Decades of Distortion - Page 10

The New Right Advances Its Agenda



As the Neoconservatives divided between the Democratic and Republican parties during the 1970s, Republican Neoconservatives initially remained committed to aspects of the welfare state and to the civil rights tradition:

In economic and social policy, [neoconservatism] feels no lingering hostility to the welfare state, nor does it accept it resignedly, as a necessary evil.233

However, by the 1990s, most Republican Neoconservatives had rejected their liberalism in economic and civil rights issues.234

Further swelling the ranks of those opposing welfare were increasing numbers of religious evangelicals and fundamentalists, who were emerging as the political force known as the Religious Right.235 The "pro-family" agenda was particularly appealing to this submovement; secular humanism was blamed for a multitude of social ills, from teen pregnancy to high divorce rates.236 Welfare became a magnet for framing the debate and constructing an image of a coherent right-wing agenda.

New Right single issue groups, such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, or Rev. Louis Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, do not necessarily place welfare reform at the center of their agendas,237 but they frequently cooperate and overlap ideologically with groups that do. For example, while rarely discussing poverty and welfare, Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly Report238 demonstrates the tension over the role of women vis-à-vis work and home that exists within the rhetoric of the Right.

Schlafly argues that fathers should support their children (thus the importance of child support enforcement),239 mothers should be at home (thus her attacks on feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, federal child care legislation, and comparable worth legislation, as well as tax code discrimination against "traditional" families),240 and AFDC is "a conduit to redistribute income from taxpaying Americans to nontaxpaying Americans"241 and a disincentive for fathers to support their own children. She claims that government is subsidizing non-traditional families, while at the same time creating disincentives for the formation of the traditional family, which then results in more children in poverty.242 And, according to Schlafly, economic issues cannot be separated from moral issues; the Great Society social spending programs were "morally wrong."243

Consistent with the agenda of federal government downsizing and decentralization of programs,244 the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s proposed to convert AFDC into a wholly state-run and state-financed effort,245 funded by block grants. When this failed to win Congressional approval, Reagan announced a total revamping of the AFDC program through "state-sponsored, community-based demonstration projects."246 A limited federal waiver statute247 (a waiver is a grant of "permission" by the federal government for states to ignore specific federal requirements in programs that are partially federally funded) had previously been used primarily to allow state administrative innovations to improve the service delivery of the program or small projects extending social services. However, the Reagan administration began to grant states waivers from many of the federal entitlement eligibility criteria, allowing the states to terminate previously eligible welfare recipients.

In order to do this, the Reagan Administration established the Low Income Opportunity Advisory Board (LIOAB) to expedite requests for waivers of multiple programs.248 Waivers were to be consistent with the policy goals of the 1987 report issued by the Domestic Policy Council Low Income Opportunity Working Group, which specifically put forth the idea of withholding welfare as a means of controlling behavior.249 In addition, waivers were to be cost neutral.250 As Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation stated: "[t]hough the Board has attracted scant press and public attention since its creation in 1987, it is one of the most important gains for federalism in recent years."251

The first waivers252 included Wisconsin's Learnfare program, which reduced AFDC benefits for families whose teenagers did not attend a sufficient number of days of school. For the first time, a waiver was granted that allowed a state to reduce AFDC benefits solely to affect "deviant" behavior of welfare families outside of a labor market context. Subsequent waivers allowed the denial of increased benefit for additional children conceived while receiving AFDC (Family Cap or Child Exclusion), reduced benefits for children not immunized, and reduced benefits for families who moved from one state to another.253

In previous articles, I have documented how the premises upon which the waivers were based were flawed, relying not on the complexity of welfare recipients' experiences, but on the Right's ideologically driven reductionist, misleading, and racist political rhetoric.254 For example, seventy-six social scientists with varying political viewpoints issued a joint statement that previous research does not support the conclusion that welfare is a primary cause of rising non-marital births.255 Yet, the "Report From the White House Working Group on the Family," headed by Gary Bauer, now director of the Family Research Council, stated:

Statistical evidence does not prove those suppositions [that welfare benefits are an incentive to bear children]; and yet, even the most casual observer of public assistance programs understands there is indeed some relationship between the availability of welfare and the inclination of many young women to bear fatherless children.0


Thus right-wing analysis increasingly focused the debate on issues of "immoral" behavior, rather than on an understanding of the complexities and nuances of poverty. In this way, illegitimacy became the primary cause of poverty- not issues such as unequal bargaining power in labor markets or poor educational systems. Since welfare causes illegitimacy, welfare is the cause of poverty. The majority of New Right groups coalesced around this ideological formulation- that welfare causes the breakup of the American family, and decreases individual initiative and personal responsibility.1

In 1988, a major welfare reform bill, The Family Support Act, was enacted, providing additional requirements for job participation and child support enforcement.2 The Act's primary sponsor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, articulated a rationale consistent with his previous "Report on the Black Family:"

Unlike the problems of children in much of the world; age-old problems of disease, new problems of ecological disaster, the problems of children in the United States are overwhelmingly associated with the strength and stability of their families. Our problems do not reside in nature, nor yet are they fundamentally economic. Our problems derive from behavior.3


However, not surprisingly, at the same time that rightist policymakers were targeting the minuscule AFDC budget as the cause of major systemic problems of poverty, states were not spending even the money appropriated under this Act to implement job programs to move AFDC mothers into wage work.4

The passage of the Family Support Act coincided with the release of Issues `88: A Platform for America, a three-volume study of "a political platform for a stronger America" jointly published by the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. The authors opposed "high" welfare payment levels which would bring welfare recipients to or above the poverty level, advocated for mandatory, full-time workfare programs, and strongly supported the "right" of women to work at home on cottage industry piecework.5

Rather than limit government regulation, this platform proposed an enormous intervention in the lives of adults, supporting restriction of divorce, and advocating for school prayer and routine testing of schoolchildren for HIV and drugs.

Thus, rather than supporting the job training programs outlined and funded through the Family Support Act (with matching grants from the states), conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation were designing and lobbying for many of the contemporary and still current behavior modification proposals.6

At the turn of the decade, a number of right-wing spokespersons were articulating a new theory of "empowering the poor"- freeing the poor from the shackles of their poverty and the demoralization of bureaucratic control through federal government incentives.7 As the threat of communism and the Right's opposition to additional growth of big government ebbed as issues around which the Right could effectively mobilize, the Right adopted a particularly American value-oriented brand of populism, with welfare as a central wedge issue.8 Thus the justification for the elimination of federal social programs shifted; they should be defunded not because they tax our pay checks, but because they destroy recipients' character.9


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Decades of Distortion

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