Practically every author would prefer to begin a preface like this one by describing how the volume grew out of the author’s hopes or aspirations— fervent desires for a better understanding of a given field of inquiry or for a better future for society or similar optimistic goals.
I cannot, in all honesty, open on such a sanguine note. Rather, this book grows out of my sense of frustration, on two counts.
First, our nation’s social policies fail to reflect the full range of our values as Americans. The rhetoric surrounding the welfare reform of 1996 and the repeated attempts to reauthorize that legislation since 2002 reveal a disturbing gap between the laws we have enacted as a nation and the ethical values we profess as a people. To be sure, the dominant discourse of recent debates over welfare policy did reflect a certain subset of the values Americans tend to hold dear: our legitimate concern about limiting fiscal outlays, encouraging personal responsibility, and enforcing a work ethic. As a result, an open-ended federal entitlement for low-income families was replaced with capped block grants to states. A number of recently enacted social policies also reaffirm our strong work ethic, commitment to honesty, and high regard for stable and independent family life. This is why our newest policies seek to transform welfare into a work-based system of temporary support for low-income families; they reflect an eagerness to separate out those who truly need welfare from those who, with less claim to legitimate need, would take advantage of the system to obtain handouts. But very few features of welfare policy today correspond to another set of our noble national aspirations. These include our collective desires to help the truly needy, to reduce poverty through concerted public action, and to support children who are unfortunate enough to be born into single-parent families whose adult members display significant barriers to employment. Public opinion surveys consistently indicate that the American public thinks our nation is doing too little to help lift poor families above the poverty line. While it is true that an overwhelming majority of Americans repeatedly registers its suspicion of a welfare system that has historically been hampered by a variety of unintended consequences and perverse incentives, we also give ample evidence of understanding the importance of providing the support necessary to make work a realistic route to financial independence,