POS334-L: THE RACE AND ETHNICITY BOOK REVIEW DISCUSSION LIST
Lawrence Mead, The New Politics of Poverty. (1992: Basic Books)
Subject: An interview with Lawrwence Mead (Acker)
Date: Mon, 25 Apr 1994 14:22:41 -0500 From: ACKERV@ACFcluster.NYU.EDU Subject: An interview with Lawrwence Mead (Acker)
As a response to this book, I would like to share with all of you a
December 1992 interview I had with Lawrence Mead, the author of
"The New Politics of Poverty."
1) If social programs only account for 1% to 2% of the government
spending budget, why is it so important to expend so much time
and energy spinning wheels on this item when a $4 trillion
deficit or a huge military budget seems so much more important?
The amount of money spent on social programs is a good bit
more than 1% or 2% of the government budget. It's much higher than
that if you include social security and health programs. The
majority of the government budget is spent on social programs of
some kind. I will admit that welfare programs of the kind I spend
most time talking about are not a major expense compared to
larger programs like social security. Nevertheless these pro-
grams are very controversial because of the issues they raise
about the lifestyle of the recipients. So, there is legitimate
public controversy about that for reasons quite aside from cost.
2) Can you please "label" yourself?
I describe myself as a big government conservative or,
alternatively, a civic conservative; that is, I'm someone who wants
to change the nature of government rather than to reduce the size
of government. Conventionally, anti-government conservatives want
to have government do less and rely more on the private market
place. What I want to do is have government do different things: I
want it to go on being ambitious in what it does, I want to have a
welfare state, but I want that welfare state to be more demanding
of the recipients; that is, the people on welfare should have to do
more to help themselves in return for support.
3) Are you racist, since you talk about "ghettoizing," talk about
"ghetto residents that are less functional than the outside,"
completely missing the point that blacks have been exploited and
are still being exploited and discriminated upon.
I don't think I'm a racist because I explicitly reject racial
theories of poverty. My book rejects the notion that there's
something fundamentally different about racial minorities. To say
that ghetto residents are "less functional than the outside" is
simply a description of fact, it's not something that I'm making
up. It is indeed true that blacks have been exploited and, to some
extent, still are exploited and discriminated against. My point
is not that isn't happening, but that whether it excuses bad
behavior is a political issue of very great importance. That's
what today's politics is largely about. I don't take sides on
that issue in the sense that I think that blacks are responsible
for everything. I'm not saying that. Rather that the battle over
whether they are responsible is the leading issue in politics.
4) You seem to imply that the economic decline is due to "poor
people who are on welfare." What happened to poor economic
management of the companies, enhanced competition from foreign
markets, lack of leadership and emphasis on "the rich getting
richer"....the famous trickle-down theory that only help the
rich? Aren't you unjustly blaming the victims?
I say very little about the causes of economic decline and I
certainly don't blame economic decline on poor people on welfare.
In fact, I say in two places that the argument that high govern-
ment social spending is the cause of our economic decline is ill-
supported in research. I don't think that there's a good case
for that. So I would say that the economic problems of the
country are quite separable from the social issues raised by the
5) In the New York Times Book Review of April 19, Dennis Wrong
said, "In general, Mr. Mead makes rather too much of the emer-
gence of a clash of dependent poor, occasionally describing it as
an American crisis comparable to the Civil War, even as a threat
to the basic values of Western civilization." Don't you think
you got a little bit carried away?
I would say Dennis Wrong got a bit carried away. I do think
that serious poverty is the leading issue in domestic politics,
that it is a crisis for America on the same order as the Civil War.
That is really true. This is a division in our society that is of
comparable importance and comparable difficulty, even if it's less
dramatic in character. I wouldn't say that I see poverty as a
threat to the values of Western Civilization; what I would say
instead is that poverty is an issue for which the Western tradition
is unprepared. The debate about poverty is a debate about personal
confidence and responsibility of a sort that we haven't typically
had in our politics. So although it isn't a threat to our
tradition, it definitely is something that requires, let us say,
a new tradition.
6) As a corollary to the previous question, aren't you in effect
giving more emphasis on the White-Protestant work-ethic as the
only one that counts?
No, because the work ethic is certainly something not invented
by White-Protestants. It is shared by all groups in the society
including non-whites and Catholics; the value of the work ethic is
not in dispute in America. The issue that is in dispute is whether
this ethic should be enforced on people who are not working for
7) In the same article Dennis Wrong says, "A central issue to Mr.
