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'From Entitlement to Empowerment': How Narratives of Poverty Legitimated Policy Outcomes in the Era of American Welfare Reform

Kristin Zuhone[1], Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania


The pertinence of narrative to policy analysis is well documented and increasingly accepted by social scientists, particularly those in the fields of environmental studies, urban planning and political science. Surveying the theoretical literature on 'narrative policy analysis', this article first details the origins and development of this approach, as well as its founding assumptions and unique insights, in order to distinguish it from more historically prominent and conventional methods. Proceeding to synthesise and review key social scientific works that concern the policy dimensions of the American welfare state, the article identifies and elaborates upon two narratives – namely, that of the 'underclass' and that of the 'entrepreneurial poor' – central to the public debate surrounding welfare reform in the mid-1990s. It concludes that each of these narratives legitimated a specific set of policy outcomes, whether the curtailment of federal welfare and public assistance programmes writ large or the notable emergence of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation, accompanied by its own shortcomings and risks. Further research is necessary to evaluate the relevance of these narratives to forthcoming strategies of the American welfare state, such as the federal Promise Zones initiative that was announced in early 2014.

Keywords: Policy analysis, narrative, poverty, welfare reform, underclass, neoliberalism.


In the 2014 English translation of his widely – but by no means universally – acclaimed tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, scholar Thomas Piketty succinctly declares that 'it is long since past the time when we should have put the question of inequality back at the centre of economic analysis' (p. 16). Considering the exemplary case of the United States, he notes that the top decile share in national income has undergone a U-shaped change of 'impressive … magnitude' during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Piketty, 2014: 23). Although this common metric of inequality plummeted from 45–50 percent in the economically tumultuous and interventionist 1930s to consistently less than 35 percent between 1950 and 1970, a period of rapid, almost sweeping growth, it again rose sharply in the 2000s and 2010s, returning to 45–50 percent as large firms witnessed an 'unprecedented explosion' of 'elevated incomes' among top managers (Piketty, 2014: 24). Inequality thus proves both a function of 'historical dynamics' like capital accumulation and an influence upon 'the structure of social classes' (Piketty, 2014: 33).

Distinct from metrics of inequality are poverty thresholds, which – once more examining the United States – the Census Bureau defines as the minimum incomes that individuals of various ages and families of various sizes 'need to live' (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2013: 51). Despite the confidence with which academics as well as policymakers maintain that inequality is 'closely related' to resource distribution and – by extension – poverty (Saith, 2005: 4608), their customary reliance upon 'one-dimensional' tools like poverty thresholds severs the two concepts, 'render[ing] invisible' the political-economic power relations that underlie the durability of both (Saith, 2005: 4607). Indeed, poverty in the United States is remarkable because of its high incidence on the one hand and its demographic asymmetry on the other: as of 2012, the statistical category comprises 46.5 million Americans (15.0 percent) with disproportionate prevalence among African Americans (27.2 percent), Hispanics (25.6 percent), and women (16.3 percent) (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2013). As is often reported, these minority populations are also subject to persistent income disparities (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2013).

From administrative and historical standpoints, poverty thresholds in the United States appear noteworthy. A recent publication by the Congressional Research Service, for example, estimates that 82 federal welfare and public assistance programmes, including the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and parts of Medicaid, utilise a simplified version of poverty thresholds to determine eligibility for means-tested benefits (Gabe, 2007). In addition to the obvious scope of their impact, poverty thresholds maintain importance precisely because the methodology for their calculation – developed in 1963 and minimally revised since – is considered 'out-dated', 'badly flawed', and 'nonsensical' for present economic conditions and policy objectives (Blank, 2008: 233, 234, 236). Such statistical fixedness is foremost among the problems that poverty thresholds generate for policy analysis, for they have proven 'impervious' to a half-century-long expansion of in-kind and tax credit programmes, which 'improve life among low-income families' but remain excluded from institutional definitions of 'income', and thereby strengthened the enduring though contested claim that 'public spending on the poor [has] little effect' (Blank, 2008: 238–39).

Since the mid-1990s, normative and often ideologically informed questions concerning the measurement of poverty on the one hand and the reach of federal welfare and public assistance programmes on the other have featured recurrently in American policymaking. While the progressive membership of a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences memorably proposed an alternative means of calculating poverty thresholds – inclusive of earnings, in-kind benefits, and tax credits – in 1995 (Hutto et al., 2011), the then-President Bill Clinton yielded to conservative pressures for immediate welfare reform by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) – with its readily debated outcome, the replacement of the longstanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) by the more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – in 1996 (Monnat and Bunyan, 2008). These two policy designs were strikingly disparate in terms of both the premises that motivated them and the aims that they pursued; consequently, it seems valid as well as worthwhile to examine the socio-political circumstances that allowed them to originate contemporaneously and achieve currency among the same governmental elites.

