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Blaming Poverty on the Poor: A Look at the New Welfare Consensus

Hostility toward anti-poverty programs like welfare has become the norm in American politics. But while harsh rhetoric from President Donald Trump and his supporters may be the “ugly face” of prevailing anti-welfare sentiment, “these aren’t new ideas,” according to LaGuardia Community College Professor Darren Barany, author of The New Welfare Consensus: Ideological, Political, and Social Origins. The book traces the ideology’s development over time as part of a long “drive toward austerity and welfare state decline in the United States,” made palatable to the public by “demonizing” the poor.

The welfare state originated as a way to remedy “the failures of the economic system,” Barany said in an interview with SUM. But eventually policy discourse shifted away from “structural economic concerns” to an emphasis on “behavioral pathology.” Accordingly, poverty was no longer a problem to be solved by government assistance; instead, people who struggled were seen as not working hard enough. An influential 1965 report by New York’s Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in part blamed poverty, especially in the black community, on a “tangle” of cultural “pathology” and the rise of single mothers: Why would women marry if the government would support their kids? This new narrative, said Barany, was “misogynistic, chauvinist and racist,” but it eventually became the “new normal.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, politicians diverted attention from inflation, recession, and rising unemployment in part by inflaming resentment against “welfare queens” and “welfare cheats.” Finally, in 1996, President Bill Clinton fulfilled his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we … know it,” by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Poverty was reframed as a “managerial” and “behavioral” issue, said Barany, with policy elites restructuring programs to discipline the poor.

This “new welfare consensus,” Barany wrote, was rooted in conservative ideology but is “now generally accepted across major sectors of U.S. politics.” The notion of a basic income “as a right for able-bodied adults and poor single mothers,” he said, has “come to be regarded as ridiculous.”

Barany received his Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and much of the research for the book was originally done for his dissertation. 

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The New Welfare Consensus: Ideological, Political, and Social Origins
SUNY Press, 2018

Work By
Darren Barany (Associate Professor and Coordinator, Sociology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools
LaGuardia Community College

Bonus Content
“Saving Society from the ‘Presumption of Reason’: Classical Conservative and New Right Anti-Welfarism in Post-War America” (Critical Sociology)

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