The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats

The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats

The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats

The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats

Synopsis

In the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the United States suffered the most sustained and extensive wave of job destruction since the Great Depression. When families in need sought help from the safety net, however, they found themselves trapped in a system that increasingly tied public assistance to private employment. In The Workfare State, Eva Bertram recounts the compelling history of the evolving social contract from the New Deal to the present to show how a need-based entitlement was replaced with a work-conditioned safety net, heightening the economic vulnerability of many poor families.

The Workfare State challenges the conventional understanding of the development of modern public assistance policy. New Deal and Great Society Democrats expanded federal assistance from the 1930s to the 1960s, according to the standard account. After the 1980 election, the tide turned and Republicans ushered in a new conservative era in welfare politics. Bertram argues that the decisive political struggles took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when Southern Democrats in Congress sought to redefine the purposes of public assistance in ways that would preserve their region's political, economic, and racial order. She tells the story of how the South--the region with the nation's highest levels of poverty and inequality and least generous social welfare policies--won the fight to rewrite America's antipoverty policy in the decades between the Great Society and the 1996 welfare reform. Their successes provided the foundation for leaders in both parties to build the contemporary workfare state--just as deindustrialization and global economic competition made low-wage jobs less effective at providing income security and mobility.

Excerpt

Gripped by a severe recession in late 2007, the United States suffered the most sustained and extensive wave of job destruction the country had seen since the Great Depression. Over the next year and a half, unemployment topped 10 percent, and the number of Americans facing long-term joblessness set new records. Poverty rates climbed above 15 percent, and the Census Bureau reported that more Americans were poor than at any other time in the nation’s history.

The recession ended in 2009, but the hardships did not. By the end of the de cade, the median American family had lost twenty years’ worth of accumulated wealth and drew an income more than $5,000 below the median a de cade earlier. Five years into the recovery, six in ten Americans said that the recession continued to affect them personally; four in ten said that someone in their house hold had lost a job.

Americans confronted these hard times with a reconfigured social safety net. De cades in the making, it was the product of intense political battles in Washington that saw policymakers replace core elements of the New Deal welfare state for poor families with a workfare system designed to more actively promote and reward employment among the poor. The modern workfare state was built piecemeal, beginning in the 1960s and culminating in the welfare reform legislation signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. At the time, policymakers and poverty experts were divided over workfare’s likely outcomes– and the early evidence was mixed. But the system went largely untested until the Great Recession of 2007-9 and the slow recovery that followed. The experience of American economic hardship in these years is therefore not only the story of a particularly severe and sustained downturn. It is the story of the failings and flaws in the nation’s new work-conditioned safety net.

Media accounts of the Great Recession focused on the rising economic insecurity of middle-income families faced with the loss of jobs, homes, and savings. Less attention was paid to the population of poor and near-poor . . .

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