This article holds that the narrative approach to policy analysis, itself a departure from more conventional methods, provides an operative framework for the study of American welfare reform, especially the grounds on which its outcomes gained widespread credence. The first section surveys the theoretical literature that connects narrative to policy analysis and further demonstrates its utility with a conceptual example from political science – so-called 'tales of the state'. The second section attends to some persistently inequitable dimensions of the American welfare state, particularly those involving ideologies of class, gender, and race where they intersect with poverty, from the start of the Progressive Era (1880) to the election of President Ronald Reagan (1980). Proceeding to synthesise major social scientific works, the third and fourth sections identify and elaborate upon two narratives that framed public debate surrounding welfare reform in the mid-1990s: that of the 'underclass', according to which poverty – the purportedly intractable result of moral failing and cultural propagation – was associated with 'entitlement' in the years preceding the passing of the PRWORA (1980–1996), and that of the 'entrepreneurial poor', according to which poverty – an apparently reversible condition demanding toil and perseverance on the part of individuals – has been coupled with 'empowerment' since the passing of the PRWORA (1996–present). With a title that invokes the 1993 State of the Union address for evidence of such a transition in rhetoric and policy (The Washington Post Company, 1998: para. 51), the article concludes that each narrative legitimated a specific set of policy outcomes, whether the curtailment of federal welfare and public assistance programmes writ large or the notable emergence of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation, accompanied by its own shortcomings and risks.

The narrative approach to policy analysis

In the 1960s, policy analysis emerged as a 'public administration reform strategy' that centred on practical questions with which political decision-making elites were confronted (Fischer, 2009: 109). Consistent with this formulation, politics seemed to entail merely 'who [got] what, when, and how' as the subfield's readily acknowledged founder, Harold Lasswell, had earlier devised in the pithy title of a prominent 1936 work. Policy analysis, termed 'an applied social science discipline', thus presupposed the need to create and transform 'policy-relevant information' for everyday use 'in policy settings' to resolve 'policy problems' (Dunn, 1981: 35). Despite the ostensible narrowness of its purpose, the subfield exhibited broad appeal on the basis of its multidisciplinary logic, which would facilitate the interaction of academic experts with policymakers, and its normative orientation, which would reduce quarrelsome debate about urgent policy issues (Torgerson, 1985). Still, as was typical of social scientific research in that era, it unduly favoured quantitative means of analysis, naïvely posited an objective separation of facts and values, and endeavoured to generalise findings beyond their individual contexts (Fischer, 2003).

In contrast, more recent scholarship emphasises the limitations of policy analysis as dominated by such 'positivist' and 'empiricist' modes of inquiry (Flyvbjerg, 2001). Two common areas of reproach concern the subfield's inattention to theoretical elaboration and its stalwart denial of subjectivity. In the first of these arguments, the conventional approach to policy analysis, especially its trust in the systematic collection and exacting analysis of data, is liable to reproduce a misguided conjecture that the application of 'more sophisticated methodologies and richer, more complete data sets' necessarily yields conclusions of greater validity and applicability (Schlager, 1999: 256). With regard to the second point of criticism, the subfield – insomuch that it maintains a nominal commitment to 'the rational, scientific, and neutral' while the discourses of policymaking are themselves subject to heightened scrutiny as being 'value-oriented' and 'socially constructed' – comes to serve not the far-reaching explanatory aims that would be expected but instead merely 'ideological' ones (Fischer, 2003: 15–16). Given these problematic aspects, the continued relevance of policy analysis to the social sciences requires a thoroughgoing adaptation of its premises on the one hand and its techniques on the other.

Indeed, three interdisciplinary publications from the early 1990s contend that narrative approaches to policy analysis offer suitable alternatives. In the first of these books, The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning (1993), political scientist Frank Fischer and urban planner John Forester demonstrate that policymakers, inevitably disposed to exhibit biases and employ rhetoric that 'depicts and selects, describes and characterises, includes and excludes' (p. 2), perform more diverse and dependent functions than conventional approaches to policy analysis would recognise. In the second, Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice (1994), practitioner Emery Roe shifts focus to the circumstances in which policy issues are conceived, observing in the narratives that frame them a veritable 'force' that tenaciously upholds the shared assumptions of decision-making and achieves ultimate influence in political climates of 'high uncertainty, complexity, and polarisation' (p. 2). In the third, Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach (1993), environmental scientist Paul Sabatier and political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith assert that policymakers, entering into alliances that favour specific policy outcomes representative of their joint beliefs, engage in policy analyses 'primarily to buttress and elaborate those [very] beliefs' (p. 19).

