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Reviewed by:
  • Welfare Hot Buttons: Women, Work, and Social Policy Reform
  • Jane Pulkingham
Sylvia Bashevkin , Welfare Hot Buttons: Women, Work, and Social Policy Reform. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002, 188 pp.

Welfare Hot Buttons is a comparative analysis of welfare reform in the US, Canada and Great Britain circa the 1980s to the present. Sylvia Bashevkin examines the apparent conundrum wherein conservative regimes in place in these jurisdictions in the 1980s were replaced ostensibly by more : "progressive" governments (lead by Clinton, Chrétien, and Blair) who ended up pursuing social and economic policies that were equally or more regressive in intent and outcome than their predecessors. By way of explaining why this came about, Bashevkin explores what happened and how (chapters two through five). She then turns her attention to the question of what to make of these perplexing turn of events in the concluding chapter "The Rise of the Duty State."

The central thesis of the book is that "the climate of ideas in which policy debates unfold matters a great deal" (p. 3), far more than academic analysts and activists-campaigners tend to recognize. Bashevkin (p. 99) suggests that "the climate of ideas argument"goes a long way to exposing and explaining both the direction in which social policy moved as well as the deleterious effects of this course on social rights. Specifically, it is argued that a particular tone of public discourse was put into place by the force of "repeated assertion" and was already deeply entrenched by the time "post-conservative" parties took office. Especially in relation to the highly contentious ("hot button") issues of welfare, women and work — the situation of poor lone mothers — this discourse provided a moralist and individualist view of poverty, supplanting the materialist and structural interpretations prevailing in the 1970s. The effects were decisive in terms of the way the problem of poverty is now conceived and addressed in all three countries. "... [O]nce poverty was defined as a moral [End Page 123] problem rather than as an economic or material condition, as was occurring over time in all three countries, whether people were poor in work versus poor on benefits mattered very significantly ... At their core, hot button claims insisted it was irrelevant whether people had enough to eat — they just needed the proper work ethic". (p. 99)

Two further explanations are put forward as to why post-conservative governments cemented rather than reversed the social policies implemented by their conservative predecessors. One is that "third-way" politicians took a highly pragmatic stance regarding social assistance and were/are not prepared to challenge prevailing moralist claims, certainly not directly (p. 10). Another related reason is attributed to the enduring influence of electoral politics and the pressure from extreme right politicians who successfully pushed the social policy agenda further to the right, especially in the US and Canada.

In addition to underscoring the power of ideational frameworks, Bashevkin makes four substantive conceptual contentions in the book. The first of these is to dispute the notion that Anglo-American welfare states (US and GB) were relatively "resilient" in the face of neo-conservative policies implemented by Reagan and Thatcher. On the contrary, Bashevkin argues that this normative type of analysis ignores issues of public discourse, in particular the treatment of poor single mothers "many of whom are from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds" (p. 14). Bashevkin suggests that the accretion over time of a rhetorical vilification of poor people, especially lone mothers, eroded what was already a minimal and insufficient level of welfare provision. Compounding the momentous shift at the ideational level in public discourse about lone mothers and the poor, the erosion of welfare provisions represents a very significant "real" (empirical) setback and loss.

A second challenge is to the notion that Anglo-American welfare states are homogenous. It is argued that typologies that place Anglo-American welfare states together obscure significant differences. Bashevkin's study wishes to focus on social policy variation among these welfare states. The third challenge the book raises is the assumption that more gender-sensitive policy necessarily flows from a more active and mobilized female electorate and representation of women among decision makers. In contrast...


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pp. 123-125
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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