Poverty is not a popular political issue. In the 2008 Presidential election, only John Edwards put poverty at the center of his campaign. When his campaign imploded, neither of the two remaining candidates, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, addressed poverty directly in either their speeches or debates. This timidity about confronting poverty directly has not always characterized American politics. But, after the heady days of the War on Poverty and Great Society, poverty fell out of political favor. Attention shifted from reducing poverty to "reforming" welfare, which, in popular discourse, meant attacking Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFCD), the primary means of support for mostly single, disproportionately minority mothers—the undeserving poor.
This transition from the war on poverty to the war on welfare is the subject of Marisa Chappell's bold and informative book, Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America. Organized chronologically, the book's chapters trace the arc from the short-lived enthusiasm for a guaranteed national income in the 1960s to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (a.k.a. welfare reform). This, of course, is not a fresh story. But Chappell, critical of most existing interpretations, places it in a new frame. Her story begins with the formation of a somewhat motley "anti-poverty coalition" in the 1960s, which she follows through its decline in succeeding decades. As it lost influence in the face of an assertive and increasingly successful conservatism, the anti-poverty coalition splintered, jettisoning its most radical ideas as liberals joined the conservative tirade against AFDC, accepting its premises if offering slightly different solutions. What happened, Chappell appropriately reminds readers at various points, was not inevitable because a progressive rump always pointed to viable alternatives. Her story, Chappell is aware, parallels the oft-told tale of the decline of the New Deal order. Indeed, the attack on welfare's alleged cost and perverse outcomes played a crucial role in the construction of a case against the capacity of government to solve public problems.
Chappell locates a male-breadwinner family model at the center of antipoverty work and welfare reform throughout the era about which she writes. Her emphasis on how the model shaped policy, driving it in directions opposite from trends in family organization, constitutes the core of her historical interpretation and her criticism of past efforts to reduce poverty and reform welfare, including liberal as well as conservative agendas. The "prevailing narrative," she contends, which "portrays Great Society liberals as economically conservative and culturally radical" gets the situation backward. For "it was liberals' cultural conservatism with respect to gender and family structure that fatally undermined their generous social-democratic economic vision." Ever since the 1960s, she argues, [End Page 1233] "traditional assumptions about appropriate family structure and family economics" have remained "central to welfare politics." The consequences have been devastating for poor people.
Above all, this book argues that both liberal and conservative welfare reformers failed to acknowledge the collapse of the family wage system. That failure made AFDC an increasingly despised program, stifled a potentially liberating vision of economic citizenship, and continues to leave hundreds of thousands of single mothers and their children in poverty.(5)
Chappell's stress on the regressive influence of a perduring family model based on a breadwinning man and his homemaking spouse leads her into some unusual places. She is, for instance, critical of the emphasis on jobs as the core of anti-poverty and welfare reform programs. Historians of the controversy over the 1965 "Moynihan report", The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, in her view, have missed the underlying consensus uniting supporters and opponents who "agreed that racial poverty and disadvantage would disappear only when African Americans formed 'traditional,' male-breadwinner families." (37) She is critical, too, of proposals for a guaranteed income, a favorite idea among 1960s liberals, because it was "designed to extend to poor African Americans the privilege of a male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family structure."(50) Its traditional family bias, as well as its...