Tales of the State: Narrative in Contemporary U.S. Politics and Public Policy, a 1997 collection by political scientists Sanford Schram and Philip Neisser, further applies this approach to policy analysis and clarifies the unique insights that it provides vis-à-vis more conventional ones. Returning to the critique that 'positivist' and 'empiricist' modes of inquiry operate to the detriment of theoretical development, the authors caution that the purpose of the narrative approach consists not of ranking narratives on the basis of their 'truthfulness' or 'exactitude', but rather of illustrating their power to 'construct political space itself' (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 6). Toward this end, explanations of the approach frequently draw upon analogous relationships, such as those according to which narratives in policy analysis act similarly to 'stories' that organise 'everyday private lives' and 'folktales' that 'lend coherence' to public expressions, and representational practises, such as those according to which narratives 'mediate' what various actors understand to be 'the reality and objects of concern' of policy issues and outcomes (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 1, 6). Most generally, then, policymakers enact narratives to inform others of 'who they are, what their interests are, and how those interests can be served' (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 7).

The authors of Tales of the State also evince that the narrative approach, unlike the 'positivist' and 'empiricist' modes of inquiry grounding more historically prominent methods, does acknowledge the subjectivity of policymaking and analysis. Pursuant to this idea, the process through which narratives are imagined, assembled, and disseminated may be termed 'inscription'; that is, actors transmit or otherwise strengthen those realities, whether actual or perceived, that prove advantageous for them, thus enabling interpretation to 'become more than fable' as it influences – and eventually formulates – the identities of individuals and groups (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 4–5). Negations of this 'objectivity' thesis in conventional approaches to policy analysis are numerous but nonetheless include the use of narratives as 'scripts for engaging in political performances' (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 6), the creation of hierarchical, necessarily inequitable 'structures of attention' and 'inattention' (Schram and Neisser, 1997: 8), and the fabrication of free-standing explanations that 'impose … a degree of completeness and coherency to … policy condition[s]' (deLeon, 1999: 336). The narrative approach to policy analysis consequently appears a fitting and effective one, for it duly underscores that the nature of human action is 'multifaceted', just as human beings are themselves 'culturally shaped' and 'communicatively based' (Fischer and Gottweis, 2012: 6).

Narratives of persistent inequity in the 'long history' of the American welfare state (1880–1980)

Despite – or perhaps because of – their countless aspects, the policies of the American welfare state seem an enduringly fecund topic in academic research. Hence, this article does not purport to revise or amend the copious scholarship that already treats the matter in history (Berkowitz, 1992; Katz, 2002; Marmor et al., 1992; Patterson, 1981), sociology (Chalfant, 1985; Dauber, 2013; Handler and Hasenfeld, 1991; Weir et al., 1988), political science (Cook and Barrett, 1992; Gilens, 2009; Hacker, 2002; Howard, 1999), social work (Jansson, 2012; Karger and Stoesz, 2006; Stern and Axinn, 2012; Trattner, 1999), and comparative social policy (Alesina et al., 2001; Garfinkel et al., 2010; Levine, 1989; Midgley et al., 2008). Instead, it seeks to enhance understanding of policy outcomes in three largely accepted periods of American welfare state development (the 'long history' of 1880–1980, the 'pre-welfare reform' era of 1980–1996, and the 'post-welfare reform' era of 1996–present) by elucidating some persistently inequitable dimensions thereof, the narratives that facilitated their preservation throughout the twentieth century, and the narratives of the 'underclass' and the 'entrepreneurial poor' that were crystallised in the years surrounding welfare reform. Consistent with these aims, the following paragraphs examine the mechanisms by which ideologies of class, gender, and race informed perceptions of poverty and 'deservingness', as well as their accompanying policy outcomes, from the start of the Progressive Era to the election of President Reagan.

In both policy analysis and policymaking, class plays a central, albeit insidious, role. Even if subject to reproach (Klass, 1985), it remains a theoretical commonplace to explain attitudes toward the policies of the welfare state via the 'consensus theory' paradigm, which associates opposition to federal welfare and public assistance programmes with middle-class interests, or the 'class conflict' paradigm, which associates the same opposition with upper-class interests (Huntington, 1974). Although the arguments deriving from both paradigms presuppose the importance of 'popular ideology' to evaluations of policy performance (Klass, 1985: 428), that of 'consensus theory' finds in prevalent dissatisfaction with the welfare state such Lockean notions as economic individualism, self-reliance, and limited government (Wilensky, 1975), while that of 'class conflict' draws attention to business elite agendas, especially those of economic control and political suppression, that manifest as laissez-faire preferences (Piven and Cloward, 1982). As comparative-historical studies of welfare state development affirm but American institutional structures – decentralised and non-programmatic political parties, in particular – inhibit, 'vulnerable' minorities like the lower classes are most able to benefit from welfare and public assistance programmes when 'bureaucrats and national political parties' collaborate to build 'universal' systems (Skocpol, 1987: 369). In the absence of broad coalitions, support for the policies of the welfare state principally necessitates the dissolution of those beliefs that distinguish the 'deserving' poor from the 'undeserving' (Appelbaum, 2001).

