Elevate Difference

The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty and Politics in Modern America

In The War on Welfare, Marisa Chappell compiles a comprehensive record of decades of antipoverty and anti-welfare movements and coalitions, the policies and programs they influenced, and the biases that both shaped and undermined their objectives. From the War on Poverty of the 1960s to the eradication of welfare in the 1990s, Chappell follows an ever-changing debate where the arguments first marshaled by one side were later embraced by another and the realities of poverty clashed with the ideals of those who sought to eliminate it.

Split into five sections, The War on Welfare moves from sections dealing with three major issues affecting the debate to comprehensive examinations of the Carter and Reagan administrations. The three major issues comprising the first three sections of the book include the racialization of the poverty and welfare debates, the role of the male-breadwinner family ideal in the feminization of poverty, and the majoritarian political strategies of the 1970s that led to both sides (or perhaps many sides) categorizing the poor as either deserving or undeserving. Through extensive sourcing, Chappell demonstrates how attitudes about race, gender and class contributed to the creation of welfare policies that were ineffective at best and disastrously counterproductive at worst, leading to an increase in poverty and precluding escape from poverty for many women and minorities.

Overall, Chappell does an extraordinary job of marshaling the evidence necessary to demonstrate the shared guilt of various “liberal” and “conservative” organizations and interests in preventing any serious attack on poverty in the United States. However, the presentation of that evidence leaves a bit to be desired.

First, in her valiant attempt to include each and every organization and coalition involved in the debate, Chappell often ends up creating an alphabet soup of acronyms that is difficult to follow. The same can be said for her introduction of so many main and supporting characters that the names tend to blend into one another after a while, leaving it difficult to remember who did what when.

Secondly, by using the vague labels of "liberal" and "conservative," presenting a bipolar politics rather than a political spectrum, and failing to address the ambiguities of political labels, Chappell tends to confuse some of the issues raised by the evidence she presents. For instance, she fails to clearly address how many “liberal” organizations in antipoverty coalitions were economically liberal, but socially conservative (and vice versa), and how many of those organizations are, in fact, more appropriately labeled as moderate or centrist. Finally, by using primarily “on the record” materials such as policy pronouncements and issue papers, Chappell fails to seriously address the backroom deals and covert exchanges that often have a far greater influence on policy than public debates indicate.

In the end, The War on Welfare is most useful as a research tool for policy wonks needing an extensive guide to the public positions taken by movements, organizations, political parties, and various important individuals. For the casual reader needing an introduction to the issues, it’s probably a bit too much and too little.

Written by: Melinda Barton, March 28th 2010