The New Politics of Poverty

In part as a result of shrinking budgets, in part because there’s a growing consensus that welfare policies initiated in the 1960’s have contributed to the development of a permanent underclass, many states have adopted programs that require employable welfare recipients to work or take job-training courses. Lawrence Mead’s BEYOND ENTITLEMENT: THE SOCIAL OBLIGATIONS OF CITIZENSHIP (1986) is credited with influencing policymakers in the shift toward workfare.

In that book, Mead argued that both conservative and liberal analyses of the welfare problem were flawed. The problem was not that the “welfare state” was doing too much for the poor (the conservative view) or too little (as liberals contended), but rather that “it was permissive. It did not set behavioral standards for the dependent.”

THE NEW POLITICS OF POVERTY, Mead explains, began as a reply to critics of BEYOND ENTITLEMENT. In particular, Mead seeks to show that “the barriers commonly cited by both left and right generally fail to explain nonwork among the poor, especially as unskilled jobs of at least a low-paid kind appear to be widely available.” He makes that case persuasively, drawing on wide range of studies and carefully considering the arguments of his critics.

If jobs are more widely available to the nonworking poor than liberals acknowledge, why are they not employed? To a great extent, Mead suggests, the answer lies in the way “many of the poor see themselves—trapped without any chance to get ahead on their own.”

How can policymakers speak to that despair without merely perpetuating it? As he considers various options for welfare reform, Mead addresses larger issues of what he terms “dependency politics.” Ultimately he calls for social policy that explicitly insists on personal responsibility. Whether or not they agree with his conclusions, readers will profit from Mead’s provocative and well-documented analysis.