POVERTY IN THE UNITED STATES IS USUALLY THOUGHT OF AS A SOCIAL problem. in the occasional times when it rises to public attention, it troubles the conscience of a wealthy nation and calls forth the curative designs of social reformers. passionate calls to end poverty frame public debates and fuel the efforts of many advocates and public officials. yet poverty is more than a blight to be eradicated; it is also a problem of governance. the needs and disorders that arise in poor communities, and the difficulties they pose for societal institutions, must somehow be managed. in practice, social programs are rarely designed or evaluated as if the elimination of poverty were an attainable goal. programs for the poor are used mainly to temper the hardships of poverty and ensure that they do not become disruptive for the broader society. they support the impoverished in ways designed to make poor communities more manageable and to shepherd the poor into the lower reaches of societal institutions. poverty emerges occasionally in public life as a problem to be solved; the poor exist perennially as subjects who must be governed.
The central challenge of poverty governance can be traced to an apparent paradox. In capitalist democracies, the poor occupy a position that is both marginal and central to the social order. Out on the social periphery, they struggle to make ends meet in isolated neighborhoods and rural towns, under conditions their fellow citizens encounter mainly as news or entertainment. They are incorporated in partial ways, through precarious relationships to the routines and benefits that cement social order in the broader society. Yet the contributions of people who live and work in poverty are also essential for the smooth operation of societal institutions. The burdens they shoulder are indispensable for the quality of life that most residents of developed countries have come to expect (Gans 1972).
Thus, the most basic purpose of poverty governance is not to end poverty; it is to secure, in politically viable ways, the cooperation and contributions of weakly integrated populations. To meet this challenge, governments employ a variety of policy tools and administrative ar
rangements. They distribute relief to ease suffering and quiet disruptive political demands. They restrict aid to encourage the poor to take up work. They create incentives and services to smooth the path to preferred behaviors, and they police and imprison the poor for violations of law. They design social programs to teach prevailing norms, and they use surveillance and penalty systems to keep aid recipients moving along their designated paths. Through these and other methods, governments work continually to manage low-income populations and transform them into cooperative subjects of the market and polity.
Poverty governance, in this sense, is a perennial activity, yet its aims and operations are far from fixed. Its institutions keep time with the rhythms of political life. They adapt slowly to shifts in the organization of power and, on occasion, turn decisively to accommodate newly victorious interests and ideologies. Around the globe, efforts to govern the poor take different forms as public authorities struggle to navigate distinctive political, economic, and cultural dynamics. The compliance of the poor is never cemented, once and for all, through a seamless configuration of ideologies and institutions. To the contrary, the tactics of poverty governance are always unstable, and their power is never complete. They are contingent practices that evolve as public authorities cope with the internal contradictions of existing policies and work creatively to adapt to changing political pressures and institutional developments.
Over the past few decades, poverty governance in the United States has been transformed by the convergence of two reform movements. The first, often referred to as “paternalist,” has promoted a more directive and supervisory approach to managing the poor (Mead 1997b). Citing images of disorder and dysfunction in impoverished communities, paternalists have argued that the state must meet its obligation to “tell the poor what to do” (Mead 1998). Thus, welfare programs have been recast to emphasize behavioral expectations and monitoring, incentives for right behavior, and penalties for noncompliance. Means-tested benefits of various stripes, from nutritional assistance to housing support, have been made conditional on good behavior. Tough new criminal justice policies have cracked down on illicit behavior and ushered in an unprecedented era of mass incarceration (Western 2006; Wacquant 2009).
The turn toward paternalism has intersected with a second development: the rise of neoliberalism as an organizing principle of governance.
In the 1970s and 1980s, neoliberals initially adopted a laissez-faire stance, seeking to weaken the market-constraining effects of state regulations and the welfare state (Harvey 2005). Over time, however, reformers shifted to a more ambitious agenda (Peck and Tickell 2002). Today, neoliberalism encompasses a wide range of efforts to organize society according to principles of market rationality (W. Brown 2003). Rather than shrinking the state, neoliberals have worked to restructure it and harness its capacities. They have redesigned state operations around market principles and worked to make state officials more dependent on market actors to achieve their goals. Neoliberals have embraced the state as an instrument for creating market opportunities, absorbing market costs, and imposing market discipline (W. Brown 2006). Thus, core state functions, from war to welfare, environmental management to incarceration, have been contracted out to private providers. Policy authority has been decentralized and fragmented. Program operations have been restructured to emphasize competition and reward for performance.
The convergence of these two streams marks a significant moment in American political development: the rise of a mode of poverty governance that is, at once, more muscular in its normative enforcement and more dispersed and diverse in its organization. Poverty governance today is pursued through a diffuse network of actors who are positioned in quasi-market relations and charged with the task of bringing discipline to the lives of the poor.
