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Blame Welfare, Ignore Poverty and Inequality.

Blame Welfare, Ignore Poverty and Inequality. By Joel F. Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 401pp.).

This highly valuable book is, perhaps, unfortunate in its name. Judging the book by its title, many potential readers might well pass it up in the belief that it is a polemic about the unfairness of American society. Although the title does successfully capture the authors' contention that US welfare policy is focused on mistaken beliefs about welfare recipients, rather than on structural issues of poverty and inequality, this work is anything but a dogmatic rant. It is a scrupulously evidence-based examination of the history, assumptions, successes, and failures of American attempts to do something about the poor.

Given the complicated interplay of Federal, state, and local agencies that has always characterized the social welfare "system" of the United States, a satisfactory historical overview of what it involves and how it has changed over time is inherently difficult to achieve. Some degree of confusion for the reader is nearly inevitable, especially in view of the alphabet soup of changing program names. (Consider, for example, the task of tracking the changes from ADC to AFDC to TANF, all of them involving shifts not merely in nomenclature but in policy as well.) The table of acronyms thoughtfully provided at the beginning of this book is a definite help, but the most motivated of readers will occasionally find his head swimming. And each program must be discussed, of course, in all of its many variants among the individual states. There is simply no way to avoid these problems in a substantive evaluation of US welfare policies.

Nonetheless, the authors do an effective job of interweaving changes in policy with the changing demographics of poverty in the United States. Their principal, though not exclusive, focus is on assistance to households headed by a single female parent. Issues of disability, unemployment, and old age are treated primarily as they affect such households. The authors provide a clear and useful explanation of the differences between entitlement programs like Social Security, which are open to the entire population, and programs like AFDC (now TANF), which are targeted at the poverty population. They also provide a history of the "poverty line," indicating how it has been derived, how it has changed over time, and how useful it is today. (A very short summary of the last: not very.) All of this material would be of value to students either of US welfare policy or of changes in social stratification.

The heart of this book is a detailed examination of the many studies documenting the characteristics highly correlated with poverty and the implementation of policy on the local level. There is a lot more evidence available on these subjects than many people imagine. (In fact the list of references at the end of this book runs to 30 pages.) The authors skillfully cull a multitude of studies for information on who the poor are, who welfare recipients are, how welfare regulations are implemented, and how this implementation helps or hinders applicants in escaping from poverty. They examine ethnographic studies of the lived experience of individual families, multivariate analyses of the importance of various factors in causing or alleviating poverty, and longitudinal studies of outcomes over time. These studies provide clear evidence that standard assumptions about the causes of poverty are, indeed, "myths"--whether or not lawmakers and voters have accepted them. Because welfare policies are based on these myths, they can be not only ineffective but counter-productive. Policies whose aim is to push welfare recipients out into the low-wage labor market but whose implementation requires frequent visits to the welfare office during business hours, for example, clearly cannot in the end succeed, especially when no realistic provision for child care needs is included. Based on the wealth of information available from the multitude of studies, Handler and Hasenfeld address questions like these: Do welfare-to-work jobs provide avenues of social mobility to former welfare recipients? Are the "barriers to employment" successfully met? How many former welfare recipients actually escape from poverty, rather than just leave the welfare rolls? Which programs seem to be working, and why? They offer considerable evidence for conclusions based on reality, rather than on speculation, dogma, or custom.

One personal quibble: admirable as this book is in every way, it does embody to some extent the customary assumption of American exceptionalism. Handler and Hasenfeld do compare US welfare policies and poverty demographics to those of other industrial countries, usually invidiously. They find that "although poor Americans are better off than the poor in Britain and Australia, they are considerably worse off than the poor in Western Europe and somewhat worse off than the poor in Sweden, Canada, and Finland." (23) It seems rather a large coincidence that the two industrial nations whose poor are worse off than ours, and one of the three whose poor are nearly as badly off, are English-speaking. In fact all the features here described as uniquely American--focusing on public assistance rather than on poverty, worrying more about interfering with market mechanisms than about child welfare, assuming that the poor are work-shy and morally inferior to the rest of us--were clearly in evidence in British social welfare policy in the early 19th century. This somewhat dilutes the book's argument that many aspects of contemporary US welfare policy are primarily products of racism. There can be no doubt that racism has been a major influence in American life, or that it still influences many people. But the notion that the poor lack industriousness, impulse control, and parental zeal was held just as fervently with regard to the pale denizens of Victorian East London as to the welfare population of the South Bronx or the South End of Chicago today. Such deeply entrenched beliefs can be eradicated only with evidence, of which this volume presents a valuable supply.

Kathleen C. Martin

Boston University
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Author:Martin, Kathleen C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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