Context laden policy, incoherent governance, and the welfare stateFebruary 4, 2011
When evaluating the success, failure, or complicated consequences of a particular social welfare policy, can we understand it outside of broader social contexts and already existing policy infrastructures and institutional arrangements? Rather than seeing any particular program as standing alone, would it be better to approach the apparatus of the state as a bricolage of negotiated settlements and uneasy institutional operations contextualized and given meaning by ongoing (though contested) relationships of class domination, patriarchy and white supremacy (among other systems of oppression)? Through considering a range of policies within the broadly defined welfare state, it is clear that we can neither evaluate the implementation or the consequences of a particular policy without considering closely its social, political, historical and cultural contexts. In various moments, the politics of neoliberalism, the precepts of eugenics, and the rigid structure of Jim Crow all provide striking clarity to how policies are implemented and what their consequences are. These ideologies and infrastructures also carry the weight of historically antecedent power-relations into new eras and contexts leaving us with a tangled web of meanings and hierarchies that are important to understand if we are to appraise the meaning of any particular reform.
Through a discussion of the possibility of fundamental reform to the educational system in the wake of the election of Barack Obama, Henry Giroux (2009) evaluates the meaning or what it means to be “post-partisan” in a highly partisan environment. He considers the extent to which a politics of neutrality and consensus either masks or quietly consents to the continuing neoliberal takeover of public primary and secondary education. Taylor-Clark and colleagues (2007) consider a perplexing double motion of public opinion — as awareness of racial healthcare disparities increased support for federal intervention into reducing disparities declined. They consider the role that the density of news coverage and the relative presence of different types of causal frames for healthcare disparities played in guiding public opinion in particular directions. Alexandra Stern (2005) examines the continuities between policies of forced sterilization informed by eugenics in the early 20th century, continued coerced sterilizations in the 1960s and 1970s, and policy today. She argues that the logics, discourses and practices of eugenics became institutionalized in California in key ways, and shed light on much of the anti-immigrant vitriol we see today. Ira Katznelson (2005) provides a detailed analysis of the processes by which the G.I. Bill exacerbated educational and class disparities between black and white communities. While providing extensive access to higher education, home ownership and numerous other benefits to millions of white veterans (and a not insignificant amount of Black veterans), the political process that guided the bill’s crafting and implementation ensured that it’s benefits would map onto existing hierarchies by enabling decentralized Jim Crow application.
Obama’s education agenda, indicated by his selection of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan (and Duncan’s title of CEO rather than superintendent) and his competitive block grant program “Race to the Top” can’t be understood outside the context of the increasing privatization of the welfare state informed by a neoliberal ideology.(Giroux 2009) While Obama insists that he will pursue ‘what works’ in education reform, and he proceeds by insisting on a politics of consensus, these postures by default surrender to the hegemony of high-stakes testing, zero-tolerance discipline and market driven performance metrics. Giroux rightly points out the disastrous consequences this regime has had for Chicago, but fails to recognize the ways in which this ‘new’ configuration, itself an agenda dating back to the 1980s, maps on top of an already existing system that has promoted deep disparities and provides institutional support for white supremacy. Beyond recognizing the context of the current political climate, one dominated by unabashed praise of the virtue of the market, it is important to see that these reforms come into being within a context of a vastly unequal system and inherit the legacy of segregationist infrastructure. These new reforms however insist on their novelty and refuse to address the inequities and injustices of past systems, thus grafting the mantras of privatization and testing onto the already existing failure to defeat educational segregation, resulting in an incoherent and wildly unjust educational system.
The news media play an important role in legitimating reforms and shifting the interplay of discourses that provide meaning to any particular policy. We can understand journalism as mediating the relationship between policy and broader social context (though it alone does not fill this role). (Hall et al. 1978) Taylor-Clark and her colleagues argue that the news media often provide frames within stories that suggest causal mechanisms for certain social problems, as well as indicating what individual, group, or institution is best equipped to address or solve this social problem. In their content analysis of journalistic coverage of healthcare disparities, they find that about 50% of news articles individualize the causal process of health disparities, in effect blaming the victim. This process of individualizing social problems fits well within neoliberal frameworks of healthcare as a consumptive process, and helps us to understand one way that the discursive contexts enabling certain kinds of policies are formed.
While the G.I. Bill is remembered fondly by many scholars and politicians as creating the political infrastructure and direct investment necessary to create the American middle class, Katznelson reminds us that was developed and implemented within a context saturated with overt white supremacy, and as such the benefits of the bill were as segregated as the suburban communities it helped to spawn. The G.I. Bill should perhaps be considered the most significant of the New Deal programs, and Katznelson’s historical analysis gives us a different lens with which to read the apex of the American welfare state. He demonstrates that the process of the bill’s formation and implementation was guided by an impulse to reinforce segregationist institutional practice and ensure the continued economic subordination of Black people. Mapped onto already existing racial disparities, the G.I. Bill’s massive infusion of resources catapulted white families ahead of the vast majority of Black families. The G.I. Bill can be understood as a means of securing white supremacy and ensuring Black subordination, providing an image of New Deal generosity grafted onto the infrastructure of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy.
Alexandra Stern reminds us that some welfare state policies have been far more overt in their attacks on communities of color. She argues that it is necessary to dig deep into the history of eugenics and forced sterilization to understand the context for anti-immigrant movements and the problems of medical ethics today. Eugenics and the practice of forced sterilization were themselves given context and legitimacy through the rise of Progressive era discourses about the scientific management of society and the ability of the state to improve the condition of the population. (Foucault 2003) The practice of routinely sterilizing women of color admitted to state institutions as ‘invalids’, ‘feebleminded’, or any other of a range of ‘dysgenic’ conditions gave way to the Malthusian framework of overpopulation and the coded racism of discourses of welfare dependency. Today’s anti-immigrant movements deploy the same rhetoric of containment, disease and public health. The practice of managing and containing populations have been grafted on the institutional frameworks and ideological discourse built by eugenicists.
Though we see new developments in each era, the skeleton of old systems is clearly visible. We have to understand particular developments of welfare state policy as being bound within current institutional and cultural contexts, but also as being laden with the weight of past policy and power structures.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. 1st ed. New York: Picador.
Giroux, H. A. 2009. “Obamaʼs Dilemma: Postpartisan Politics and the Crisis of American Education.” Harvard Educational Review 79:250–266.
Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.
Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Stern, Alexandra Minna. 2005. “Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California.” American Journal of Public Health 95:1128.
Taylor-Clark, Kalahn Alexandra, Felicia E Mebane, Gillian K Steelfisher, and Robert J Blendon. 2007. “News of disparity: content analysis of news coverage of African American healthcare inequalities in the USA, 1994-2004.” Social Science & Medicine (1982) 65:405-417.