Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Snapshots of Disillusionment

There's a book I have, From Poor Law to Welfare State, that's a history of welfare programs in the US, from the colonial period to the mid-'90s or thereabouts. It's a hugely informative book, and maybe one day I'll write a more substantial post about it.

But today I just want to point out something interesting --- if also very depressing --- about the particular edition I own.

It's the Sixth Edition, and after the author's preface it has all the prefaces from every earlier edition. So you can almost travel back in time, reading how the author's thinking and outlook evolved as he had to keep updating the book. (There's a span of, like, more than twenty years between the publication dates of the first and sixth editions, and they happen to be twenty very momentous years in the history of welfare policy.)

What's depressing, though, is that in every successive preface he has to point out that he had been overly optimistic in his concluding remarks to the previous book. 

Here's a snippet from the preface to the Second Edition (1978):
The initial version [of this book], completed early in 1973, brought the account of social welfare in America up to the start of this decade.To leave it at that critical juncture would be to shirk an obligation to readers who have witnessed the important, often complex occurrences since then and who seek to know how they are related to prior events. One of the most significant elements in the new edition, then, is the addition of a chapter on the 1970s, “Where Do We Go From Here?” 

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity to bring the text up to date because, writing some five or six years ago, I ended the manuscript on a rather optimistic note. For reasons discussed in the work, I suggested that “as 1970 approached, all was not bleak”; despite the lack of progress, “there were rays of hope.” Events over the past half-decade have proved me unduly sanguine, as the new concluding chapter indicates. Perhaps a future edition of this work will see the restoration of my confidence in the future; I hope so.
 And here's one from the Third Edition (1983):
Less than two decades ago, during the “booming” 1960s, a consensus existed in America regarding the welfare state. Few people on either side of the political aisle opposed strengthening the Social Security system or even declaring “war on poverty.” It was widely believed that the federal government was responsible for the well-being of all citizens, including their basic economic security and their physical and mental health. 

Now, in the midst of a long period of low productivity, deep recession, near-record levels of unemployment, high inflation, and widespread and growing suffering, the welfare state is under severe attack. In the forefront of that attack is the Reagan administration, with its neo-conservative philosophy. After his landslide victory in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his business-oriented advisors came into office intent on altering the direction of public affairs, particularly with regard to the scope and costs of federal activities and the relationship between the public and the private sector, especially in the area of social welfare. Since that time, they have consistently sought, with great success, to eliminate some federal and federally subsidized welfare programs and to cut back on others in a concerted attempt to reverse the steady drift toward Washington’s greater involvement in the nation’s social welfare system. 

The assault against the welfare state has come from the left as well as from the right, from radical scholars and activists as well as from conservative politicians, businessmen, and working class Americans. During the past fifteen years or so, the literature on social welfare, in fact, has been dominated by critics from the left, those who advocate the so-called social control thesis — the argument that the middle and upper classes have devised and used the nation’s welfare institutions and agencies not to help but to control the needy in order to safeguard the existing class system, perpetuate capitalism, and serve their own interests. In fact, so pervasive had such a view become that David Rothman, one of the authors of a widely cited statement on the “limits of benevolence,” rightly indicated that there even existed a widespread and acute suspicion of the very idea of doing good: “Whereas once historians and policy analysts were prone to label some movements reform, thereby assuming their humanitarian aspects,” Rothman wrote in 1978, “they are presently far more comfortable with a designation of social control, thereby assuming their coercive quality …” 

