Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?


Schneider and Ingram’s work on Social Construction and Policy Design identifies the populations deemed by policymakers to deserve the benefits or punishments of government policy.

The most concerted attempt to use this theoretical framework empirically is in Schneider and Ingram’s (2005b) edited book Deserving and Entitled, which focuses primarily on the social construction of particular target populations and its largely degenerative effect on US policy design (introduction here).

In this post, I summarise their insights in about 3000 words, splitting their five parts into seven main insights (that way, I can provide a far shorter summary in a journal article, and refer to this page for more discussion).

Insight 1: Policy designs that we take for granted now were built on social constructions of selective deservingness in the (often very distant) past, with key choices setting a precedent for policy design expansion.

Selective group entitlement to state benefits can be traced to the rules created in 1818, initially for very specific ‘veterans of the American Revolution’, providing benefits if they were: men who had travelled extensively to fight for at least nine months and were now ‘poor or unable to work’ (Jensen, 2005: 37). This excluded women, people who were otherwise poor, and veteran militia who fought locally. Officers were paid $20 per month but soldiers $8 (2005: 57). By 1832, pension entitlement extended to all who served for two years, and in 1836 it was expanded to their dependents if they died from war injuries. In 1871, Congress approved a non-means tested pension for those who served in the War of 1812 (and their widows) if they had demonstrated their patriotism by remaining ‘loyal to the United Stated during the Civil War’ and swearing an ‘oath to support the Constitution’, which excluded ‘aged southerners’ (2005: 58). Each expansion encouraged veteran participation: sending a signal about the entitlements that they would receive, or could campaign for if they didn’t.

Selective group exclusion from the ‘universal’ electoral franchise can be traced to a similar time, when many politicians equated popular participation with ‘mob rule’ and sought to limit inclusion. Schriner (2005: 66-7; 73; 76) identifies attempts to exclude ‘idiots’ and the ‘insane’ as the ‘antithesis of the democratic citizen’. For many politicians, they lacked the ‘intellectual competence necessary for political participation’ and/or were mistrusted by the politicians who equated incompetence with deviance, ‘moral degeneracy, dependency, and crime’ (2005: 76). These exclusions only came under serious challenge when social reformers had some success in shifting wider social constructions on mental capacity, highlighting the cruelty of asylums and challenging the link between intellectual incompetence and moral deviance (2005: 76).

Insight 2: Successful challenges to the social construction of target populations are possible but seem exceptional (and, can be at the expense of other minority groups).

Dialto (2005: 81) suggests that the image of Japanese-Americans shifted profoundly between 1941-61, from the hostility and fear of immigrant aliens underpinning WW2 relocation and interment (preceded by late 19th and early 20th century legal rulings which excluded naturalisation and the ability to buy land) to the tag of ‘model minority’ and good citizen. Strategies to change this image did not challenge discrimination directly: finding legal loopholes on land ownership through American-born children; internalising ‘their negative social construction’ and focusing on earning US citizenship (both before WW2); and, crucially, forming a Japanese-American US Army unit which earned war hero status (2005: 90-8). These efforts were reinforced by shifting contexts: internally, Japanese Americans were seen as less of an economic threat (internment left them ‘economically devastated’), and externally, Japan shifted from a threat to a common force against communism and new source of trade (2005: 98).

Court cases in the 1950s helped shift the rules of naturalisation and land ownership. Media coverage in the 1960s used positive portrayals of Japanese Americans, as working hard to overcome hardship, to contrast them with negative portrayals of others and ‘keep other minorities, such as blacks and Chicanos, in their place’ (2005: 99). The US President effectively apologised for internment in 1976, and Congress approved one-off compensation for internment survivors in 1988, and key federal court cases in the late 1980s challenged the War Department’s basis for discriminatory behaviour and convictions (2005: 100). Still, the ‘model minority’ tag has profound drawbacks, in which Japanese Americans perceive the need to live up to a stereotype to gain acceptance, while still facing social discrimination and violence (2005: 100). In other words, the shifting social construction of a social group does not necessarily indicate its growing power.

Insight 3: Advocates have used national policymaking institutions as a source of major change in policy design, but often with limited effects on delivery and/ or profound unintended consequences.

