How Liberals in the 1960s Laid the Groundwork for Killing Welfare in the 1990s

DB_BioPic By Darren Barany

The 1960s are often associated with the left counterculture and activism and movements for social justice of the period, e.g. the anti-war movement, the black freedom and civil rights struggles, the feminist movement, gay liberation, the various struggles for economic justice, etc. However, the American political culture shifted significantly to the right through the decade, particularly around issues related to anti-poverty policy, work, family, and the role of government in controlling poverty and inequality. The capturing of the Republican Party by the hard-line conservatism around the Barry Goldwater campaign via the formation of his sizable grassroots conservative base helped build a conservative political foundation on which future political and intellectual figures would acquire status and come to positions of power and influence (e.g. the election of Reagan in 1980). This base encompassed a white America which was resentful of gains made by the civil rights and black freedom struggles (and other movements) and which was distressed by the methods of direct action politics employed by them. Sweeping federal actions like the war on poverty and enforcing the integration of schools were seen as giving in to the pressure of riotous and unruly urban black activists.

Perhaps more significant than the rightward shift of the GOP at this time was the parallel shift among liberal intellectuals to the right, especially with regard to the US welfare state. This comprised the migration of an intellectually diverse array of leftish writers, researchers, and academics to the political right – New York-based intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer, as well as political figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While conservative intellectuals were mostly discussing policy in the economistic and abstract terms of the libertarian critique of big government which saw the welfare state as a slippery slope to full blown communism, these intellectual defectors from the left went on to produce a policy analysis which utilized coded references to cultural dysfunction and the “pathology” of the black family.

Respectable liberalism in the US would become a politics of compromise and appeasement, a liberalism which was “reasonable” as opposed to that of the “doughface progressive,” to use Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s distinction. The doughface was characterized as a naïve “wailer” who led him or herself to become the “accomplice of communism.” This movement of the left toward the “vital center” opened the way for the embracing of many conservative principles by American liberals. The effects of this transformation have extended far ahead through history and its legacy had become plainly evident with the signing of the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 by the Clinton Administration. Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole allegedly complained that Bill Clinton was stealing his issues during the 1996 campaign which included measures like toughening criminal justice policy, cutting taxes, and rolling back welfare. Revealingly, these measures have proven recently to be somewhat bothersome for Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential primary run, as she supported these measures back then and now they inconveniently contradict her recently adopted progressive political persona.

The vital center approach to politics anticipated the neoconservatism of Kristol, Bell, et al. who had steadily retreated from their social and intellectual progressivism. Their position on anti-poverty policy articulated a necessity for limited government provisions but shied away from any type of social wage or income guarantee or anything seen as disruptive to traditional institutional or class arrangements. As the 1960s progressed, more and more attention, energy, and print was devoted to their skepticism of more progressive welfare policy and strategies which sought to enhance the collective political agency of the welfare poor. For example, strategies like the Community Action Programs (CAPs) implemented in the War on Poverty would be criticized as socially disruptive and as exacerbating perceived social and political crises.

The shifting political milieu corresponded to social and economic transformations which were unfolding during the decade, which preceded the economic downturn of the 1970s, and which fostered an atmosphere of white racial, patriarchal, and class angst. Changes related to the economy, residential displacement, and the transforming American family structure by the late 1960s were successfully framed in terms of individual behavior and work ethic, ethnic and racial identity, declining sexual morality and loss of tradition, and family disorganization. These changes produced greater demand for social services. However, black men and women were much more likely to face discrimination, live in poverty, and experience unemployment. This had a devastating effect on black families, and as fewer impoverished black households were inequitably excluded from receiving benefits, eligibility and participation in poor relief programs expanded. Moynihan, who (according to conservative policy expert, Karl Zinsmeister) was the “original sentinel of welfare-linked social decay,” observed these shifts and noted that AFDC went from being seen as widow’s program to “what in certain important respects became a Negro program.” These perceptions were highly detrimental to AFDCs legitimacy and legacy and contributed to the further stigmatization of AFDC mothers.

As the proto-neoconservatives made the gradual political and intellectual transformation from left to right or, as Glazer described it, going from being a “mild radical” to a “mild conservative,” their level of public exposure and influence was expanding. They exploited the shifting demographic composition of the welfare rolls mentioned above. Their analysis highlighted persistent reliance on AFDC due to chronic poverty, and the apparent increase in the proportion of children being born to unmarried parents was presented through language which constructed the welfare poor, especially black female headed families, as culturally/ behaviorally deficient. Terms like “dependency” and “illegitimacy” became common refrains in mainstream policy discourse. Their emphasis on behavioral dimensions of poverty and hostile response to the more progressive demands of the civil rights movement would resonate with the fear experienced by many whites who fit the now notorious “silent majority” archetype and further solidified the individual in the social imaginary as the main bearer of responsibility for his or her social position.

