Decades of Distortion - Page 14


The New Right has achieved popular acceptance for the annihilation of a federal entitlement to welfare by misleadingly portraying the very small AFDC program as the cause of a broad range of perceived social ills. As a result, public concern for material poverty has been transformed into a concern over the behavior of the poor. Understanding how this story passed from the margin to the mainstream, how Old Right ideas were turned into popularly acceptable public policy,75 is key to unraveling the current discourse regarding welfare and formulating a counter strategy.

In many ways, the New Right's victory is the final victory of the Old Right. The evolution of a family values and behavioral poverty analysis as part of a consciously constructed "culture war" (which in part replaced the "class war"),76 was a way of furthering the Old Right's previous agenda. These include minimizing government and creating anti-government hostility on grounds that government equals "liberalism," and restoring Christian hegemony, patriarchal dominance, individualism77and western civilization as superior to any other.

The development of a right-wing populist movement, based on fear and nostalgia rather than economic issues, led to the scapegoating of welfare recipients as the cause of all economic and social woes. Race and gender played central roles in the promotion of the stereotype of the unworthy welfare recipient. The Right utilized welfare as a wedge issue, an issue which could pry voters away from their traditional allegiances.78 "Several different forms of prejudice can now be advocated under the guise of populism."79

The attack on welfare coalesced multiple ideological strands- protecting private property, maintaining traditional gender roles and protecting the family, and playing to encoded racism. It also provided a mechanism for recruiting many people and groups that had not been part of the Right in the past. In so doing, the New Right co-opted many voters at a time of intense economic anxiety because of a decline in buying power, economic restructuring and a dramatic upward redistribution of wealth.80

Lucy Williams is a Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and was the School's 1994-1995 Public Interest Distinguished Professor. She has published and lectured widely in the area of welfare law and poverty. In August 1994, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the three year Advisory Council on Unemployment Compensation, which evaluated all aspects of the unemployment compensation program and made policy recommendations to the president and Congress. Prior to joining the faculty at Northeastern, she spent 13 year as an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute where she specialized in employment and governmental benefits law. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, J.D. 1974.
For assistance with this article, she would like to thank Judith Glaubman, Marielena Hincapie, Brigid Kennedy-Pfister, Carol Mallory, Beverly Richard, Susana Sacouto, Carrie Thomas, and Karen Yau.

PRA is grateful to the Ms. Foundation for Women for generously supporting the research for, and production of, this article.

Sections of this report are reprinted by permission of the Yale Law Journal Company and Fred B. Rothman and Co., from 102 Yale Law Journal 719 (1992) and 12 Yale Law and Policy Review 8 (1994), and by permission of the Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol.22, 1159 (1995).

©1997 Political Research Associates and Lucy Williams

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Decades of Distortion

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