Welfare Provision, Civil Society, and Democracy in the United States

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Welfare Provision, Civil Society, and Democracy in the United States

Joe Soss

Department of Government

American University

4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20016-8130

Phone: 202/885-6258

Email: jsoss@american.edu

For poor people in capitalist democracies, the extent and form of welfare provision are critical factors shaping participation in public life. Depending on their designs, welfare systems can draw the poor into a more inclusive and active civil society, or treat them in ways that reinforce their marginality. Based on a case study of participation in two welfare programs, this chapter investigates, first, how the U.S. welfare system affects the civic and political engagement of poor people and, second, how networks and organizations found in civil society mediate the relationship between citizens and the welfare state. In pursuing these questions, this chapter provides some empirical notes on how the concept of civil society relates to theories of social citizenship and social control. In particular, I suggest that more attention must be paid to the ways in which civic engagement and political action are structured by economic inequalities and welfare state institutions.

In the recent literature on civil society, poverty and welfare provision are addressed primarily as social problems. They are typically cited to suggest the limits of strict reliance on states and markets or to illustrate the potential benefits of civil society solutions. To those who balk at leaving the poor to fend for themselves in the winner-take-all economy, civil society promises a more caring and communal alternative – a “world of ties that bind” in which neighbors and local voluntary organizations “assist the poor, visit the sick, and console the bereaved” (Elshtain 1997: 15; Walzer 1999: 62). For critics of big government, who tend to view state spending and bureaucratic growth as problems in themselves, civil society represents a superior realm of personal and collective responsibility in which individual initiative is aided by private charities and religious organizations (Olasky 1992; Green 1993). As Michael Walzer (1999: 63) explains, “it is to civil society that many people now look to solve the problems that the state was once expected to solve – above all, the problems of poverty, unemployment, and exclusion.”
Poverty and welfare provision, however, are more than just social problems in need of innovative solutions. They are also social forces that shape civil society and its relationship to democracy. To date, proponents of civil society have tended to ignore some of the more difficult issues raised by poverty, and have yet to articulate a strong theoretical or empirical account of how civil society might be shaped by the modern welfare state.
The leading liberal voice on civil society in recent years undoubtedly has been Robert Putnam (1993, 1995a, 1995b). Drawing on ideas frequently associated with Tocqueville, Putnam argues that strong secondary associations “make democracy work.” They force governments to be more responsive and effective, and teach citizens values and skills that promote political participation. As a result, the vitality of democracy can be threatened by weak “civic capacity” at the collective level (the strength of horizontal secondary associations) or by insufficient “social capital” at the individual level (civic engagement and social trust). In two carefully crafted and influential studies, Putnam has presented a large body of evidence suggesting that social capital in the United States has been on the wane since the 1960s (1995a) and that this development can be traced with some plausibility to the influence of television (1995b).
Putnam’s claims have touched off important debates about whether and why overall levels of civic engagement may have declined in the U.S. (Schudson 1996; Skocpol 1996; Vallely 1996; Norris 1996; Edwards and Foley 1998). What has been lost in this discussion, however, “is the fact that what matters is not only the amount of civic activity but its distribution, not just how many people take part but who they are” (Verba et al. 1997: 74). In fact, levels of civic and political involvement in the U.S. are skewed dramatically along class lines, with the poor experiencing far weaker attachments to secondary associations and formal political institutions (Verba et al. 1995). To the extent that civic and political engagement are essential for effective self-governance, this imbalance suggests both an inequality of influence and a more general deficiency in the existing democracy of the United States.
This pattern of civic and political engagement poses problems for civil society and democracy in America that are neither slight nor straightforward. Today, the United States remains one of the most unequal of the wealthy capitalist democracies, with those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy disproportionately likely to be women and people of color (Danziger and Gottschalk 1996; Wilson 1999). Thus, the civic and political marginality of the poor are not only problems of class, they signify exclusion along multiple social dimensions. Those who are disadvantaged by race, ethnicity, and gender are especially likely to be poor (Albelda and Tilly 1997); and their poverty, in turn, tends to weaken their connection to civil society and the polity (Verba et al. 1995). By focusing only on changes in aggregate levels of engagement, Putnam’s work offers little purchase on the question of how these patterns of social hierarchy might shape the composition or quality of civil society and democracy in the United States.