As a ubiquitous category of human 'difference', gender also presents a rubric relative to which 'deservingness' can be delineated. Published in the last two decades, multiple works in the women's history tradition attend to the gendered dimensions of early American welfare state development (Goodwin, 2007; Gordon, 1995; Kleinberg, 2005; Ladd-Taylor, 1995; Mink, 1996; Skocpol, 1992). More specifically, the authors aspire to illuminate the hereto neglected significance of 'nation-spanning federations of local women's clubs' in advancing a distinctively 'maternalist' programme inclusive of mothers' pensions, minimum wage regulations, and other social benefits for 'the good of women and their children' instead of the livelihood of male veterans and their dependents (Skocpol, 1992: 2–3). Notwithstanding the extraordinary percentage of states and territories – 40 out of 50 – that passed comparable 'legislation for impoverished mother-only families' (Goodwin, 2007: 3) and the decisive manner in which the activism accompanying it refuted longstanding stereotypes of widows being 'passive victims' (Kleinberg, 2005: 2), 'maternalism' proved a discriminatory ideology that mandated domesticity on the one hand – 'there [was] a uniquely feminine value system based on care and nurturance' – and economic dependency on the other – 'men should [after all] earn a family wage to support their … wives and children' (Ladd-Taylor, 1995: 3). As federal intervention heightened during the New Deal and components of the modern welfare state were introduced, women's eligibility for benefits remained contingent upon their subordination to men, whose 'wage-earning … citizenship' was normalised by old-age, survivors, and disability insurance (i.e. Social Security) while 'working motherhood' appeared an inconceivable 'bane of children's interests' under the auspices of public assistance (i.e. AFDC) (Mink, 1996: 151).

Finally, racialised practises unremittingly shape perceived 'deservingness' of participation in federal welfare and public assistance programmes. Written in the same context as the literature reviewed above, numerous books endeavour to situate the widely publicised racial dimensions of welfare reform in the more extensive trajectory of American welfare state development (Brown, 1999; Fox, 2012; Goldberg, 2007; Lieberman, 2001; Neubeck and Cazenave, 2002; Poole, 2006; SenGupta, 2009; Ward, 2009). Among the prevailing frameworks in these publications is the racial delimitation of citizenship via policymaking prior to and during the New Deal. In the Reconstruction era, for example, the Freedmen's Bureau – 'the nation's first federal welfare and regulatory agency' but one that complemented rather than replaced active community services – operated a dual system of poor relief that excluded former slaves from mainstream options, thereby stigmatising them, despite the Fourteenth Amendment's recent enforcement of national citizenship (Goldberg, 2007: 34). Moreover, the Social Security Act limited the access of African Americans to retirement insurance benefits – insomuch that their 'reliance upon contributory, earnings-related policies' magnified the job and wage discrimination to which members of this demographic group are still disproportionately subject (Brown, 1999: 14) – and unemployment compensation – to the extent that policy consultants like labour historian John Commons regarded wage earners, chiefly white and comprising the 'enlightened and patriotic citizenship', as meriting protection, while agricultural and domestic workers, predominantly minorities 'willing to accept little pay' and thus 'glutt[ing] the market', did not (Poole, 2006: 77). Indeed, the racial stratification that was institutionalised in the 'long history' of the American welfare state 'reproduced and deepened already existing social inequalities' (Ward, 2009: 99).

Narratives of the 'underclass' and policy outcomes in the 'pre-welfare reform' era (1980–1996)

Though recognised as instrumental in the heralding of the PRWORA in 1996, the narrative of the 'underclass' derives its origins from a decades-old tradition of scholarship that observes and diagnoses so-called 'cultures of poverty'. In particular, two texts released to much professional and political notice in the 1950s and 1960s – Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty by anthropologist Oscar Lewis and The Negro Family: The Case for National Action by sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan – prove foundational. In one of its earliest articulations, the social theory conceives of poverty as 'a way of life [that] is passed down from generation to generation', evincing 'remarkable similarities in family structure, interpersonal relations, time orientation, value systems, and spending patterns' (Lewis, 1966: xliii). Such behavioural understandings of the causes of poverty, especially deficiencies in a range of 'qualities and capacities' that include 'hope, dignity … confidence, motivation, [and] community', are notably manifest in the policy framing of the Economic Opportunity Act, the cornerstone of the War on Poverty that President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1964 (Guetzkow, 2010: 182). While more contemporary works systematically refute basic claims that the individual and neighbourhood are ideal units of analysis (Allard and Small, 2013), that the poor adhere to distinct value systems (Jones and Luo, 1999), and that discourses about them are impervious to racialisation (Souza, 2000), it is in keeping with this academic heritage that, according to urban historian Michael Katz (2012), the narrative of the 'underclass' perniciously 'displace[s] responsibility for poverty from politics, economics, and racism onto individuals' (p. 153).

