Jennifer Mittelstadt. From Welfare to Workfare: The Unintended Consequences of Liberal Reform, 1945-1965.
Jennifer Mittelstadt's engaging book details a relatively uncharted chapter in the history of U.S. poverty policy. Most of us think of post-war America as a time of economic growth, suburbanization, and conservatism. This volume is a corrective. Mittelstadt argues that social reformers, concerned about the post-war "paradox of prosperity", were designing--and passing--policies aimed at those mired in "fundamental poverty". Armed with social work ideas, Wilbur Cohen and his colleagues, a group of "self designated liberals", were optimistic that economic growth could help spawn progressive social policies. Unfortunately, Mittelstadt argues, reformers and their organizational partners, unwittingly laid the groundwork for contemporary regressive workfare policies.
The initial chapters chronicle the defeat of the 1943 and 1945 social welfare bills and passage of the 1956 Social Security Amendments, and with it, the emergence of a "rehabilitation paradigm", that encouraged "self-care" and "self-support". Thus began a retreat into residualism, according to the author, rather than a focus on structural causes of poverty that guided earlier social insurance legislation. Social casework provided the "inspiration and guidance" for these reforms. In response to a concern about "broken homes," "matriarchy," and "social maladjustments," reformers promoted the concepts of "self-care" to improve family life and--despite the inherent contradictions--"self-support" to reduce dependence through wage work.
Gender and race take center stage in the analysis of Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). Mittelstadt argues that the poor, slotted into a categorical program, were sure to receive "close scrutiny", especially since beneficiaries were women and were increasingly divorced, deserted, never married, and non-white. While reformers "emphasized family", they "erased race", in efforts to win widespread support. In one of the most critical passages, the author argues that, although reformers understood the impact of discrimination, they chose to focus on expanding family services rather than civil rights. This approach, she argues, left a legacy that is being played out in contemporary welfare policy reform.
The 1961 Unemployed Parent law and the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments expanded coverage, further embedding the rehabilitation approach, and adding "families" to the title (making it Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC). Mittelstadt argues that Cohen, in his new role as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), coupled welfare with work through these new laws. Near the end, the book softens towards the reformers. Mittelstadt points out that Cohen and his colleagues opposed mandatory workfare, but "notes that their nuanced welfare proposals had no defenders, and the idea of rehabilitation fell prey to harsher interpretations of how welfare should evolve." According to his biographer, Edward Berkowitz, Cohen was a pragmatist and incrementalist. He managed these trends and squeezed out the reforms he believed possible. But as the liberal coalition weakened, the idea of rehabilitation was supplanted by the idea of responsibility.
Paradoxically, while liberal welfare reformers lost power, aspects of rehabilitative rhetoric, particularly the rhetoric of self-support, gained momentum. Drawing on the precedent of rehabilitation, welfare law after the 1960s increasingly focused on forcing poor "dysfunctional" women out of "welfare dependency" and into mandatory "self-support." "Rehabilitation" evolved into "responsibility," and welfare became workfare. (p. 19)
Although the final chapter places the story in larger context, this could have been done more consistently throughout the book. For example, the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor has played a large role in shaping American welfare policy, notwithstanding the contributions of postwar liberals. Distinguishing among groups that happen to be poor inevitably comes down to who "deserves" society's support and who does not.
Social workers will be mystified by Mittelstadt's analysis of the social work profession. She lumps together "late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century reformers ...[who] advocated a social casework approach--individual interaction between a patient and professional--to "aid the poor". The author fails to distinguish among competing approaches in social work. There is no account of the social science and policy work of people such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and their colleagues at Hull House, or New Deal architects Harry Hopkins and Francis Perkins. Furthermore, Mittelstadt argues that although Cohen and his colleagues were engaged in research, they were not part of the cohort of sociologists and economists whom historians view as America's poverty intellectuals and policy makers. It would have been helpful to read more about these poverty intellectuals and policy makers and what they were studying and proposing in the post-war period.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, this book is recommended for policy makers, social work leaders, educators, and students of social welfare history. In addition to the cautionary tale of reform, other lessons can be derived from Mittelstadt's analysis. First, it suggests the importance of beneficiary involvement in policy making. With no poor people's organizations involved in the 1956, 1961, and 1962 reforms, content and evaluation of proposals 'from the ground up' were missing. Further, the analysis suggests the importance of focusing on structural causes and solutions to poverty. Policy should focus, as Amartya Sen, James Midgley and others suggest, an on how we maximize people's capabilities. Assuring access to basic human needs, providing an array of social investment opportunities that lead to successful family formation, career development, community and political participation, and cultural enrichment.
Margaret Sherrard Sherraden
University of Missouri in St. Louis
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|Author:||Sherraden, Margaret Sherrard|
|Publication:||Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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