- Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy
In this collection of 13 essays, Anne L. Schneider and Helen M. Ingram bring together diverse examples of what they have, in earlier work, called "degenerative politics" toward "target populations." Degenerative politics is "characterized by its exploitation of derogatory social constructions, manipulations of symbols or logic, and deceptive communication that masks the true purpose of policy." (p. 11) Each chapter discusses a case of defining target populations, or the groups to which policies are explicitly directed, as deserving or undeserving of public aid, civil or political rights. Though this perspective is no longer as theoretically novel as it once was, it remains at underrepresented in studies of public policymaking. The historical and institutional sweep of the chapters in this book will, I hope, bring the analysis of social constructions in public policy closer to the core of policy studies.
Two principal trends characterize this scholarship. The first sees policies as outcomes of political processes in which a particular group is identified as a problem, often by a moral entrepreneur, who then convinces opportunistic politicians of the benefits of scapegoating this group through legislation. This is the model advanced by Paul Nicholson-Crotty and Kenneth Meier's contribution to the volume. It appears in more or less subtle forms in contributions as diverse as Kay Schriner's fascinating account of the exclusion from suffrage of the mentally impaired, Stephanie DiAlto's systematic tracing of the passage of Japanese-Americans from internal threat to model minority, Dionne Bensonsmith's account of racial and gender constructions in welfare legislation, and Mara Sidney's subtle and revelatory dissection of the public construction of a "deserving" African-American middle class in the context of federal housing anti-discrimination legislation.
The second analytical trend focuses on the implicit construction of target populations in policy implementation, as members of this population encounter the state and private policy actors in an effort to exercise their civil or political rights, or receive public aid. Joe Soss' comparison of recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance and AFDC shows that administrative practices based on entitlement and on suspicion, respectively, shape beneficiaries' sense of social and political membership and efficacy. Michelle Camou's catalogue of stories told by neighborhood-based social service-providers in Baltimore shows the ways in which "conduct, lifestyle, and street culture" are placed "at the center of…discourse about revitalization." (p. 213) Camou deftly links the kinds of stories organizational actors tell to the kinds of organizations (e.g., religious or secular, focused on jobs, housing, health, education, etc.) they are. Interestingly, she finds that the religious organizations in her study often employed the least moralistic and judgmental stories to describe their work and their target populations. Nancy Jurik and Julie Cowgill's chapter on micro-enterprise lending programs tells a story of complex pressures that lead to "creaming" and negative, individualizing constructions of those women who do not complete or are screened out of the programs. [End Page 591]
Two contributions are less easily classifiable. One is a chapter (previously published) by Sanford F. Schram on efforts by welfare advocates to fight the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s, which addresses the difficulty of fighting degenerative politics. Another is Laura Jensen's account of Revolutionary War pensions. By arguing that welfare was not, as commonly believed, a "black" program – prior to reform, more whites received welfare than blacks – Schram argues that advocates unwittingly reinforced the idea that were welfare a "black" program, it would not be worthy of saving: "The difficulty is in introducing [the connection between race and welfare] in a culture that is predisposed to talk about such issues in the worst possible ways, which serves to further reinscribe the prejudices and racial barriers that create the racial injustice in the first place." Schram continues: "[A]s the welfare population becomes increasingly nonwhite, the dilemma intensifies and the situation becomes even more urgent." (p. 284) Jenson argues that by granting pensions...