Although often contributing to degenerative policy design, Congress has proved a key organisation to challenging negative social constructions based on race. However, advocates of housing reform to reduce desegregation addressed major opposition (including public, congressional, and business) by assigning deserving/ undeserving status within racial minorities. The narrative underpinning legislative change on fair housing in 1968 was that only some black people deserved to benefit from policy: advocates told individual stories of the black middle class rejecting the life of the black rioter, who ‘deserved to escape the ghettos’, which helped create a race-based underclass (Sidney, 2005: 114-5). Further, this strategy secured very limited policy and social change, partly because few black people could afford the market price of homes in white areas (2005: 118). As predicted by Schneider and Ingram, the ‘benefits to weak groups’ are ‘undersubscribed and conferred at levels insufficient to change behaviour to an extent that it would remediate the problem’ (2005: 119). Policy changes in the late 70s and 80s were based on a ‘diluted’ message on race, focusing for example on the negative role of financial institutions, wider sources (such as class and age) of potential discrimination in housing, or on specific regions (not populations) that might benefit from community investment: the long term benefits of policy to reduce racial desegregation ‘remain fragile and open to dilution or contestation’ (2005: 137).

Congress also acted positively on immigration in 1965, making it ‘no longer acceptable’ for policies to ‘single out groups for exclusion on the base of race or national origin’. In 1986, it gave amnesty to illegal immigrants working in the US for five years, and punished employers not individuals for illegal immigration (Netwon, 2005: 139; 143). Yet, there remain fluctuations in social constructions of which target populations are willing and able to assimilate to achieve legitimate American citizenship, measured according to: legal citizenship, positive values regarding ‘hard work and self sufficiency’, and negative connotations of foreigners committing crimes, procreating excessively, claiming welfare and, during times of economic uncertainty, taking ‘scarce jobs from Americans’ (2005: 139-40; 142).

These negative constructions informed legislation from 1996 which increased southern border patrol staff, equipment, barriers, and detention facilities, made it easier to deport, raised the bar for employers to demonstrate continuously and adequately paid jobs, and reduced entitlement to social security, housing, and higher education subsidies to ‘remove the lure of public benefits’ for ‘problem’ immigrants (2005: 145-6; 151). In congressional debate, ways to define ‘unworthy’ immigrants related to arguments such as: they are freeloaders not paying taxes, but their children get access to free schools; if they break the law to get here, they’ll break the law while here; immigrants are causing a ‘lawless border’ that local law enforcement can’t control; and, an ineffective federal government is hindering border enforcement and blaming employers rather than the criminals (2005: 151-7). Further, rather than challenging such positions with positive counter narratives, opponents used a ‘cure worse than disease’ argument which pointed to the major unintended consequences of policy (for example, removing school entitlement will worsen crime) (2005: 163). Overall, congressional debates signal ‘who matters’ and which people (primarily Mexican) are the ‘wrong kinds of immigrants’ (2005: 166).

Insight 4: public and non-governmental bodies have some discretion to make policy when they deliver. The evidence is mixed on the extent to which those actors use that chance to reframe target populations more positively.

The social and welfare organisations funded to help target populations are often the bodies identifying many as undeserving. For example, Jurik and Cowgill (2005: 173) describe the difference between a potentially positive rationale and negative experience of ‘microenterprise development programs’. MDPs are often initially designed to reduce poverty by helping low-income people of colour with ‘business loans and training’, avoid the stigmatising and unintended consequences of ‘welfare schemes’, and providing programmes to encourage ‘women’s entrepreneurship’ and challenge male conceptions of business strategy and success (2005: 175). However, as philanthropic funding reduces and bodies become more reliant on government and other highly-conditional funding, MDP bodies feel they must demonstrate high performance and distinguish their work from ‘welfare programmes’, and staff become more risk averse to reduce financial losses (2005: 185). They make value judgements based on ‘white, middle-class, male centred standards of business’ to ‘evaluate client worthiness and attempt to resocialize them as well as shape access to further services’ (2005: 174). Worthiness is linked to likely success, and bodies engage in ‘creaming’ (focusing on the easiest, cheapest cases), use implicit moral assessments of character to identify a good attitude and reject ‘entitlement seekers’ and ‘dreamers’, with assessments often ‘class-laden, gendered, and racialized’ (2005: 177; 183). Consequently, people with the lowest incomes and levels of education are less likely to receive significant loans, and most likely to continue to be viewed as ‘helpless deviants … scorned by policymakers’ when they fail to “’lift’ themselves out of poverty” (2005: 196).