Activists of all kinds also see the needy as less beneficiaries of a benevolent society and more as victims of an all-controlling state; such activists include radicals who preach “participatory democracy” and “community control,” liberals fed up with big government and the federal bureaucracy, and even some social workers and members of the other helping professions who are convinced that the “experts” or “helpers” do not really help, that their professional knowledge, techniques, and institutions have been used to promote a sort of societal imperialism designed to keep the needy in a dependent position in order to perpetuate and enhance professionals’ own role in society. 
This, then, is an exciting and challenging (if not very encouraging) time to be thinking and writing about American social welfare history and the social work profession — and one of the justifications for a new edition of this work.This revised text is a product, at least in part, of the many things that have happened in the field, intellectually and practically, since the appearance of the last edition in 1979.
... the Fourth Edition (1988):
At the conclusion of the Preface to the third edition of this book, written in July, 1983, I stated, “Perhaps … a later edition of … [this] work, should one appear, will have a happier ending.” Unfortunately, that is not so. Despite the efforts of the outgoing administration to deny and conceal the fact, millions of American citizens remain mired in poverty. Indeed, the situation has worsened over the last eight years. In point of fact, there are now more Americans — especially women and children — who are poverty-stricken and in many cases homeless and hungry than there were when President Reagan took office. In addition, in cities all across the nation, there has developed a demoralized “underclass,” comprising school dropouts, gang members, hustlers, criminals, drug addicts, drifters, and other marginal and functionless people who often prey upon and terrorize innocent citizens and threaten the very fabric of American life.  
This new edition gave me the opportunity to take account of, and analyze, these developments and to put them into historical perspective. In so doing, I came to realize that “Reaganism” was not merely the continuation of policies initiated during the Nixon, Ford, and even Carter administrations, as I had believed (and written) earlier. In retrospect, it becomes clear that the period from 1969 to 1981 was a transitional era between the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, with their idealistic and grandiose social policies, and the Reagan administration, with its far more punitive and restrictive measures — measures that, for the first time, were designed to undermine and undo the welfare state that had emerged in America during the prior half-century. 
... Fifth Edition (1993):
Ordinarily, authors are quite pleased to have the opportunity to revise and update books they had written previously. Certainly that was the case with me, as for example my comments in the Preface to the Second Edition indicate. Unfortunately, however, that was not so this time. For the most part, revising and updating this work proved to be a difficult and depressing task.  
The last edition of this book, published in 1989, concluded with George Bush’s election to the presidency after eight years, under Ronald Reagan, of unremitting horror for the nation’s poor. Since that time, however, as I feared, conditions only have gotten worse. Under Bush, the war on the welfare state continued, poverty intensified, and homelessness and a variety of other related social problems reached new heights. All the while, the occupant of the White House and his supporters, who viewed the needy with indifference, if not scorn, did nothing — or worse: they cut even more holes in the social welfare safety net, such as it was. And while the violence that erupted in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 thrust the state of America’s inner cities and urban poverty into the public consciousness once again, and even rekindled some public debate on these matters, certainly it did not propel them onto the public agenda, at least not yet.  
If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it is the fact that the twelve dark and dismal years of the Reagan-Bush era have come to an end, and — as I indicate in the conclusion to this work — there is hope (although not quite as much now as there was immediately after the 1992 presidential election) for the onset of a new domestic order, one that will allow Americans to regain their “dignity as a just and compassionate people,” as the authors of The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass (1993) put it. 
... and Sixth Edition (1999):
The first question most readers undoubtedly will ask is, why publish a new edition of From Poor Law to Welfare State this time? While there are a number of reasons for doing so, there are two compelling, although related, answers to that question. First, the previous edition of this work ended on a rather upbeat, or optimistic, note. President Bill Clinton had just introduced his sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care system, and while many questions about that undertaking remain unanswered, I wrote that “most Americans reacted favorably to the plan and looked forward to the upcoming debate over its specifics.” Furthermore, to again quote from the last edition, “there seemed to be bi-partisan support, in and out of Congress, for the notion that the time had come for some sort of universal national health insurance scheme.” Obviously, I was wrong, and I am glad to have the opportunity to correct myself — and to explain why I was mistaken.  
Second, and closely related, I also misunderstood, or placed too much faith in, President Clinton and his commitment to helping the needy by getting to the heart of their problems — and using the federal government to help resolve them. I really believed, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, that Clinton, “unlike his immediate predecessors, who either did not recognize the nation’s social problems or refused to face up to them … certainly admits that the nation has many such problems, … that it cannot afford to ignore them, … and that the public sector can and should help to resolve them. Just as our colonial ancestors viewed their villages and towns as communities [I wrote] he cries out for the government again to become an instrument for the improvement of its citizens’ lives, especially by providing at least a minimal level of social welfare for all of its inhabitants.” 

Again, I proved to be in error. Indeed, as readers may already know, or will discover from reading the “new” last chapter of this book — the title of which I changed from “Toward a New Domestic Order?” to “Looking Forward — or Backward?” — just the opposite occurred. Thanks to what is referred to as the welfare reform act of 1996, signed into law by Clinton (just prior to the upcoming presidential election) over the protests of a number of concerned citizens, the entitlement to welfare, put into place in America some sixty years ago in the midst of the Great Depression (if not earlier, during the colonial period), has been removed and replaced by the “work or starve” mentality of an earlier time.