The narrative of the 'underclass' appears most threatening as a function of its sustained currency in the face of directly opposing social scientific evidence. Receiving its first scholarly formulation in The Challenge to Affluence, a 1963 book by economist Gunnar Myrdal, the 'underclass' designates a portion of the American lower class purportedly comprising the 'unemployed, unemployables, and underemployed' who are 'more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large' (p. 10). Like this initial text, a later but more commonly cited account by sociologist William Julius Wilson – The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy – features structural explanations of poverty like economic restructuring (e.g. deindustrialisation, suburbanisation, and the rise of the low-wage service sector) and racial discrimination (e.g. redlining, blockbusting, and other practises of residential segregation), thus already betraying the concept's henceforth durable association with African Americans. Nevertheless, the period in which Wilson published his work also witnessed a shift toward behavioural interpretations of the term, including those of Moore et al. (1973), Auletta (1982), and Magnet (1987), with this latter identifying among its attributes 'chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, [joblessness], welfare dependency, and school failure' (Gans, 1996: 139). Criticisms of this strain, especially its proven inaccuracies, racist conjectures, and policy implications, are plentiful (Gans, 1995; Jencks and Peterson, 2001; Katz, 1993; Katz, 1997; Massey and Denton, 1994; Morris, 1996; Silver, 1996; Wacquant, 2008); however, one of the most persuasive rejections of the 'underclass' proves strikingly concise, for if its characteristic behaviours are observable 'across lines of class, race, and opportunity', they cannot be 'particularly implicated in producing poverty' (Reed, 1999: 195–96).

In the social construction of the 'welfare queen' is evident a principal conduit through which the narrative of the 'underclass' was entrenched during the 1980s and 1990s. A wealth of more recent literature appropriately finds its analytical purpose in the repudiation of this fraudulent identity and damaging rhetoric (Hancock, 2004; Handler, 1995; Hays, 2004; Jordan-Zachery, 2009; Mink, 1999; Reese, 2005; Solinger, 2002). The dedication of so many studies to the topic proves neither unanticipated nor extraordinary given the eminent position of contempt that the representation – a woman 'increasingly isolated from mainstream society' by virtue of her non-employment (McLanahan and Garfinkel, 1989: 97) – occupied in the media on the one hand (Gilens, 1996) and policymaking on the other (Spitzer, 2012). With regard to the first arena, a content analysis of 107 television news stories between 1993 and 1996 reveals that the typical participant in federal welfare and public assistance programmes is believed to be female (74.6 percent), the head of a single-parent family (55.7 percent), African American (49.2 percent), and personally at fault for her status of poverty (36.7 percent) (Luther et al., 2005: 20–21). As for the second, another content analysis of 81 transcripts from the 1996 Congressional floor debates confirms that the political understanding of the 'welfare queen' – conditioned by 'the intersection of race, class, and gender stereotypes [as well as] moral judgments' – is one of a 'culture of poverty' (frequency of 54), single-parent families (frequency of 37), joblessness (frequency of 30), and illegitimacy (frequency of 28) (Hancock, 2003: 44–45). These prevailing structures of discourse 'valorise two-parent families and stigmatise one-parent ones', relegating the latter to an 'inferior' station 'not deserving of social … support' (Schram, 1993: 257).

As a pervasive manifestation of the narrative of the 'underclass', the popular image of the 'welfare queen' authorised conservative policy outcomes during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. In the former, two statutes were central: the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (OBRA), which lowered income eligibility for AFDC and – to the extent that it eliminated mostly employed families from the rolls – paradoxically reduced work incentives (Moffitt and Wolf, 1987), and the Family Support Act of 1988 (FSA), which introduced a new, more severe welfare-to-work – or 'workfare' – programme that would encourage labour market activation by requiring recipients of AFDC to pursue sponsored education, training, and employment services (Hagen and Lurie, 1993). Although the OBRA promised financial 'independence' for millions of 'poverty-by-choice' women who were purportedly attracted to the 'generosity' of welfare and public assistance programmes in the 1960s and 1970s, it instead displayed both economic irrationality and punitive regulation as part-time jobs, low wages, and the costs of childcare – if and when secured – resulted in a net loss of income but still presented sufficient grounds for disqualification (Rose, 1993: 334). Similarly, because the FSA achieved bipartisan consensus on the basis of a 'widely shared' conviction that 'welfare mothers should work' and a fiscally motivated interest in producing 'some impact [but] at little cost', evaluation research for 'workfare' programmes considered exclusively those effects relating to employment and welfare use, allowing questions about racial and gender inequality to 'remain unasked … and less influential in political debate' (Oliker, 1994: 208).