Putnam’s work is also silent on the question of how civil society may be shaped by state institutions. He is careful not to suggest that a strong state is incompatible with a strong civil society; and he explicitly rejects claims that the growth of the welfare state accounts for declining levels of civic engagement (1995b: 671). But in place of these claims, Putnam offers no model of his own that identifies what role state institutions play in shaping civil society. In a manner reminiscent of The Civic Culture (Almond and Verba 1963), Putnam treats social capital as an independent set of attitudinal and behavioral inputs within the political system. As Tarrow (1996: 395) points out, he has “conceived of civic capacity as a native soil in which state structures grow… [T]he character of the state is external to the model, suffering the results of... associational incapacity but with no responsibility for producing it.” Thus, the leading liberal scholar of civil society has offered little indication of how, if at all, poverty and welfare state institutions might affect the quality of civic and political engagement found in democracies.
In contrast to Putnam, conservative proponents of civil society have had a great deal to say about both poverty and the welfare state. Writers such as Fukayama (1995), Green (1993), and Olasky (1992) share the prevailing view of civil society as an essential support for democracy, but they are set apart by their tendency to treat civil society and the market as an organic pair that rises and falls in a zero-sum relationship to government intervention. These writers focus on the centralized welfare state as a key force responsible for the erosion of civil society and for the production of social disorganization, economic stagnation, and political apathy (Glazer 1988). Olasky (1992), for example, argues that by supplying a permissive handout, the welfare state has undermined personal responsibility, “crowded out” private charities, stripped care-giving of its intimacy and Christian values, and eroded collective sentiments of obligation and compassion. For Olasky and others, “cycles of poverty” reveal the perverse effects of state intervention and welfare offers a paradigmatic example of the need to rely more heavily on civil society.
Although conservatives pay greater attention to welfare provision, their indictment is so sweeping that it obscures more than it reveals about how the welfare state might influence civil society. To begin with, recent historical research casts doubt on blanket claims that local voluntary associations spring up naturally on their own and wither away when government actions “crowd them out.” In fact, many voluntary associations and charity organizations have grown as a direct result of federal government investment, and most have remained strong during periods of government expansion (Skocpol 1996, 1997; Hall 1992; Salamon 1995). This historical record suggests that, at least to some degree, “public generosity aids private generosity, and vice versa” (Wolpert 1995: 88). At a minimum, then, we need to ask more precise questions about what kinds of state policies may facilitate or inhibit a more active civil society.
More to the point, the broad brush strokes conservatives use to paint the welfare state conceal the large amount of variation in its institutions. The term “welfare” in these writings signifies little more than the fact that government has established bureaucracies to provide benefits and services to citizens. Little is said about how the form of this provision varies across the U.S. welfare system, let alone about how institutional differences might affect the vitality or composition of civil society. As a number of public administration scholars have recently suggested, we are currently operating with very little fine-grained knowledge about how specific policy designs and administrative practices influence patterns of civic and political engagement (Anechiarico 1998; Neocleous 1996; Handler 1996).
Finally, conservative critics evaluate the welfare state’s impact on civil society primarily in terms of its potential to displace the voluntary activities of those who give aid. With the exception of alleging a loss of individual initiative, these writings say little about to how welfare provision might affect the civic and political engagement of the poor. The problem with this one-sided analysis is that, insofar as the normative good of civil society lies in self-help and mutual aid, a strong civil society requires the strengthening of marginal groups. As Walzer (1999: 63) explains, “the goal must be... an equalizing of capacities, so that all men and women are capable of organizing in defense of their interests. All the different groups that coexist in civil society should be capable of serving their own members” From this perspective, the strength of civil society and its capacity to support democracy hinge on the very factor that is overlooked in these analyses, the incorporation of the disadvantaged.
