggest that the legal consciousness of the welfare poor is a consciousness of power and domination, in which the keynote is enclosure and dependency, and a consciousness of resistance, in which welfare recipients assert themselves and demand recognition of their personal identities and their human needs.

The legal consciousness of the welfare poor is, I will argue, substantially different from other groups in society for whom law is a less immediate and visible presence. Law is, for people on welfare, repeatedly encountered in the most ordinary transactions and events of their lives. Legal rules and practices are implicated in determining whether and how welfare recipients will be able to meet some of their most pressing needs. Law is immediate and powerful because being on welfare means having a significant part of one's life organized by a regime of legal rules invoked by officials to claim jurisdiction over choices and decisions which those not on welfare would regard as personal and private. Thus, Spencer's sense that ". . . the law is all over" is an introduction to the pervasiveness and obtrusiveness of legal rules and practices in the lives of people on welfare.