The PRWORA was undoubtedly the chief piece of legislation to concern poverty during the Clinton presidency. Its policy revisions, deemed 'monumental changes to the … system in the United States', consisted of (i) the termination of welfare and public assistance programmes (i.e. AFDC) as being guaranteed and entitlement-based, (ii) the designation of the successor to AFDC (i.e. TANF) as a block grant programme that devolves responsibility – inclusive of design and administration – to the states, (iii) the mandate that recipients of TANF transition into employment no later than two years after first obtaining benefits, and (iv) the placement of a lifetime limit of five years on benefits (Monnat and Bunyan, 2008: 117). Aside from these procedural adjustments to federal efforts of poverty alleviation, the enactment of welfare reform also signalled a shift in their objectives, for the opening paragraph of the PRWORA – in keeping with the normative view that marriage is 'an essential institution of a successful society' (Reese, 2005: 190) – promotes the expansion of two-parent households, while its statement of eligibility now necessitates the identification of children's biological fathers and the continued academic enrolment of unmarried recipients below the age of 18 (Seccombe et al., 1998). Still more disturbing, however, are the gendered and racialised assumptions on which these additional requirements are founded, as well as their unrelenting 'focus on [the] behaviour and morality' embedded within the tropes of the 'welfare queen' and the 'underclass' (Nadasen, 2007: 71).

Narratives of the 'entrepreneurial poor' and policy outcomes in the 'post-welfare reform' era (1996–present)

Despite its salient connections to policy outcomes since the adoption of the PRWORA, the narrative of the 'entrepreneurial poor' traces its origins to the deployment and redefinition of 'neoliberal' ideology in the 1970s and 1980s. The purview of 'neoliberalism' – like the multiplicity of academic treatments that it invites – is admittedly enormous, complex, and disputed (Braedley and Luxton, 2010; Leitner et al., 2007; Saad-Filho and Johnston, 2005). Nonetheless, consensus seems viable with respect to the evolution of the idea, namely, from its early association with the 'moderate' economic philosophy of the German Freiburg School in the interwar period to its related use by Chilean pro-market intellectuals seeking to effectuate rapid growth in their own country and finally to its broad diffusion into English-language scholarship as a 'negative' term recalling the most 'radical' and 'fundamentalist' aspects of dictator Augusto Pinochet's financial reforms (Boas and Gans-Morse, 2009: 145, 150). The meaning and usage of 'neoliberalism', which philosopher Noam Chomsky (1999) and geographer David Harvey (2007) jointly define as involving the processes of liberalisation, privatisation, and minimal state intervention, likewise prove curiously exempt from debate, for the literature employs it in reference to 'a variety of concepts whose unifying characteristic is the free market' (Boas and Gans-Morse, 2009: 154). From this political-economic context emerges the narrative of the 'entrepreneurial poor' that, again in the words of urban historian Michael Katz (2012), shrewdly portrays its subjects as 'rational actors' who need only an 'optimistic, can-do attitude … [and] a little help to act in their own self-interest' (p. 154).

The narrative of the 'entrepreneurial poor' appears both alarming and insidious on the basis of its commitment to behaviour modification. As political scientists Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram (2011) demonstrate, neither the proliferation of such a model nor its personal attribution of responsibility is surprising given the contemporary ascendance of 'neoliberalism':

Matters of shared consequence, once addressed through public decisions about how to organise collective life, are recast as [private] problems to be solved through rational individual choices … The competent and self-reliant market actor – working, investing, choosing, and assessing returns – is made synonymous with the good citizen (p. 22).

Enabling primarily low-income families to 'formulate and achieve life goals' in a fashion that also 'contribute[s] to the economy and society' (2014, para. 1), the Centre for Social Development at Washington University in St Louis is the foremost catalyst in advancing policy research on behalf of the 'entrepreneurial poor', boasting a portfolio of tactics like saving, asset-building, and securing 'individual development accounts' (Schreiner and Sherraden, 2011). Although this approach – insomuch that it regards poverty as a structural issue of 'failed markets' that must be 'put to work for the benefit of the poor' – seems distinct from narratives of the 'underclass' (Katz, 2013b: 241), it remains markedly consistent with the behavioural monitoring that academics have recurrently observed in the administration of welfare and public assistance programmes (Piven and Cloward, 1971; Schram, 2008). Consequently, economic approaches that target and define the 'entrepreneurial poor' may themselves operate as forms of 'social control' (Schram, 2002: 81).