Camou (2005: 197-8) identifies a more positive story based on an unusual mix, in small ‘neighborhood organizations’ (non-profit, advocacy, and resident organizations), of constructing often-marginalised groups positively but to ‘resocialize them into an acceptable way of life’ containing the “‘correct’ ‘norms and values”. Most of the studied programs combine a focus on the ‘deficits’ of target populations (such as drug addiction, and low employability and education) and belief that they can’t ‘take control of their lives without interventions’ with the hope that they ‘can reject street values in favour of mainstream ones, including employment, nonviolence, family cohesion, delayed gratification, and respect for property’ (2005: 203). They combine direct interventions, such as programs to enhance employability, with indirect strategies based on some individuals leading by example and encouraging new rules (2005: 204-5). There is minimal emphasis on welfare and structural/ environmental factors such as housing supply, or on challenging a small number of deviants ruining the neighbourhood while helping the upwardly mobile or middle class population (2005: 206-13). Programs ‘tend not to “cream”’, particularly when staff live or recently lived in the same area: their focus is on challenging highly visible and vivid examples of ‘street values’ rather than encouraging the less visible and already positive behaviour (2005: 213-5). Camou (2005: 215) identifies a commitment to a form of ‘tough love’ that ‘would assume a different connotation if pursued by outsiders’; it might punish ‘deviants’ but it also ‘rewards the successful’ users of programs designed to help disadvantaged target populations.

Insight 5: only a small proportion of the many potentially demonised groups receive sustained negative policymaker attention, aided by the ‘moral entrepreneurs’, policy analysts, and ‘policy champions’ who translate specific social constructions into policy design.

Policymakers, the media, and public can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues that could be described as policy problems. So, sustained public anxiety and political attention to a target population requires three conditions (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier, 2005: 224). First, a group is already perceived negatively by many, perhaps with the additional sense that their behaviour is ‘out of control’. Second, a ‘moral entrepreneur’ draws attention to the group successfully: the public, or powerful sections or institutions within it, perceive the entrepreneur as an expert on the social value and group’s deviance; and, those powerful actors perceive a threat that extends from the deviant group to ‘the rest of society’ (2005: 225-7). Moral entrepreneurs use ‘typification’, using the behaviour visible in certain individuals to represent behaviour of a larger group, to identify a ‘dangerous class’ that can be blamed for many more social problems than linked to initial behaviour (2005: 227). Third, there must be ‘sufficient political profit’ to entice a ‘policy champion’ to set the agenda and pursue policy change (2005: 227).

For example, moral entrepreneurs such as Jacob Riis turned broad and widespread suspicion of Chinese immigrants, in the mid to late 19th century, into a specific concern about the spillover effects of their opium smoking: opium addiction spreading to the white population, with the danger of Chinese men using ‘cruel cunning’ to encourage young female ‘promiscuity’ in ‘opium dens’ (2005: 230). Policy champions, such as State Department Secretary Root, proposed legislation to prohibit the import of opium for smoking, thus restricting its effect largely to the Chinese population without prompting opposition from, for example, doctors using opiates for therapeutic purposes (2005: 233).

By the 1980s, a rapid increase in public fear of crime became linked closely to racially-charged fears of social change (2005: 235). Moral entrepreneurs such as James Q Wilson encouraged then used such concerns to generate support for a major shift in policy rationale, from a focus on the structural causes of crime (such as poverty), to a focus on individual responsibility or out of control gangs. Policy champions such as President Reagan and Representative Dan Lundgren pursued legislation (the Comprehensive Crime Act 1984) on the back of ‘organised crime’, ‘the drug racketeers who are poisoning our young people’, and testimony of victims (2005: 239). The effect of such policies is to identify approximately five million people as members of a ‘dangerous class’ (2005: 242).

Insight 6: well-intentioned but problematic social constructions produce unintended consequences if policy designs fail to address major socio-economic inequalities.

Bensonsmith (2005: 244-5) describes the ‘War on Poverty’ programs fostered by President Johnson from 1965, describing key actors such as Daniel Moynihan – author of The Negro Family (‘Moynihan Report’) – as moral entrepreneur and policy champion. Moynihan was part of a ‘new breed of public servants’ with social scientific training and seeking to define as well as solve policy problems (2005: 246). His report identified lower poverty in white and higher in black populations, arguing that the main cause was the ‘disintegration of the African-American family’, in which racism undermined the role of black men as breadwinners, contributing to family breakdown and deviant behaviour (2005: 246). Bensonsmith (2005: 247) argues that the report contributes to black stereotypes that endured from times of slavery, including the ‘shiftless black male’ and the ‘overly fertile and lazy welfare mother’, and that such stereotypes contributed to the idea that welfare dependency helped cause ‘pathological behavior’: ‘broken homes’ have a ‘matriarchal structure’ (aided by female social workers) with no ‘strong father figure’, and a key solution for black men is the ‘masculine world’ of military service (2005: 251). This social construction informed key welfare policies in two main steps. First, black mothers were often initially excluded from social security measures designed for the widows and their dependent children: the state would take on the male role if he died, not if he chose to leave. Second, as entitlement became defined more widely, it became more closely associated with the often-incorrect idea that a disproportionate number of black families received welfare benefits. The association between welfare and race, along with a greater focus on individual responsibility for a culture of dependency, helps cause victim blaming and program retrenchment (2005: 255-6).

