Shaping the Debate on Welfare

By Besharov, Douglas J. | Public Welfare, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Shaping the Debate on Welfare


Besharov, Douglas J., Public Welfare


A scholar offers his recommended reading list of books that have influenced recent social policy.

This reading list demonstrates, once again, that ideas have consequences. All the main elements the new welfare law - requiring work for benefits, time-limiting benefits, discouraging unwed parenthood, and devolving power and responsibility back to the states - have their roots in an unfolding intellectual and political debate that has lasted more than 30 years.

Here are 16 books that have helped shape that debate and that will help you decide what to think about the new law - and what it may or may not accomplish.

* Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, by Elliott Liebow (Little, Brown, 1967). A richly textured description of life among inner-city poor blacks in the early 1960s, told from the vantage point of a group of often-unemployed black men who hung around a street corner in Washington, D.C.

* Street Wise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, by Elijah Anderson (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Twenty-three years after the men gathered at Tally's Corner, an unflinching depiction of male behaviors in neighborhoods now racked by drugs, crime, violence, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

* There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, by Alex Kotlowitz (Doubleday, 1991). Life in a Chicago public housing project as seen by the children: unemployment and idleness among adults, the almost complete absence of governmental authority, indiscriminate and often senseless violence (and death), and a pervasive resignation that things won't get better - no matter how hard a person strives.

* Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, by Leon Dash (Basic Books, 1996). The excruciating realities of one welfare mother's journey through teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, and death from AIDS. Based on Dash's Pulitzer Prize-winning series for The Washington Post.

* Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, by Charles Murray (Basic Books, 1984). A fusillade against the Great Society, arguing that it not only failed to help the poor but often made things worse.

* Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, by Lawrence M. Mead (Free Press, 1986). Concludes that the problem is the permissiveness of the welfare state, not its size. Welfare recipients, for example, should be required to work in return for their benefits.

* The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson (University of Chicago Press, 1987). Argues that the underclass was created not by welfare, but by the decline in well-paying, blue-collar jobs.

* Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform, by Mary Jo Bane and David T. Ellwood (Harvard University, 1994). An easily read volume by two senior Clinton advisers that contains the single best summary of the key empirical research on welfare dependency, much of it their own. …

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