Blame Welfare: Ignore Poverty and Inequality

Article excerpt

Blame Welfare: Ignore Poverty and Inequality. By Joel F. Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007. Pp. xiii+401. $80.00 cloth; $29.99 paper.

Despite its clumsy and potentially misleading title, Handler and Hasenfeld's Blame Welfare: Ignore Poverty and Inequality provides a useful synthesis of recent research on welfare, poverty, and the low-wage labor market in the United States in service of the authors' thesis, that the nation must reject the symbolic politics of "welfare reform" and ensure economic stability for working families. Handler and Hasenfeld, University of California, Los Angeles professors of law and social welfare, respectively, have made this point before, but it is worth reiterating, particularly now that the 1996 welfare reform and reduction in welfare rolls has driven poverty from mainstream political debate.

The authors' statistical portrait of poverty in the present-day United States, drawn from a range of longitudinal and case studies, is solid and useful as reference material for students and scholars. The studies debunk the persistent myth that poverty is the fault of a deviant "underclass": while nonwhite Americans experience disproportionate levels of poverty, the nation's high child poverty rate results, the authors insist, from an anachronistic and crumbling social safety net and a deteriorating low-wage labor market. Studies on the aftermath of welfare reform suggest as much: single mothers on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, which replaced the much-reviled Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996) are members of the "working poor."

Handler and Hasenfeld are at their best when synthesizing the important new research on welfare leavers, who often "play by the rules" (that is, work for wages) but remain poor (p. 30). Leaver studies reveal the barriers that single mothers face in earning wages (from health problems to child care needs) and the instability, low wages, and lack of mobility that characterize the low-wage labor market. If the most important issue is children's well-being, the authors insist, then welfare reform is not the success it is purported to be.

In the book's historical sections, the authors are on less-solid ground. Drawing on secondary sources, they assert that from the colonial era to the present, "moral blame, race and gender discrimination, and symbolic politics" have cast poor single mothers as "undeserving" (p. 155) and that commitment to the "work ethic" and inattention to structural barriers have hampered responses to poverty. Such a broad sweep (one that moves from the War on Poverty to TANF in a few paragraphs) and the emphasis on continuity obscure important changes. The authors have little to say about politics: American policy makers, it seems, are all of one cloth, which also leaves open questions of causality. …