Our book is the product of a sustained effort to make sense of this transformation. Bringing historical and theoretical analysis together with diverse sources of evidence, we seek to clarify the origins, operations, and consequences of neoliberal paternalism as a mode of poverty governance. The key features of our study fall into three broad categories. First, Disciplining the Poor is an effort to theorize how the present fits into a long history of efforts to regulate and reform low-income populations. The contemporary system is a blend of old practices and new political rationalities. To understand it, one must specify the elements of historical continuity and change that define its disciplinary project.
Second, unlike most research on “the politics of policy,” our study does not adopt the vantage point of a single institution or stage of the policy process. Instead, we seek to draw multiple levels of governance into a common frame of analysis. Beginning with historical changes at
the national level, we follow the path of governance down through a decentralized system. We trace its uneven development through state-level policy choices. We explore the differences that emerge as statewide policy designs give way to local strategies of implementation. Finally, we analyze how neoliberal paternalism gets put into practice, as street-level organizations and personnel carry out their work at the front lines of governance.
Third, our study seeks to clarify the central role that race plays in American poverty governance today. The racial character of the contemporary system is more than just a legacy of our troubled racial past. It is a reflection of how race operates today as a social structure that organizes politics and markets and as a mental structure that organizes choice and action in governance. Racialized social relations and race-coded discourses provided essential resources for the political actors who drove the turn toward neoliberal paternalism. In this sense, race played a key role in shaping the governing arrangements that all poor Americans now confront. The effects of race, however, have not been limited to the broad direction of historical change. As we will see, racial factors go far toward explaining the systematic ways that governing arrangements and outcomes vary across the contemporary system. Functioning as a socially constructed “principle of vision and division” (Bourdieu 1990), race supplies a powerful cultural frame and structural context for the contemporary practice of poverty governance.
To set the stage for the study that follows, the remainder of this chapter elaborates on each of these themes.
Historical Continuity and Change
Poverty governance today is not the sharp break with the past that many observers imagine, but it is also more than a simple recycling of old tactics. In many respects, it is continuous with the long history of modern poor relief as a mechanism for regulating the poor. The contemporary system incorporates age-old strategies for enforcing work, including efforts to restrict and stigmatize welfare receipt (Piven and Cloward 1971). It is a new chapter in the old story of moralistic campaigns to “improve” the poor (Katz 1997), and it carries forward the long history of efforts to
regulate gender, family, and sexuality that feminist historians have done so much to illuminate (Gordon 1994; Abramovitz 1988).
Advocates’ claims of novelty aside (Mead 1998), the “new paternalism” bears a striking resemblance to earlier forms of paternalism, including the ideologies that attended nineteenth-century poorhouses, agencies for outdoor relief, and scientific charity movements. Indeed, even the major areas of behavior emphasized in poverty policy today—work, sex, substance abuse, marriage, child rearing, and so on—echo the main targets of earlier crusades to uplift and normalize the poor.
In these and other ways, poverty governance continues to operate as a form of social control, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1971) argued a generation ago in their landmark study, Regulating the Poor
Indeed, our empirical analysis suggests that Piven and Cloward’s account of labor regulation remains a vital resource for understanding poverty governance today. Work enforcement continues to be pursued, much as they argued, through efforts to make poor relief less accessible and attractive than the worst available jobs. The administrative ceremonies of public aid continue to be rooted in Durkheimian rituals that stigmatize and deter welfare receipt. Much of welfare reform today can be interpreted as a classic case of “relief contraction,” as Piven and Cloward use this term. By discrediting and deterring welfare usage, it forces desperate workers to accept the meanest work at the meanest wages.
Continuity can also be seen in the ambitious project of civic incorporation that informs neoliberal paternalism. Throughout its history, poverty governance has been an object of competing visions of the civitas
—who we are and what we stand for, who should be included and on what terms, what we deserve and owe to one another (Heclo 1995). Programs for the poor have traditionally been organized to promote the specific conceptions of citizenship that have prevailed in particular eras—including the race, gender, and class biases they have entailed (Marshall 1964; R. Smith 1997; Somers 2008). Like generations of reformers before them, neoliberal paternalists have argued that meaningful civic incorporation can be achieved only by forcing the poor to confront a more demanding and appropriate “operational definition of citizenship” (Mead 1986). Behind the new policy tools and rhetorics, one finds an agenda that stretches back to the earliest days of Mothers Pensions in the United States. “Work first” strategies and “personal responsibility” contracts are new expres
sions of the old aspiration to make poor people into better citizens and strengthen their societal integration (Gordon 1994).
In this regard, neoliberal paternalism can be seen as an overt and ambitious effort to reshape the ways that poor people think about and regulate themselves. Yet this fact as well fails to set the present era apart. Poverty governance has always entailed more than just efforts to force the poor to adopt desired behaviors, regardless of their will. Its more ambitious goal, now as in the past, has been to transform the poor into new kinds of subjects who will govern themselves in preferred ways (Cruikshank 1999). Poverty governance today continues to operate as a “technical means for the shaping and reshaping of conduct”; it is an effort to reconfigure the ways that poor people freely choose to conduct themselves (Dean 1999: 17–18; Foucault 1991).
