New Book Shines Insight on Welfare Debate
December 13, 2007
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— Capitalism produces a lot of wealth, but also a significant amount
of poverty, writes Illinois Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Political Science
Greg Shaw in his new book, The Welfare Debate. The controversy over how to help poor people has lingered in the United States for
centuries. In his book, Shaw examines the history and rhetoric that have led a stalemate
in the discussion of welfare in America.
“Much of the debate over public assistance boils down to the tension between the rhetoric
of the ‘good Samaritan’ – helping out one’s brothers and sisters – and that of creating
dependency and being a corrupting influence on society, ” said Shaw.
An instructor with IWU since 1998, Shaw has been examining the welfare system in American
since his graduate days at Columbia University, where he earned his master’s degree
and doctorate in political science in 1993 and 1998, respectively. He notes that while
the sides of the welfare debate are marked by some enduring continuities, some important
issues have evolved over time.
In The Welfare Debate, Shaw looks at several issues, including contention over the source of relief for
the poor. “There’s always been the belief that poor people should be offered help,”
said Shaw, “but one of the debated questions is whether the source of that relief
should come from public or private means.” Shaw points out that throughout its history,
the United States has journeyed from private funding of welfare to public, back to
private and to public again. “The debate has not progressed in a linear fashion,”
Race is another evolving issue affecting the welfare debate, according to Shaw. “You
cannot ignore the inequality of wealth along race lines,” he said, noting in 2000,
the U. S. Census Bureau reported the median household net worth for non-Hispanic white
families was $75,000, while for black families it was approximately $7,500. “It’s
a 10-to-1 difference. Race and racism are very much with us in the way that Americans
think and act about issues, including public assistance,” he said. In the book, Shaw
also tackles the changing ideologies of the government’s role in the marketplace and
attitudes toward motherhood.
In researching The Welfare Debate, Shaw said he enjoyed gathering the different perspectives on the debate. “To really
tap into the rhetoric of the debate was intriguing – pulling from government publications,
elite media such as the New Republic, mass media and historical perspectives of people living in poverty from social work
interviews,” said Shaw.
Though the book offers no solutions for welfare, Shaw said he hopes to bring the debate
to a wider audience. “It would be helpful for people to see the similarities of the
arguments we’ve had, whether it was the early 1800s, the early 1900s or a year ago,”
he said, “and how we still seem to be banging our heads against the rhetoric that
is hundreds of years old.”
Periodically the welfare debate resurfaces, usually resulting in an apparent policy
fix, said Shaw. “Every 30 to 40 years, something happens that makes us rediscover
poverty as if it were new,” he said. According to Shaw, the latest fix was the 1996
welfare act, renewed in 2006, that has been heralded as ending welfare as we know
it. “That law sent a powerful message that the welfare problem has been addressed.
Yet for at last 150 years, since the ranks of the poor have been measured, some 20
percent of Americans have lived in poverty, talking about the pre-transfer poverty
rate. Unless people want to argue one out of five people are lazy, then Americans
have to recognize that our economy poses structural obstacles to economic advancement
for many. The debate will return.”
Shaw will follow the book, published under Greenwood Press’ Historical Guides to Controversial Issues series, with another book on the topic of healthcare.
Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960