In the institutionalisation of 'self-help' survival strategies is evident a key channel through which the narrative of the 'entrepreneurial poor' has been subtly reinforced since the 1996 changes to federal welfare and public assistance programmes. Exhibiting criticality, reflexivity, and ethnographic methods, an abundance of anthropological and sociological texts attend to the predominant traits of recent developments in social policy, including the 'neoliberal common sense' that undergirds them (Hyatt, 2001; Maskovsky, 2001; Ridzi, 2009), the 'technologies of self-governance' that function to limit the demand for state action (Collins and Mayer, 2010; Korteweg, 2003; Morgen and Maskovsky, 2003), the 'false promise' of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation (Ehlers and Main, 1998; Goldstein, 2001; Stoesz and Saunders, 1999), and the expansion of 'community-based organisations' as proxies in the delivery of supportive services (Kiven, 2007; Marwell, 2004). These decentralised, regulatory, and emphatically independent systems result in the continued reduction of social problems to 'issues of individual pathologies', the transformation of entitled 'citizens' into empowered 'consumers' who increasingly call upon private or semi-private sources to satisfy their basic needs, and the alteration of citizen-state relationships such that 'possibilities for collective mobilisation' are diminished (Lyon-Callo and Hyatt, 2003: 184). While the repercussions of 'self-help' as a normalised practise seem grave, the 'post-industrial ethic' that has sanctioned it – 'a society of individual entrepreneurs' in which the obligation to embody 'self-discipline' is heightened and 'the [inability] to do so is seen as an even greater failing than previously' – proves still more pervasive and disturbing (Schram, 2000: 67).

Returning to one of the above listed properties of 'post-welfare reform' policy outcomes, market-based efforts to lower the incidence of poverty are especially problematic as they accomplish less than they imply. Despite the lofty aspiration that these 'innovations' will render economic conditions more 'inclusive' (Mendoza and Thelen, 2008), their underlying ascription of entrepreneurial outlooks and consumerist behaviours to the poor – a startlingly uniform and frankly naïve premise – coheres with the present 'neoliberal' regime and the accompanying hypothesis that the American welfare state is undergoing a transition away from a model of 'social insurance' toward one of 'capital investment' (Quadagno, 1999). Approaches like 'microenterprise' (i.e. individual lending with the intention of creating small businesses), 'individual development accounts' (i.e. subsidised savings accounts with matching incentives), 'social enterprise' (i.e. work integration that offers wages and training alongside social supports), and 'bottom-of-the-pyramid schemes' (i.e. corporate activities, especially investments, focusing on the lowest-income sectors) – albeit manifesting an extreme profitability in terms of the 'potentially massive reservoir of untapped buying power' that they aim to reach (Cooney and Williams Shanks, 2010: 44) – presuppose the supremacy of labour market activation as a means 'out of poverty' regardless of individual circumstance (Stoesz and Saunders, 1999). Of additional and perhaps more acute concern, however, is the utility of market-based strategies, a basic criterion of success that Ehlers and Main (1998) find wanting given the tendency of microenterprise, for example, to 'exacerbate' women's marginalised financial status and prevent them from 'legitimat[ing] themselves as businesswomen in the future' (p. 426).

Among the same 'post-welfare reform' policy outcomes, the rise of 'community-based organisations' is particularly subject to reproach on the grounds of performing a politically exculpatory role. Understood as being largely not-for-profit (Minow, 1999), such organisations constitute an entire industry in the United States with at least 1.6 million currently in operation and $1.7 trillion in annual revenue as of 2007 (Salamon, 2012). The rationale for their establishment as well as their enlargement appears compelling: multiple studies reveal that the 'workfare' requirement imposed by the PRWORA – even if it decreased the number of families on the rolls – fails to alleviate poverty in either the short or long term, for labour market activation is not a suitable remedy in areas with chronically low median incomes (Couto, 2003) or in periods of economic recession (Ellwood, 2000) and the employment that TANF recipients obtain is most often low-wage (Corcoran et al., 2000) and ineligible for benefits (Collins, 2007). Nevertheless, several risks of procedure and purpose are implicit in 'community-based organisations'. Employment placement services are observed to vary in their effectiveness depending upon the competence of the provider (Marwell, 2004) and to direct participants toward industries that reproduce 'unfavourable occupational attributes' (Hasenfeld, 1975: 569), while staff members are inclined to conceive of poverty as 'a static physical reality' (Sanyal, 2004: 27) since their sustained livelihood necessitates its maintenance (Funiciello, 1994: 95). Although they do generate social capital by way of both 'bridging' and 'bonding' (Lockhart, 2005), this form of social capital ultimately allows for 'coping' on an individual scale rather than 'leverage' on the political stage (Henly et al., 2005); indeed, it extends 'self-help' for the 'entrepreneurial' in place of an equitable, comprehensive welfare state for all.