In sum, both liberal and conservative writings on civil society in recent years have failed to provide an adequate account of how poverty and the welfare state affect civic and political engagement. To develop such an account, this chapter draws on two traditions of theory regarding the role of welfare institutions in capitalist democracies, theories of social citizenship and social control. With these foundations in hand, I present a comparative case study of how participation in two welfare programs affects the civic and political incorporation of recipients. The empirical findings from the case study are organized in three sections.
The first explores welfare claiming, focusing on how welfare demands promote the social and political integration of poor people and how social networks and organizations facilitate the articulation of welfare demands. The second section shows how institutional designs construct different types of state-citizen relationships for recipients in two welfare programs and how secondary associations play a mediating role in these relationships. The third section explores how experiences under different program designs affect broader patterns of citizen engagement. Here, I focus on recipients’ feelings of political efficacy, orientations toward their communities, and willingness to join in collective action. I conclude by providing a general evaluation of how the welfare system affects civil society in the U.S. and by outlining some directions for change.
Theoretical Foundations: Social Citizenship and Social Control
Almost all the great theorists of citizenship – Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Burke, de Tocqueville, Mill and, in the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt – have believed that ...in order to participate fully in public life, one needed to be in a certain socio-economic position. ...Two things have always been thought particularly important in this connection: the absence of great inequality and the possession by all of some modicum of wealth. ...People who are completely unsure about food and shelter in the coming days for themselves and their families will be worried sick and, as it were, understandably obsessed with this issue all the time, in a way which leaves little room, very little mental space, for any general and long-term reflection on issues that go very far beyond their present predicament. ...Need, then, and the urgency of demands that it generates, can radically undermine the possibility of civic politics and distort the contribution that an individual participator can make. (King and Waldron 1988: 425-6, 428).
Poverty and inequality generated by markets can produce at least two kinds of threats to democracy. First, as King and Waldron (1988) note, the drain of persistent poverty can debilitate and marginalize citizens. Extreme poverty can undercut capacities needed for civic and political involvement, and force a retreat from broader matters of public concern. Formal guarantees of civil and political rights can become meaningless if poverty is allowed to undermine the security, capacity, status, or will needed to exercise them. Second, while marginality may be the more common threat, poverty can also give rise to intense forms of political action that strain the political system. If left unmet, the “urgent demands” of those in need can touch off uprisings and revolts that threaten the stability of the political order. Even in less volatile times, as Hannah Arendt noted, civic politics and careful deliberation are not easily maintained amidst a “clamouring for bread and constant demands for ‘action now, not words’”(King and Waldron 1988: 428; see Pitkin 1981).
Two theoretical traditions have emerged to explain how welfare provision might ameliorate these threats and, more broadly, enable democratic polities to coexist with capitalist economies.1 The first is the theory of social citizenship advanced by T.H. Marshall; the second is the theory of social control developed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. These two theories offer students of civil society more precise accounts of how welfare institutions might shape civil society and democracy. They also mark out a clear set of expectations for an empirical investigation into the social and political consequences of welfare participation.
In “Citizenship and Social Class,” T.H. Marshall (1964[1949]: 84) suggests that citizenship is a status which evolves over time toward “a fuller measure of equality, an enrichment of the stuff of which the status is made and an increase in the number of those on whom the status is bestowed.” Generalizing from British history, Marshall argues that citizens first acquire the rights of civil society. These civil rights include those of speech, property, contract, personal liberty, faith, and justice. To these rights, citizens later add political rights to self-government, “to participate in the exercise of political power, as a member of a body invested with political authority or as an elector of the members of such a body” (1964: 72). Finally, individuals acquire the rights of social citizenship. These social rights are expressed through and protected by state welfare institutions;2 they extend from “the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to a share in the full social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society” (1964: 72).
