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Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 745-757

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Social Thought and Commentary

The Politics of Welfare and of Poverty Research

Sandra Morgen
University of Oregon

Soon after the 1996 Congressional passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (commonly known as "welfare reform," and hereafter referred to as PRWORA), thousands of researchers began to document the effects of this dramatic change in social welfare policy. Millions of grant dollars and hundreds of thousands of research hours later, there is a voluminous body of research on welfare restructuring. But at this writing I am stunned by the enormous gulf between the knowledge that has been generated and the narrow policy debate and legislative action that has taken place to date.

Put simply: policies promoted by the Bush administration—already passed in the House, and pending in the Senate—would have grim consequences for millions of poor families in this country. These policies would undermine the efforts of poor families, state legislators, welfare administrators and workers, and community-based organizations to fulfill what is, arguably, the most important objective of social welfare policy: reducing poverty and enhancing economic security for vulnerable families. Moreover, the proposed changes in welfare policy fly in the face of what researchers have learned since welfare-to-work policies were implemented in the 1990s. [End Page 745]

I am one of those researchers. Over the past four years, with my colleague Joan Acker, a sociologist, I have led a research team that explored the effects of welfare restructuring on both clients and welfare workers in Oregon. We disseminated our research findings to policy makers and the public at both the state and national levels through policy reports and briefs, invited testimony before state legislative committees, opinion pieces in newspapers, lectures and conferences. Additionally, I helped form an ad hoc group of anthropologists within the American Anthropological Association who worked together over several years to ensure that there were scientific and policy sessions on welfare at the annual meetings. We also produced a policy statement that was approved by the AAA Executive Committee and disseminated to policy makers and the media.

In this piece I reflect on what I have experienced and seen, especially in recent months, in the national debate on welfare policy. I find it disturbing, if not surprising, how little research—especially anthropological research—appears to have influenced either the issues discussed or the legislative outcomes, at least to this point, in Congress. While I am sure that researchers could do more to communicate effectively with policy makers, the media and the public, this is not my main point here. I want to suggest that anthropologists have much to contribute to the much-needed task of challenging mainstream popular and academic assumptions and frameworks about poverty and the poor.

The 1996 legislation profoundly altered welfare policy in replacing the long-standing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). AFDC, an entitlement program, provided a minimal subsistence income to families who met program eligibility criteria. TANF provides time-limited cash assistance (federal five-year life-time limits, with even shorter time limits in many states) but the primary objective of the program is to move recipients into paid employment. PRWORA also changed the nature of federal funding and regulation of welfare programs such that states now receive block grants (rather than matching payments) and have an unprecedented degree of discretion about welfare program design. Additionally, the 1996 legislation led to significant cuts in Food Stamps and the SSI (disability) and excluded most legal immigrants from eligibility for public assistance.

Welfare became welfare-to-work, and each of the fifty states developed its own version of welfare-to-work within the broad parameters of the federal legislation. Under PRWORA, families who applied for cash assistance have to comply with stringent work requirements. States can use block grant funds to offer previously unavailable assistance with some of the costs of searching for work or being employed (childcare, transportation, etc.) or to expand Medicaid. Because [End Page 746] of the single-minded emphasis on...


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