So what, then, has changed? Why should we see the rise of neoliberal paternalism as more than just old wine in new bottles? To clarify our answer, it is helpful to engage the most impressive recent effort to update Piven and Cloward’s analysis, Loïc Wacquant’s (2009) Punishing the Poor. Our analysis shares much in common with Wacquant’s. We both argue that the key directions of change have been defined by neoliberalism and paternalism and that the system that has emerged is deeply racialized. We also agree that incarceration and punishment have come to play a more central role in poverty governance. Policing and corrections have become more prominent tools of social control, and criminal logics of violation and penalty have been imported into welfare programs. Together, these developments have given rise to a “double regulation of the poor.” The “left hand” of the welfare state and the “right hand” of the carceral state now work together as integrated elements of a single system.
Within these broad lines of agreement, however, our account of historical change parts ways with Wacquant on a number of important issues. First, we adopt a different view of how neoliberalism and paternalism fit together and interact. Wacquant (2009: 19) conceptualizes neoliberalism as a destabilizing roll back of the activist welfare state: a retreat from state social functions and involvements in the market. Thus, the neoliberal state is defined by the “retraction of its social bosom” and the “amputation of its economic arm” (Wacquant 2008: 13). Penal modes of paternalism have been mobilized to contain the resulting social insecurities, especially the threat of disorder in poor black communities. In contrast, we argue that
neoliberals have not dismantled the activist state; they have embraced its authority while working to redirect and transform it. In many respects, the neoliberal state is marked by more
ambitious economic involvements and by expansions
of social programs that target the poor. Neoliberal reforms have strengthened the state’s capacities to serve markets, restructured its operations around market principles, and extended its reach through collaborations with civil society organizations.
In this sense, we offer an account of historical change that diverges from Wacquant’s narrative of neoliberal rollback followed by penal-paternalist containment. Neoliberalism, as later chapters show, operates as an affirmative disciplinary regime in its own right. Likewise, the paternalist face of poverty governance cannot be reduced to the “fearsome and frowning mug” of punitive authority (Wacquant 2010: 217). In practice, paternalism brings authoritative direction and supervision together with moral appeals, social supports, tutelary interventions, and incentives in an effort to promote particular paths of personal reform and development. Neoliberalism and paternalism emerged together in U.S. politics and converged on a shared disciplinary project. Together, they have redefined poverty governance around a disciplinary agenda that emphasizes self-mastery, wage work, and uses of state authority to cultivate market relations.
Second, Wacquant (2009: 290) goes too far in arguing that conventional strategies of labor regulation have been “rendered obsolete” by the rise of a punitive neoliberal state. Our study demonstrates how old tools of labor regulation—barriers to welfare participation, low levels of aid, stigmatizing rituals, and so on—continue to be used as strategies for shoring up work effort among the poor. We update Piven and Cloward’s (1971) analysis in a different way by showing how these old tactics have been augmented by changes in the basic goals and operations of welfare programs.
Historically, U.S. welfare programs “decommodified” labor by offering the poor a partial but significant reprieve from market pressures. Neoliberalism has undercut this decommodifying function by blurring the boundary between welfare receipt and labor market participation. Today, growing investments in poverty policies actively incentivize work and follow the poor into the workplace (through the Earned Income Tax Credit and transitional welfare benefits). Welfare programs for the un
employed have been redesigned to mimic the pressures and incentives of low-wage labor markets and to bolster these pressures with state authority. They strive to supply employers with labor on terms of their own choosing, and to actively groom, subsidize, and incentivize workers for transitions into jobs. The adults who participate in welfare programs today are not positioned outside the market; they are actively pressed into accepting the worst jobs at the worst wages. As a result, movements on and off the welfare rolls now provide a less reliable guide to the extent of labor pressures confronted by the poor. Today, work is promoted not only by limiting the reach and generosity of welfare programs (as Piven and Cloward argue) but also through affirmative uses of welfare programs as sites where state power is deployed to service markets.
Third, our analysis places political institutions, agents, and rationalities at the center of historical change. Wacquant treats the containment and control of marginalized racial minorities as a necessary feature of the social system. He offers a functional explanation for the rising “grandeur of the penal state” by stressing how this “fourth peculiar institution” was needed to take the place of its failed predecessors (slavery, Jim Crow, and the tightly bounded ghetto). Wacquant (2010: 217) cautions against overdetermined functional accounts and notes that changes in the state arose from political “struggles over and within the bureaucratic field.” His study, however, provides no analysis of political agency on this front and asserts in numerous places that developments were “necessitated” in one way or another. By contrast, we treat the disciplinary turn in poverty governance as a contingent outcome and explain how specific political actors and changes in American politics converged to produce it. Indeed, we analyze neoliberal paternalism, not just as a political achievement, but also as a novel political rationality. Thus, our account of historical change emphasizes how new mentalities of rule are guiding the use of public authority and how, in a system of decentralized discipline, governance varies depending on specific configurations of political institutions and actors.
Fourth, Wacquant’s analysis focuses on the substanc...