International sanctions, imposed on Iraq from 1990-2003, severely constricted the state’s capacity to provide basic health and educational services at the very time when public need for a ‘safety net’ of financial and nutritional assistance increased dramatically due to worsening economic conditions. Both the state and ordinary Iraqi citizens had interests in seeing the state welfare system maintained, and even expanded, yet practical limitations on state finances and capacity resulted in decreasing literacy and school enrollment rates, food and medicine shortages, and an overall worsening in health and education indicators. This paper draws on the Iraqi Ba‘th Party archives, archives from Saddam Hussein’s presidential office, and fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan to illustrate how ordinary citizens in Baghdad improvised a variety of strategies through legal channels, informal markets and networks, and illegal actions to acquire needed health, financial, and educational resources in this constricted environment. Likewise, I delineate the limits and continued strengths of state capacity in the midst of sanctions, arguing that the state relied increasingly on local governance structures to maintain an image (and, at times, a reality) of centralized political control. Though citizens and the state had similar goals for maintaining a basic safety net of public services, the legal, informal, and illegal strategies pursued by citizens to acquire needed resources was a source of tension between state and society during the sanctions years.