By dulling the sharpest edges of poverty and inequality, Marshall believed that the welfare state serves to protect the long-term stability of a capitalist and democratic society. For Marshall, social rights represent far more than a public bulwark against economic destitution. They are, more fundamentally, an expression of “...liberal themes of rights and equal respect; communitarian norms of solidarity and shared responsibility; and republican ideals of participation in public life” (Fraser and Gordon 1993: 45-46). From the perspective of social citizenship theory, the deeper purpose of welfare provision is to guard against poverty’s corrosive effects on the security, status, capacities, and rights of citizens. By supplying these protections, welfare systems can ensure that all citizens maintain the minimal levels of well being needed to partake in the collective lives of their communities, exercise civil and political rights, and fulfill their duties as citizens. In this manner, Marshall suggests that welfare provision can provide an essential support system fostering a stronger civil society and democracy.
It is here, however, in the expression of these higher aspirations, that one encounters a cautionary note in Marshall’s analysis. To realize the goals of social citizenship, states must not only provide relief to the poor, they must do so in an “equal and just manner so as to express the solidarity of a national community” (Heclo 1995: 671). As a contrasting example, Marshall (1964: 80) cites the 1834 Poor Law, through which the poor “ceased to be citizens in any true sense of the word. For paupers forfeited in practice the civil right of personal liberty, by internment in the workhouse, and they forfeited by law any political rights they might possess.”
The critical point in this example concerns the connection between social citizenship and institutional design. The quality of social rights enjoyed by citizens depends not only on the fact of provision but equally on the institutional form of provision. Full rights of social citizenship are realized only by “provision for need that is given universally, that is provided without supplication or stigma, and that avoids as far as possible the invidious operation of official discretion” (King and Waldron 1988: 422). In sum, then, social citizenship theory suggests that by protecting against poverty’s capacity to debilitate and marginalize, welfare systems have great potential to strengthen poor people’s attachments to civil society and the polity. It also warns, however, that this potential may be squandered if relief is given in a divisive or degrading manner.
Social control theory, by contrast, offers a more highly developed account of how welfare institutions may function to reinforce the marginality of poor people. In Regulating the Poor (1993 [1971]), Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that the primary function of the welfare system is not to provide relief per se, but rather to maintain the legitimacy of political institutions and the viability of economic institutions. While Marshall viewed the extension of social provision as part of an evolution of consensual norms surrounding citizenship, Piven and Cloward’s account places greater emphasis on conflict, disruption, and dissension. In their view, expansions of welfare benefits and institutions occur chiefly in response to pressure from below, generally in the form of civil unrest. The extension of aid serves to mollify the poor and restore political legitimacy both by providing material relief and by conveying symbolic reassurances.
After the provision of welfare restores political legitimacy, however, it begins to pose problems for the economic order. To the extent that fears of destitution and starvation normally force the poor to serve as a compliant source of labor, welfare policies that protect against these fates increase the likelihood that workers might forego or protest the worst forms of employment. This tension between the political and economic functions of the relief system gives rise to a perennial “catch-22” in welfare provision. Aid must be high enough to convey a genuine attempt to help the poor but must also maintain incentives for the unemployed to seek and accept whatever jobs are available in the market (Schram 1995: 126). The solution to this problem, according to Piven and Cloward, lies in the design of welfare institutions. The “undeserving poor” (those deemed capable of working) are first segregated in separate programs, and then provided with welfare in a manner that is “so degrading and punitive as to instill in the laboring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism. To demean and punish those who do not work is to exalt by contrast even the meanest labor at the meanest wages” (1993: 396).3