Schram (2005: 261) provides an often-different interpretation, arguing that the failure to recognise major ‘racial disparities in the US economy’ helps ‘whitewash’ them rather than asking the ‘hard questions’ in the pursuit of ‘racial justice’. Going too far, to argue that welfare is used more by white than black families – as argued by the Welfare Law Centre’s Welfare Myths in 1996 – can be misleading (from 1985, only the absolute figures on first time use, but not more regular use, and not proportionate calculations, support its position). It is also counterproductive because ‘racial minorities’ were ‘more likely to be living in poverty and in need of public assistance at higher rates’ (2005: 267-70). Similarly, it is tempting for advocacy groups to generate support for welfare rights by associating them with white, middle class and recently divorced mothers as ‘job ready’ and in transition from welfare to work, but problematic because it helps produce insufficient public support for other groups (2005: 281). Programs become ‘bifurcated’, with the predominantly-white male ‘breadwinner’ able to benefit from social insurance based on their previous employment, and others reliant on less generous ‘public assistance’ (2005: 282).

Insight 7: social constructions of (a) deservedness and entitlement create ‘positive identities and participation’ in politics, (b) unworthiness create ‘alienation, resignation, and failure to participate politically’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005c: 289).

Soss (2005: 291) examines the signals that a bifurcated US social welfare system sends to specific target populations, and how they feel and respond. He examines the idea that US welfare programs have become influenced by ‘new paternalism’, focusing on the ways in which programs are designed ostensibly to encourage good citizenship. In paternalist regimes, they may be associated with ‘civility, self-restraint, and compliance with social expectations’, reflecting the pursuit of ‘social order over social justice and civic compliance over political engagement’ (2005: 292). Different programs also provide profoundly different signals about citizenship, and the signal that a person gets from one key public organization affects their views of government as a whole (2005: 309).

The ‘superior tier’ consists of depersonalised federal ‘social security’ programs, primarily for the ‘elderly or disabled’, pegged to inflation and previous earnings, and producing a positive signal to ‘rights bearing’ recipients (2005: 294-5). The rules are stringent but recipients are encouraged and rewarded, to ‘come away feeling that their claims are welcome’ (2005: 297). Recipients often receive the financial security that allows them to participate in public life as much as the general population, a signal from government that their participation efforts would have a tangible effect, and do not generate feelings of stigma that undermine collective action (2005: 308).

The ‘lower tier’ consists of less generous public assistance ‘that disproportionately serve disadvantaged groups such as people of color, women, and people who have lived in poverty’ (2005: 295). They send negative signals, with recipients attached to state or local case workers and following convoluted and dispiriting rules to establish limited entitlement. Recipients become ‘clients’, vulnerable to bureaucratic rules, entitled to very little privacy (following invasive questions, fingerprinting, and/ or drug testing in some cases), made to attend in person despite limited access to transport, and subject to ‘unpleasant procedures’ in unwelcoming offices (‘authoritarian’ in design and appearance). Many are left vulnerable, with the feeling that ‘they are not valued and their claims unwanted’ and some ‘feeling exposed and humiliated’, powerless, or ‘like cattle’ (2005: 296-9). Recipients are living in poverty and/or fleeing abusive relationships, with minimal choice but to accept these rules without complaint, left with the felling that their feedback would not alter government staff behaviour, and feeling the stigma and lack of self-worth that undermines collective action (2005: 306-7; 310).

Yet, these perceptions are not inevitable. Rather, the key example of Head Start, in which parents participate in collective decisions about the running of local services for their children, ‘provide citizens with evidence that participation can be effective and fulfilling’ (2005: 305), and expose other programs for the minimal extent to which they encourage civic engagement (2005: 321).

If you want to read part two, here it is: scpd-more-empirical-insights-section-31-12-16

1 Comment

Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

One response to “Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits?

  1. Pingback: Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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