Redefining compassion to reform welfare: How supporters of 1990s US federal welfare reform aimed for the moral high ground

Robin Stryker, Pamela Wald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

21 Scopus citations

Abstract

We use historical and content/discourse analyses to examine how the abstract, general value of compassion shaped debate over the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), ending entitlement to need-based public assistance in the United States. We find that a taken-for-granted compassionate American identity institutionalized as a social safety net helped constrain debate over ending entitlement, even as women's labor force participation and neo-liberal discourses were rising. But in the mid-1990s, Republican supporters of radical reform converted constraint into opportunity, redefining compassion to make it a positive resource for ending entitlement. Compassion so redefined conjoined with perversity rhetoric and negative attributions about welfare recipients to construct a moral map and logically coherent symbolic package promoting entitlement's end. "Conservative" US welfare reform, like "liberal" US affirmative action, is a case of policy and institutional change promoted through value redefinition. Multiple perspectives on the role of ideas, including background and foreground, and instrumental and constitutive, combine to explain why Republican leaders perceived the need to redefine compassion, and to account for the content and pattern of frames invoking compassion by Democrats and Republicans in Congressional debates over the PRWORA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-557
Number of pages39
JournalSocial Politics
Volume16
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Redefining compassion to reform welfare: How supporters of 1990s US federal welfare reform aimed for the moral high ground'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this