Introduction

Christopher Alan Beem, Lawrence M. Mead

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

Abstract

IN 1996, UNDER increasing pressure from a Republican Congress, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) into law, bringing a dramatic shift in welfare policy toward the indigent. The previous policy, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), had supported poor families largely on the basis of entitlement, meaning that eligibility was based almost exclusively on financial need. Few questions were asked about whether the parents could support themselves. And, for poor mothers without spouses, AFDC had seemed to many to foster the dissolution of low-income families and communities. Accordingly, PRWORA replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under TANF, needy families could receive aid only if the parents met far more demanding work and child support requirements. And, in any event, that support was limited to five years. In 1997 and 1998, soon after the passage of PRWORA, Tony Blair's New Labour government in Great Britain introduced its New Deal.1 This was a key element in Blair's effort to develop a so-called Third Way between Conservatism and traditional Labour policies. The New Deal moved away from the concept of social welfare, associated with T. H. Marshall, in which aid was given as a right of citizenship with few questions asked (Marshall 1964).2 As in the United States, critics had argued that income given in this spirit-the dole-had become a way of life that immured recipients in poverty. Building on earlier Conservative reforms, the new policy required youth and the unemployed, after a short period on aid, to look for work or undertake other activities as a condition of further support. The requirements were less drastic than PRWORA, and largely exempted welfare mothers, but the motivations behind them were similar (see Lødemel and Trickey 2001).3 This broad shift in the late 1990s from an entitlement to a work-based support system for the indigent is what we mean in this volume by welfare reform.4 Yet the term reform fails to anticipate the strong disagreement that followed. As many rejoiced at the death of traditional welfare, others damned welfare reform as a moral and political disaster, bound to force thousands of poor families into the streets. Several years later, it is clear that neither the best nor the worst predictions have come to pass. American and British welfare caseloads have sharply declined, and many former recipients are working. However, poverty levels have changed much less, the ability of the new workers to improve their lot over time appears limited, and the long-term implications for families and children are unclear. These social and economic effects of reform have provoked an ocean of research and commentary. Nevertheless, we believe the assessment of welfare reform is incomplete. More is at stake than the concrete effects of the law. Welfare reform also shifted the foundations of our democracy and, by implication, democratic political theory. By eliminating entitlement and setting behavioral conditions on aid, welfare reform challenges our understanding of citizenship, political equality, and the role and moral cognizance of the state. Does welfare reform mean that to be a citizen in full standing one must function in certain minimal ways? Is political equality now conditional on making some effort toward economic self-sufficiency? Has the liberal state given up on moral neutrality as even the goal of policy, so that it now explicitly affirms some ways of life and deprecates others? What are now the limits of government intervention in intimate areas of family life, such as marriage and reproduction? These questions have not been answered. In addressing them, this book offers a more complete accounting of the effects of welfare reform.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWelfare Reform and Political Theory
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Pages1-9
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)0871545950, 9780871545886
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2007

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All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)

Cite this

Beem, C. A., & Mead, L. M. (2007). Introduction. In Welfare Reform and Political Theory (pp. 1-9). Russell Sage Foundation.