The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State - Book Review
Journal of Social History,  Winter, 2002  by Jacob S. Hacker


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The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State. By Michael B. Katz (New York: Metropolitan Press, 2001. x plus 452 pp. $35).

In 1996, President Clinton made good on his campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it," signing Republican-backed reform legislation that many on the left condemned. The bill ended the longstanding entitlement to cash assistance, replacing it with tough work requirements and strict time limits. The welfare rolls plummeted and, within a few years, stood at roughly half their peak level. The law's supporters had radically transformed a highly visible component of the American welfare state.

The enactment of welfare reform is the signal event around which Michael B. Katz's panoramic new book revolves. Katz, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and noted expert on the American welfare state, offers an accessible survey of recent developments in nearly every area of U.S. social policy, from antipoverty programs to government social insurance to private benefits provided by employers and nonprofits. Nonetheless, Katz's major focus is policy toward the poor, especially the urban poor. Based on his formidable knowledge of this contested sphere, Katz spins out a big readable history of bright colors and sharp lines, tracing the push to restructure social benefits across an enormous range of settings. The Price of Citizenship is an important book--a prodigious work of scholarship driven by a bold thesis and strong sense of social justice. It is also, given the obvious range and depth of Katz's knowledge, a book surprisingly lacking in nuance--a showcase both for the real power of Katz's unifyin g themes and for their real limits as a guide to recent policy changes.

At more than 450 pages, The Price of Citizenship is not a slim volume. Yet Katz gives cohesion to its prologue, epilogue, and twelve economically written chapters by orienting them around two core goals. The first is to paint an encompassing picture of U.S social policy that includes not only public social programs, but also such private social benefits as employer-sponsored health insurance and charitable assistance. Although close observers of the American welfare state have long argued that private social benefits need to be taken into account, the point has seeped slowly into mainstream scholarship and popular consciousness. Katz's valuable attempt to link public and private social benefits may well signal that the topic can no longer be ignored; even as the book's two chapters on the subject, which focus on the post-WWII period and are based on secondary sources, leave considerable room for future research.

The second goal of Katz's exposition, perhaps even more ambitious than the first, is to provide a "master narrative of policy reform" that describes the progress of conservative attacks across all these diverse realms of public and private action. The features of this narrative, argues Katz, "are the discovery of a crisis of numbers and cost (rising rolls); the assignment of blame to morally suspect persons (the undeserving); the reduction of program size through controlling eligibility more than reducing benefits (reform); the measurement of achievement by fewer beneficiaries (success); and the failure to track the fate of those denied help (willful ignorance)" (p. 197). Linking the conservative assault on the welfare state to the globalization of business, the growing influence of the Sunbelt and evangelical Protestantism, and the activism of conservative think tanks, Katz sees his master narrative playing out across areas as disparate as public assistance and Social Security. Welfare reform was not an isol ated event, Katz contends. Instead, it "signaled the victory of three great forces--the war on dependence, the devolution of public authority, and the application of market models to public policy--that redefined not only welfare but all of America's vast welfare state" (p. 1).

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the centrality of welfare in this formulation, Katz is at his best in describing the conflicted evolution of U.S. antipoverty policy. He has written a remarkable, if unsettling, chapter on the "new American city," which describes the contradictory tides that have made America's cities at once hotbeds of entrepreneurship and wastelands of poverty. Two illuminating chapters trace the pioneering efforts of governors and mayors to scale back public assistance--a useful antidote to the fixation on national law in much welfare writing--and three more chapters provide an in-depth account of the evolution of federal public assistance, with one devoted entirely to the new welfare law and its aftermath. In these six chapters, Katz breaks new historical ground and powerfully illustrates his overarching themes.

Even here, however, Katz's use of cash assistance for the able-bodied poor as his paradigmatic case obscures important trends. Reading The Price of Citizens hip for example, one would scarcely know that federal, state, and local spending on antipoverty programs has actually grown dramatically over the past thirty years, both in real terms and as a share of federal spending. Katz dissects one conspicuous case of expansion: the transformation of the Earned Income Tax Credit from humble beginnings in 1975 into one of the nation's largest antipoverty programs. Yet he has relatively little to say about the impressive growth over the same period of the Supplemental Security Income Program for the aged, blind, and disabled. And his overriding emphasis is on retrenchment, rather than redirection, of assistance. It is therefore worth noting that recent cutbacks in antipoverty programs followed surprisingly robust growth in the decade between 1985 and 1995. More important, the fate of these programs even since 1995 has been quite varied. Some (notably, general cash assistance) have exhibited steady erosion, but others (such as Medicaid, the health insurance program for lower-income families, the disabled, and the indigent elderly) have seen significant expansions. Katz's account would have been enriched by exploring the sources of this divergence-not because doing so would undermine his claims about welfare, but because it might suggest why conservative reformers have had more limited success elsewhere.

Still, the chapters on public assistance are Katz's strongest, and for the most part they vindicate the book's thematic frame. Where Katz's arguments become more problematic is in the realm of social insurance--the largest component of America's public-private welfare complex. Indeed, while Katz rightly criticizes the equation of "welfare" with "the welfare state," his own book exhibits this imbalance. Roughly half the text focuses on antipoverty programs, which constitute less than a quarter of government social spending (and considerably less of total public and private spending). Meanwhile, Katz devotes fewer than three chapters to America's major programs of social insurance, which comprise more than half of government spending. Moreover, when Katz turns to social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare, his master narrative falters. For what is most notable about these programs as a whole is not the top-to-bottom "redefinition" that they have undergone, but their relative success in weath ering the challenges that Katz documents. To be sure, cutbacks have occurred, and the agenda of debate has grown markedly more conservative. But, as Katz himself notes in a line starkly at odds with his more sweeping pronouncements, "the most extensive and costly parts of American welfare remain scarcely touched" (p. 8).

The Price of Citizenship is a rich chronicle of the hostile climate facing U.S. social policy, It is a timely reminder that, for all the current talk of "privatization," the United States already relies heavily on private social welfare benefits. It is certain to be a valuable resource for social scientists and historians, who usually have to wait decades for history of this quality to be written. And it may change more than a few minds. At one point, Katz opines that "with few exceptions, political arguments about the welfare state now revolve more around details than great principles" (p. 26). Let us hope that this is another instance in which a penchant for master narrative has overtaken the better judgment of an accomplished historian.

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