Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
The End of Welfare and the Case for a
New Poverty Knowledge

IF EVER there were a case to be made for reconstituting poverty knowledge, it is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. That act, which brought an end to “welfare as we know it,” was signed into law by President Clinton over the heated objections of the very experts he had invited to design the welfare “reform.” Clinton’s approval marked an especially cruel defeat for poverty knowledge, not because the legislation ig- nored, but because it was based on, premises that liberal experts had been promoting in their own research: that long-term “dependency” was the crux of the welfare problem and that it could be resolved by changing welfare to promote work and individual “self-sufficiency.” In this formulation, poverty knowledge had departed considerably from its Progressive, New Deal, and Great Society roots: The experts who designed Clinton’s welfare proposal re- mained committed to active government and to using rational knowledge on behalf of the poor, but they had come to accept and accommodate the conserva- tive rhetoric of small government, individual responsibility, market benevo- lence, and of targeting welfare and welfare recipients rather than the economy and the opportunity structure for reform.


THE EXPERTS AND THE REFORM

It is difficult to exaggerate the hopes and expectations that President Clinton’s 1992 election stirred in liberal poverty research circles. These were the hopes and expectations of social scientists come in from the cold. The exile of the long Reagan-Bush years was finally over: here was a president who could quote from their research, and wanted to put their expertise to work. As gover- nor of Arkansas, Clinton had presided over one of the country’s toughest “tough love” workfare programs, but he had also showcased it as one of MDRC’s experimental evaluation sites, and himself as a proponent of knowl- edge-based reform. As a leading “new Democrat,” he had fully embraced the mid-1980s “consensus” on welfare that poverty knowledge had helped to forge, emphasizing the importance of individual responsibility, parental sup- port, public-private partnership, and labor market “self-sufficiency” in his own calls for reform.1 The Clinton-Gore ticket had also adopted the central themes

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