Buoyed by the publication and subsequent popularity of books with such incendiary titles as Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 by Charles Murray and Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship by Lawrence Mead, Republican members of the House of Representatives under President Clinton were able to devise a welfare reform agenda centring on illegitimacy, dependency, and – of course – employment, the 'antidote' to those and other behaviours deemed politically inappropriate on the one hand and socially injurious on the other (Haskins, 2006: 10). Not to remain blameless, prominent Democrats in the academy and in policymaking simultaneously advanced a unified claim that welfare reform, if 'conditioned on [personal responsibility] … and associated with work', would alter mass opinion regarding poverty and 'deservingness', render the public more willing to invest in welfare and public assistance programmes, and in due course prove electorally advantageous for their own Party (Soss and Schram, 2007: 114–15). Yet, despite the fact that welfare reform as instituted by the PRWORA has since been considered a monumental triumph of social policy, it has not engendered 'more positive images of [the poor], welfare recipients, or welfare itself' (Soss and Schram, 2007: 120), nor has it relied upon a frame of reference that actually demonstrates the achievement of self-sufficiency among participants, instead narrowly interpreting the size of the rolls as 'a key indicator of policy performance' and the employment outcomes of those transitioning off the rolls as 'a central policy goal' (Schram and Soss, 2001: 62).

It is in relation to the era of American welfare reform that Michael Katz (2010) regretfully concedes the following: 'scholars on the political left have written persuasive histories of government failure in … urban policy', but none of them has produced 'a comprehensive and coherent counter-narrative' to the right's assertion that the scope and influence of government must be reduced accordingly (p. 489). Having reviewed major social scientific works that attend to the policy dimensions of the American welfare state, this article elaborates upon two of those narratives that buttressed the promotion of a more conservative posture to contemporary social policy in the United States. The first, which conceived of poverty as the purportedly intractable result of moral failing and cultural propagation within the 'underclass', pejoratively ascribed the notion of 'entitlement' to welfare recipients with confirmation derived from the social construction of the 'welfare queen'. The second, which imagined poverty as an apparently reversible condition demanding toil and perseverance on the part of the 'entrepreneurial poor', naïvely attributed the quality of 'empowerment' to individuals pursuing 'self-help' survival strategies. Each of these narratives legitimated a specific set of policy outcomes, whether the curtailment of federal welfare and public assistance programmes writ large or the notable emergence of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation, accompanied by its own shortcomings and risks. Looking forward, it proves yet uncertain whether the federal Promise Zones initiative – announced by President Barack Obama in January 2014 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty – and especially its commitment to 'redouble [the government's] efforts to make sure [the] economy works for every … American' will perpetuate those values of decentralisation, regulation, and independence that typify the narrative of the 'entrepreneurial poor' or instead mark a significant advance toward a future of greater interventionism and universalism for welfare in the United States (The White House, 2014: para. 2).


I would like to thank Professor Adolph Reed, Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania for his invaluable recommendations, guidance, and encouragement during the research and writing of this article. Likewise, I would like to recognise the editorial team at Reinvention, as well as the two anonymous reviewers whom its members contacted and involved, for their detailed advice, patience, and support during the revision process. Finally, I would like to celebrate the prolific writing and influential thought of Professor Michael Katz of the University of Pennsylvania (1939–2014). As he notes with characteristic reflexivity and acumen in a recent essay, 'there is [presently] some hope that the invisibility of poverty as a public issue … may be on the cusp of change' (Katz, 2013a: para. 22).


[1] Kristin Zuhone graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Political Science. A loyal resident of Philadelphia, she currently works in higher education and intends to pursue a master's degree in Liberal Arts on a part-time basis beginning in January 2015. Long-term, she aspires to a doctorate in Social Policy, Political Science, or Sociology and a fruitful career that integrates research, teaching, and praxis.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Zuhone, K. (2014), '"From Entitlement to Empowerment": How Narratives of Poverty Legitimated Policy Outcomes in the Era of American Welfare Reform', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 7, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

This article has been reprinted in Volume 8 of The Dialectics: Journal of Law, Leadership, and Society, published by the Pennsylvania State University.