A soft progressivism was maintained. Bell in particular scorned McCarthy as an enemy of cultural freedom. Members of the group opposed the Vietnam War and Bell, Glazer, and Moynihan rhetorically defended the basic philosophical foundations of the New Deal, but were variably conflicted about the social consequences of welfare. For example, Bell accepted (and reinforced in his work) the myth of the meritocracy arguing that those in positions of power in the society have “earned their authority.” Glazer felt that the proposals of anti-poverty activists were too far reaching and could ultimately prove to be unachievable, damaging, and impractical. These refrains are currently quite familiar as the progressive presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders has experienced similar criticism from Hillary Clinton and her supporters, who are presented as more pragmatic, sensible, and cautious. Of the group, Kristol traveled farthest to the right on these issues, denouncing outright welfare’s social consequences as “perverse.” In particular, he bemoaned that it promoted the independence of single mothers to the extent that it made the “head of the household” into a “superfluous man,” robbing him of “his economic function.” Advocacy for methods of politics or particular causes which were too far beyond the status quo or too inconsistent with white, middle class values was often regarded as self indulgent, short-sighted, naïve, or ideological. Criticisms of welfare state programs, of the anti-poverty and welfare rights movements, and of the so called “negro problem,” while containing an air of “being honest about race,” was often itself suffused with racism, white racial guilt, and anxiety.

This wavering liberalism was an establishment liberalism fearful that the challenges confronted by the society could effectively and radically restructure the institutions of traditional power from which they had benefited. This conservative liberalism was a distinctly white, American liberalism and desperately tried to shed its critical orientation in favor of an unwavering and rosy perception of institutions, power, and authority.

Their discourse revealed an overt fear and traumatized consciousness – a sort of theory of society informed by post-traumatic stress. Kristol once famously quipped that a neoconservative is a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” In an infamous essay titled “My Negro Problem and Ours,” Podhoretz, after recounting several instances where he had been assaulted by and made afraid of black youths in Brooklyn during his childhood, warned of the “writers and intellectuals and artists who romanticize Negroes and pander to them, assuming a guilt that is not properly theirs.”

Bell and Kristol had founded The Public Interest policy journal in 1965, the year the famous Moynihan Report was released, and it decisively challenged the tenets of progressive liberalism and the perceived egalitarian impulse of the social sciences. Kristol once identified as a common thread linking neoconservatives “their dislike of the ‘counter-culture.’” An article in the Spring 1966 issue by Earl Raab, a high school friend of Kristol, challenged the achievements of the War on Poverty, which in addition to expanding economic opportunity, had been a “kind of sociological surprise ball.” The essay suggested that the War on Poverty was a clandestine part of the “Negro revolution, of the direct action demonstrations and anarchic ghetto restlessness.” The result was an anti-poverty program which unfairly targeted an urban, black population, even though they were only a portion of the country’s poor, and the article further warned that “the American Negro is not… going to be satisfied with mere equality of opportunity.”

Moynihan was a periodic contributor through the 1960s. He and other contributors to the journal had readily appropriated Oscar Lewis’ concept of the culture of poverty. The concept was constructed to illustrate that poverty did not merely correspond to economic hardship but also constituted “a way of life” for those living in adverse material conditions. Lewis hadn’t intended the term to be used as a means for placing the blame for poverty on the poor themselves. He wrote, “In the case of a relief system that barely keeps people alive, both the basic poverty and the sense of hopelessness are perpetuated rather than eliminated.” It is precisely the opposite inference, that benefits were too generous and therefore encouraged a permissive and deviant culture of poverty, which would constitute the misuse of the concept by the neoconservatives and become such an important feature of contemporary policy discourse.

The Negro Family, the Moynihan report’s actual title, provided a moral dimension to the critique of the welfare state. It culled from Lewis’ culture of poverty framework elements which underscored behavioral patterns among America’s poor that were considered out of synch with white, middle class values. This contributed to revitalizing old, stigmatizing distinctions, like worthy and unworthy, for the poor. While he didn’t use the term, culture of poverty verbatim, he described these behavior patterns for black Americans as a “tangle of pathology.”

In contrast to Lewis, Moynihan merely touched on larger economic and social forces like the legacy and effects of black slavery, discrimination, and poor economic conditions, and he emphasized that the “center of the tangle of pathology” was the “weakness of the family structure.” He argued that, “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” A few years after the release of The Moynihan Report, he would describe the “crisis in welfare” as one where the “escalating violence” and “mounting dependency” in American cities was leading to a situation where “a massive withdrawal of support for programs to eliminate poverty” was taking place.

