by Joel F. Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 416pp. Paper $29.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521690454. Hardback. $80.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9780521870351.
Reviewed by Stephen Pimpare, Yeshiva University. Email: pimpare [at] yu.edu.
There is a valuable book contained within the pages of BLAME WELFARE, IGNORE POVERTY AND INEQUALITY, one that could help to break down the analytic barrier in policy analysis between the working poor and welfare-reliant; one that could highlight the manner in which the American welfare state has often distributed its benefits disproportionately to those least in need; one that might show the manner in which classic “street-level” implementation problems have adversely affected post-welfare reform policies; and, finally, one that could emphasize the numbing historical sameness with which we have treated poor women. The raw materials for such a volume are here, but its considerable potential is not realized, in significant measure because BLAME WELFARE lacks a framework that would help readers make sense of the enormous volume of information presented.
And there is a lot here. After their Introduction, in Chapter 2 Joel Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld first give us an overview of the inadequacy of poverty measures, the incidence of poverty over the life course and the duration of poverty “spells,” and examine poverty among working Americans. They then recount the post-World War II history of welfare, including data about who has used which programs, for how long, and for what reasons. Chapter 3 offers a program-by-program overview of the state of the American welfare state, with detailed summaries of and data on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), child care, housing, Head Start, health care, and more. Chapter 4 steps back into American history from the Colonial Era to the present to offer an examination of the manner in which women (and especially single mothers) have been treated by relief agencies. They then move to the present in Chapter 5 to describe the new roles that welfare offices have assumed since the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRA), what is commonly known as welfare reform. Since one of the stated goals of that legislation was to increase employment, in Chapter 6 Handler and Hasenfeld present an analysis of the low-wage labor market and the hurdles poor women face to entry, with special attention to issues of child care. They turn in Chapter 7 to another goal of reform, and look at the relationship between marriage, childbearing, and poverty, and the relevant dictates of the PRA. Chapter 8 concludes with their recommendations, including a more comprehensive effort to increase wages at the low end of the [*370] market, and to improve the quality of and access to child care.
But without a clear frame through which to examine the material, BLAME WELFARE becomes a catalog of events and a compendium of data, albeit a rich one. As the old quip about history goes, it often feels simply like “one damn thing after another.” Much of the book is like an elaborate math problem in which the authors show all of their work: they often describe each of a long list of articles or studies relevant to the issue under discussion when the reader might benefit more from a concise summary and sharp analysis of the state of scholarship, with perhaps a footnote reference directing him or her to the pertinent studies for further research. There are, moreover, long stretches of data-rich text that could more productively have been presented as charts, figures, or graphs. It is difficult to know who will constitute the audience for the book as it is currently configured: there are many social welfare histories that are better suited to undergraduate classroom use, and the lack of any novel claim or analysis reduces its usefulness for graduate students or experts in the field. There are recent works on welfare reform that better present the issues at stake (including Handler’s own THE POVERTY OF WELFARE REFORM) and studies that more clearly evaluate the outcomes. The authors know this literature well, but one of the values of expertise is the ability to sort out which facts matter more than others, to place them into an intelligible narrative, and to make sense of them for others. Perhaps more than anything, this is a book in need of a sharp editor.
Handler and Hasenfeld claim initially that “the thesis of this book is that the country has demonized poor, single mothers” (p. 2). This is not a novel proposition, of course, and it has been more thoroughly articulated in works by Mimi Abramovitz (1996), Vivyan Adair (2002), and Linda Gordon (1994), among many others. But while they claim that this is their central argument, there is so much unrelated (if interesting) material within the pages of BLAME WELFARE, so little by way of narrative through-line, and so many other arguments competing for attention, that to compare it with those more narrowly-focused works may be unproductive. More provocative is their claim that the historical American focus upon welfare has served as a means by which elites have shifted attention away from poverty and the conditions that create it. But this is not systematically explored, and the argument never rises beyond the merely functional to demonstrate that this is an intended effect; further, since they complain that throughout our history policymakers have focused on welfare instead of poverty, they do then need to identify and explain those periods when poverty did seem to attract national attention.
There are more substantive problems. The first half of the book offers a detailed review of welfare policy and policy change since the Colonial Era, but what is almost entirely missing is attention to the politics that created these policies, and explanations for change (or lack of change) over time. Change here happens in the passive voice. The problem is compounded by the [*371] occasional conflation of political power with public preference, as when they claim that “there has never been public support to combat poverty by reducing income inequality” (p.17), when, in fact, public opinion has consistently registered preferences more “liberal” than elite preference or actually-existing policy. Their reading of American welfare policy history can present a confusing narrative that elides over differences across eras and lead to ahistorical generalizations, and they can contradict themselves from one chapter to the next, as well: sometimes the “welfare queen” has always been with us, while at other times she is a particular creation of a particular era; in the post-PRA world, sometimes welfare offices have been “transformed” to emphasize employment, but in other places they are described as not having changed much in response to the PRA and the state-level laws that implement it. There are other examples, although this is another problem that might also have been fixed with an attentive editor.
Further, for all its detail and apparent comprehensiveness, too many discussions draw upon too few sources, and scholarship that would complicate or contradict the narrative in ways that directly bear upon their claims is sometimes missing. This would feel like a more churlish complaint were there not so many references within the text to so many books and studies: it is their tendency to over-cite that, ironically, makes it seem legitimate to complain when essential references to recent scholarship are absent.
There are many fine observations in this volume; it contains comprehensive overviews of the literature across a number of issues; and raises a multitude of good questions. But the final result feels like a draft, one in which too much information is presented in too haphazard a fashion, obscuring the genuine insights within and making it difficult for the reader to understand what the argument is, and what the evidence and logic are that support it.
Abramovitz, Mimi. 1996. REGULATING THE LIVES OF WOMEN: SOCIAL WELFARE POLICY FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO THE PRESENT. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Adair, Vivyan C. 2002. “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in the United States.” 27 SIGNS 451-473.
Gordon, Linda. 1994. PITIED BUT NOT ENTITLED: SINGLE MOTHERS AND THE HISTORY OF WELFARE. New York: Free Press.
Handler, Joel F. 1995. THE POVERTY OF WELFARE REFORM. New Haven: Yale University Press.
©Copyright 2007 by the author, Stephen Pimpare.