In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

8

'A Second Chance, Not a Way of Life':
Welfare as Workfare in the USA

DESPITE the massive economic growth and vast physical resources available to the United States, its economy has not been immune to economic depressions or mass unemployment. The 1870s and 1930s are two well‐ known examples of these periods, both provoking policy responses for the destitute unemployed—in the former decade local and poorhouse‐ oriented strategies, in the latter through federal intervention. More recently, unemployment policy has become entangled with that for welfare recipients, as the perception of the existence of a welfare dependency culture has gained widespread, if not complete, acceptance. 1 Running through these policies—which stretch over a 150-year period—are certain constants about the problem. With the brief exception of parts of the New Deal in the 1930s 2 and the Great Society in the 1960s 3 (during which periods the country's major welfare programmes were enacted: Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, supplementary security income, unemployment insurance, and AFDC), unemployment and welfare dependency have been viewed as problems of individual indolence rather than as structural manifestations of an industrial economy. This is particularly the case for able-bodied unemployed men, and more recently single mothers who find themselves definitionally equated with the former group (a categorization not without racial connotations). This assumption has generated a hostility to policies which subvert or distort the market system: with appropriate diligence and application, it is commonly supposed that any able-bodied person should be able to get work.

The discussion in this chapter concentrates upon the history and politics of workfare in the USA, the practice of requiring a work activity in exchange for relief. I analyse the late nineteenth-century Poor Law deterrent tradition and the post-1960s shift to modern contractualist workfare, which culminated in the 1996 law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This extremely important

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1
Fraser and Gordon (1997), Etzioni (1995a).
2
See Berkowitz and McQuaid (1992), chs. 5, 6, Berkowitz (1991), Patterson (1981), chs. 3-5, Noble (1997a). For a highly critical view see the essays in Mandell (1975).
3
Davies (1996), Lemann (1991). On the Johnson presidency see Bowles (1987).

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