Contextualizing black poverty in behavioral terms helped to sustain the social stigma associated with poor black communities. By connecting the so called culture of poverty with welfare, Moynihan helped reinforce the stigma connected with receiving AFDC and other benefits. Perhaps seeing, like Lewis did, a “great potential for revolutionary protest” in the culture of poverty of poor African American neighborhoods, the neoconservative reaction ranged from cautious and skeptical to anxious and fearful, especially regarding the organizing efforts of the welfare rights movement by mostly poor, non-white women. At the heart of the “welfare crisis” was the loss of traditional authority, be it through the emergence of the “female-headed” family which signaled the decline of patriarchal authority over women and children or of CAPs indicating the decline of the authority of traditional agency representatives and bureaucrats over poor urban residents.

CAPs were a particularly hard pill to swallow for this group. Kristol, in an effort to express just how “frothy” the political climate was in the mid-1960s, wrote that “The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the sociological fantasy that if one gave political power to the poor, by sponsoring ‘community action,’ they would then lift themselves out of poverty at the expense of the rich and powerful.” Moynihan saw CAPs as a significant failure of the War on Poverty. Through such measures, Moynihan (and the others) asserted that the New Left was using welfare as a political weapon. This was a sort of trademark in the analysis of the burgeoning neoconservatives. The dictum was: On the one hand, people need help, but on the other, those receiving relief are behaviorally deficient or are represented by activists who lack expertise and understanding and are too militant. At times, Moynihan interrogated racism and patriarchy in a namesake fashion, but he tended to use those same ideologies to make his points more popularly compelling. Finance Committee Chair, Russell Long, who was viciously condescending and bigoted in his comments regarding opposition to the 1967 reforms by advocates, was defended by Moynihan. Regarding the welfare rights movement and welfare mothers more generally, Long argued that if benefits weren’t structured just so, a poor welfare mother would sit around “drinking wine all day” without wanting to do more than “swat a mosquito off her leg.” He also asserted that instead of political engagement, they should “do something constructive” like “clean up the mess in front of their own houses.” Shamefully he referred to black welfare mothers and activists as “Black Brood Mares, Inc.” Moynihan blamed the mean spirited and racist tone directed toward them on the mothers themselves and the radical anti-poverty activists politically mobilizing them. He declared that “in truth their tactics have invited such racial slurs.”

This blame-the-victim premise underpins the entire framework and continues to shape the parameters around acceptable political discourse today, that people should just play the game politically and adopt the preferable cultural characteristics without asserting any kind of collective political agency or using disruptive political strategies. For the (formerly liberal) neoconservatives, and this is also an attribute of contemporary, mainstream liberalism, if socially subordinated groups do go the route of self-conscious collective political action, the bases and motives must be unjustifiable and ideological. Consider the recent patronizing and demeaning treatment received by Black Lives Matter demonstrators who disrupted Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaign events. During the now infamous incident in Seattle last year, Sanders stepped aside so Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford could speak, but his (mostly white) supporters responded with hostility with some shouting “All lives matter” and “Bernie matters.” More recently, when Black Lives Matter protester, Ashley Williams interrupted a Clinton fundraising event in Charleston, her actions were dismissed as “rude” and “inappropriate” by those in attendance and Clinton, without supporting the young woman or positioning herself in solidarity in any way, was clearly shaken and couldn’t wait to get “back to the issues.” Clinton was being asked to apologize for her role in supporting her husband’s 1994 crime bill which exacerbated mass incarceration, especially for minority populations, and for referring to kids in gangs with the racial code-word, “super-predators” in 1996. She also advocated and supported her husband’s welfare reform bill in that same year. The bill has had devastating consequences for poor families, but in the existing political culture it is still largely celebrated as a resounding bipartisan success. Despite Sanders raising this issue in debates with Clinton and on the campaign trail, the “ability to get things done” and “pragmatism” associated with the “New Democrats” still resonates with large swaths of Democratic voters across demographic lines. The entire US political spectrum, along with “the vital center” has shifted rightward over the decades. Therefore, the fetish of tepid politics illustrated in the policy analysis of the liberals who drifted rightward in the 1950s and 1960s and which offered that reasonable discourse be moderate and centrist, paved the ideological and political road which culminated in the end of welfare as an entitlement in 1996. The good news is that the edifice of the established liberalism of the white ruling class is showing signs of fracture with the ascendance of the Sanders campaign and its refreshingly grassroots democratic organizing and message. However, we will see if primary voters, the DNC, and the Democratic Party will permit such a challenge to establishment liberal politics to prevail.

Darren Barany teaches sociology at LaGuardia Community College and lives in Elmhurst, Queens. He has an MPA from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent research and writing looks at the ideology and politics of policy reform. He also frequently hurts himself while riding a skateboard.

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