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  • From Need to Hope:The American Family and Poverty in Partisan Discourse, 1900–2012
  • Gwendoline Alphonso (bio)

The Republican and Democratic Parties in the last three decades have increasingly directed their policy discourse away from issues of material need and poverty. Whereas Republicans in the late 1970s and 1980s previously committed 7 to 8 percent of their platforms to discuss issues of poverty, by the 2000s that percentage had fallen to under 2 percent; similarly, in the heyday of their Great Society agenda, Democrats addressed poverty issues in 8 to 9 percent of their platforms, but by 2012 that percentage too fell to 2.5 percent. Since 2004 the levels at which both parties now discuss poverty in their platforms are thus at historic lows, similar only to the period before the Great Depression. What explains the diminishing salience of poverty within the parties’ policy agendas? To account for this, this article highlights a concurrent development: the parties’ references to family within poverty planks increased dramatically just as partisan attention to poverty ebbed. Through analysis of party platforms from 1900 to 2012, I will suggest that the current diminished salience of poverty is but the latest phase in an ongoing relationship between poverty and family in American party politics. Late-century antipoverty policy development is the result of an ideational reconfiguration of poverty engendered by a coincident ascendance and transformation of family, as a political ideal.1 [End Page 592]

The relationship between family and poverty has also long been an object of study for sociologists and other scholars interested in race, gender, and welfare policy. Initially a part of the controversial “culture of poverty” thesis, family structure and its impact on generating norms, behaviors, and cultural values among the poor has been revived in recent sociological studies.2 Unlike this article, these works focus more on the empirical dynamics of family and poverty and are less concerned with unpacking normative ideals or political discourse. Feminist and other critical inquiries that evaluate welfare policies as “regulating” family and sexual behavior do pay greater attention to political ideals.3 For example, several highlight positive and negative family ideals protected or repudiated by welfare policies, such as the white widow family or the black welfare mother family, respectively. However, these too do not attempt to construct an interpretative account of family-centered welfare policy change or fit this policy history into partisan ideological development as I do here.

In political science and history, an emerging literature now acknowledges the centrality of changing family ideals to public policy and political development.4 Literature focused on morality, culture, and social issues in American politics points to the persisting significance of the family to American political development.5 In her book All in the Family, political scientist Patricia Strach demonstrates the ongoing ways by which family assumptions shape policy inasmuch as policymakers “hold and incorporate into policy very real and concrete assumptions about what constitutes a family, what roles members of families may be expected to perform, and what families can expect from the state.”6 Whereas the use of family as a normative ideal is one of three ways by which Strach illustrates the influence of family in policy, this is more central to works by Robert Self, George Lakoff, Rebecca Edwards, and my previous work. Collectively, the authors demonstrate that family ideals shape partisan ideology and policy outcomes through a variety of mechanisms: (a) they serve as underlying assumptions or cognitive frames consciously or unconsciously invoked by parties and policymakers when crafting policy; (b) as rhetorical tools/justifications purposively used to gain support for policy positions; or else, (c) as “political projects” or policy objects actively pursued by dominant political coalitions.7 Lakoff and Self also point to the late-century emergence of a moral family ideal in American politics, alluding to its wideranging policy implications.

I will argue that the kinds of antipoverty policies pursued by the Democratic and Republican Parties in different periods can be explained by the [End Page 593] kinds of family ideals the parties hold and pursue; and that policy change in welfare can be tied to the parties’ shifting family ideals. For much of the twentieth century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 592-635
Launched on MUSE
2015-09-02
Open Access
No
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