The key point in this analysis extends well beyond the question of work effort. Social control theory suggests that welfare systems function to promote cohesion and order in the broader society by isolating, punishing, and degrading individuals who are cast as failures in relation to key societal values. Such values might include the work ethic and self-sufficiency, two-parent familial norms, or the variety of role expectations surrounding categories of gender, class, race, and ethnicity (Schram 1995: 124-30; Gordon 1988, 1994). In all of these areas, social control theory argues that “welfare policy …is an affirmation of majoritarian values through the creation of deviants. The poor are held hostage to make sure that the rest of us behave” (Handler 1995: 8-9). Far from realizing the social citizenship ideal of promoting solidarity and inclusion, the effect of the welfare system in this account is to isolate and marginalize the poor within civil society and the polity.
By segregating the poor into different programs, U.S. welfare policy reinforces the separation of the poor from working- and middle-class Americans, and also creates divisions among the poor. Moreover, once separated by the programs, the poor are also more likely to be denigrated by the treatment accorded them. Benefits are less likely to be a matter of right and more likely to be discretionary, subject to the successful hurdling of bureaucratic inquisitions and runarounds and continuing bureaucratic surveillance, all of which shapes the understandings of both the people who endure this treatment and the people who in a sense are the public audience for it. Finally, and very important, recipients receive benefits that keep them very poor, ensuring their marginalization in an affluent and materialistic society (Piven 1995: xiv).
Social control theory suggests that welfare institutions can function to reinforce the marginality of the poor both through messages conveyed to the public and through direct effects on recipients. On one side, the vilification of recipients as dependent and deviant others may make them into a pariah class that is shunned by the broader political community. On the other side, the harsh conditions of welfare participation may take their toll on recipients in ways that undercut civic and political engagement. “People kept in misery by penurious levels of aid, and then forced to accept the degraded identity of the pauper in exchange for that aid, are likely to be stripped of their energy and morale” (Piven and Cloward 1997: 200). Indeed, beyond effects on energy and morale, citizens who endure stigma in their communities and indignity at the hands of their government may simply retreat from engaging either domain.
Thus, theories of social citizenship and social control suggest good reasons to suspect that the U.S. welfare system could have either positive or negative effects on poor people’s attachments to civil society. Each theory also suggests that these effects are likely to depend on the designs of welfare institutions. In this regard, scholars have typically emphasized the striking differences between program designs in each half of the “two-tier” U.S. welfare system (Gordon 1994). The system’s inferior tier of means-tested public assistance is typically associated with “the undeserving poor,” and is characterized by state and local administration, casework relationships, and lower benefit levels. The superior tier of non-means-tested social insurance offers higher benefits and federal administration. It is typically associated with more “deserving” groups such as the disabled and elderly of all classes who have proven work histories.
Because the two tiers of programs offer markedly different benefits and treatment, critics have suggested that the welfare system functions to sustain a hierarchy of “dual” social citizenship (Gordon 1994: ch.10; Fraser 1987; Sapiro 1990; Nelson 1990). In this view, social insurance recipients are treated as something akin to social citizens – they are “rights-bearing beneficiaries and purchasing consumers of services” -- while public assistance recipients are positioned as dependent objects of social control (Fraser 1987: 113). Integrating theories of social citizenship and social control, the concept of “dual social citizenship” suggests that while social insurance programs allow individuals to act as more effective agents in civil society and the polity, public assistance programs are likely to reinforce the marginality of the poor. The present study is designed to investigate this claim, and to provide empirical evidence of how citizens’ encounters with these two types of welfare institutions affect their attachments to civil society and the polity.
Answers to this question are politically significant, in part, because inequalities across the welfare system they are tied so closely to existing group-based hierarchies. The policy designs that citizens encounter in the welfare system have been shaped by gender and the family wage system (Gordon 1994), class and capitalist markets (Piven and Cloward 1993), and various dimensions of racial exclusion, subordination, and conflict (Brown 1998; Gilens 1999). The type of program that serves as the site of welfare participation for a given person is also likely to depend on factors tied to gender, race, and class. Individuals channeled into public assistance programs are disproportionately likely to be women, people of color, and people who have lived in poverty and worked at the low end of the labor market (U.S. House of Representatives 1998). Thus, to investigate inequalities that flow from the two-tier welfare system is, in effect, to illuminate deficiencies in the civic and political status occupied by these social groups in the United States.

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