Immanence and Identity: Understanding Poverty through Law and Society Research

Article excerpt

I. Poverty as Politics

Welfare policy has occupied a position in public political discourse since the 1960s as in few other periods of American history. The 1996 federal welfare reform legislation that swept away Aid to Families with Dependent Children in favor of statecontrolled programs supported by federal block-grant funding emerged from a momentous, long-running political debate occupying the foreground in every administration since the mid1960s.

Notwithstanding the important political role that welfare policy has played in the electoral politics of the past three decades, the most recent events might well pass into the annals of the Clinton presidency but for the troubling messages it has sent about work and responsibility. The discussion of work, responsibility, the quality of family life, and its implications for the concept of citizenship has touched a sensitive part of the American psyche, and will not be soon forgotten nor will its implications soon be fully understood. Welfare reforms provide a part of the ideological underpinning for reducing citizenship to a single core-the right and duty to participate in the labor market.

While welfare reform has taken shape on the center stage of American politics, concerns about its effects on the poor have been swept aside by the insistence of political leaders that welfare has "failed." To say that welfare has "failed" suggests that we know and agree on what welfare should do and for whom, issues that raise fundamental moral and political questions about citizenship and equality. These issues have remained in the shadows, however, when welfare reform takes center stage. Failure to address them in the national discussion of welfare reform will have significance lasting far beyond the implementation of the harsh new reforms. What government provides, or fails to provide, for our poor is closely related to our understanding of governmental responsibility for the well-being of all citizens and thus has profound implications for the nature of community and the meaning of citizenship.

Welfare policies have been an important terrain of struggle in establishing the meaning of our commitment to one another. In We the Poor People: Work, Poverty, and Welfare, Joel Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld have identified the underlying values that render poverty programs particularly complex and unequal by design (pp. 9-10). The principal assumption shaping such programs is that self-support through work is a moral obligation. Poverty may result from an inability to work, and for those persons society should provide an adequate alternative to wages. For the remaining poor, poverty is presumptively a problem of attitude. Consequently, programs for the relief of poverty must first distinguish between the morally deserving and the morally undeserving poor. The deserving poor are identified by a limited number of characteristics that morally excuse them from work, principally disability, infancy, and more recently old age. Most others are judged morally lacking. Inability to find work at a living wage is not an excuse. Responsibilities of parenthood are not an excuse, especially for parents who do not conform to patriarchal gender norms and middle-income family structure. While poverty relief programs provide a kind of social right to equality, the "equality" welfare programs provide is based on the moral rehabilitation of the poor person rather than on changes in labor markets or redistribution of income that might bring material relief.1

The vision of moral citizenship projected by welfare law interweaves existing social practices of race, gender, and wealth inequality (Karst 1989, 1993). Thus, the failure of welfare administration to relieve poverty is not due simply to administrative ineffectiveness but also, as Handler and Hasenfeld point out, to the internal contradictions of a welfare policy formulated as symbolic politics and bearing little relationship to the lives and identities of actual welfare recipients. …