Mead is the liberal prohibition against blaming the victim as
sociologically and morally questionable and has proved to be
self-defeating politically and a basis for antipoverty programs."
But you do blame the victims?
I don't think I blame the victims. I say that whether to blame
them is the leading issue in politics. What I say is not that the
poor themselves are responsible for their situation, but that they
must become responsible. They do not feel that they're responsible
now and yet it must be a goal of social policy that they become
responsible. I think that's what we're actually trying to do
through such policies as workfare.
8) Although you advocate linking work and other requirements with
welfare payments to the employable poor, unmarried mothers and
others, this system does not always work. This is mostly due
that there seem to be no mechanism to support a willing and able
welfare recipient in a gradual manner. You are either in or you
are out! Do you agree?
I would agree that under current rules, it's difficult to
combine work and welfare. But that is mainly because working at
virtually any legal job for more than a few months usually leads to
getting off welfare, because you make more money than the welfare
level. I don't see that myself as a deterrent to welfare because
we don't have strong evidence that work incentives have a lot to do
with whether people leave welfare.
9) This 1992 story on welfare: a young Connecticut girl, whose
mother was on welfare, worked and saved to go to college. When the
state found out, they made the girl spend the money rather than
praise her and help her further. How do you think an average
welfare recipient reading this would react? Don't you think it
would keep the sense of "defeatism" up?
I don't think the purpose of welfare is to help people save
money. It's to help people who are in desperate straits and who
need a period of time to get their lives together. But it's not
a program where the intention is to help you save money or go to
college or do other things that assume that you're employed and
have some resources. To turn welfare into a savings program or a
college program, is to impose on it a goal which Congress does
not intend. Now you may say, well, that will make the recipients
more defeatist; that's possible, but I would say that they're
defeatist largely for reasons that anti-date welfare going on
welfare. There is a defeatism which causes many people to remain
on welfare for long periods for reasons that have nothing to do
with specific rules against savings, and to change those rules
would probably change very little about dependency. But in this
case of this girl who was working in a toy store, or something like
that, and was saving money, why did her mother's status on welfare
affect her? Because she's increasing the family's resources beyond
the welfare level. They should be off welfare at this point. Now,
my quarrel with that family is not that the girl is working, she's
behaving in a very rational way. I would say that's all to the
good. I would rather say that the mother should work, and the
daughter should work; she should get off welfare and go to college
10) What do you make of the bureaucrats in the welfare offices
who are in an adversarial and angry mode toward welfare recipients,
and make them look and feel "like dirt."
I'm sure it happens. It's regretful. I don't think people on
welfare should be treated in a nasty manner. At the same time, I
do think that many welfare recipients give cause for upset on the
part of other people. They have obligations too, to contribute to
their own self-support. So, welfare should be respectful but
welfare should also expect people to behave in normal ways, like
11) You also say that the present day poor do not seek out
available jobs and therefore not only fail to get off welfare,
but unlike immigrants, turn their backs on "the traditional
path toward upward mobility." Aren't you alluding here to
the white-middle-class search for jobs?
I'm not saying that people who are poor choose not to work;
I'm saying that whether they choose not to work is the issue. Do we
describe it as a choice or do we describe it as some kind of
depression or avoidance? I tend to say the latter. So I'm not
saying that people are choosing not to work; I'm saying they're not
working for various reasons, and welfare policy has to combat that.
I'm certainly not talking about the white middle-class search for
a job. Most white middle-class and indeed black middle-class
people work very steadily or they would not be middle-class.
Their unemployment is usually brief, though it can be very
traumatic. I'm not saying that they have an easy time, but
they're not characterized by long periods out of the labor force.
As a result, their problems are very different.
12) Another part of your previous statement deals with "new
immigrants." Not all new immigrants make it as entrepreneurs
on their own: Korean grocers are helped by an informal resource-
pool of funds; booksellers/peddlers on Fifth Avenue are exploited
immigrants whose business is really run by ruthless-shady-charac-
ters of various origins and Senegalese watch-sellers living in
squalor to send some money back home. Don't you think these
people are being exploited and discriminated in the name of the
Yes, they are and that's a very different problem from that of
poverty; exactly because they're employed, they can make
traditional claims of equality among workers that are part of
progressive tradition in my terms. The politics of the employed,
all those people who function, allow them to claim redress. The
people who cannot make such claims are people who are not employed,
who do not have a reason not to be employed. So, immigrants who
are working hard in these difficult circumstances are seen
politically as very, very different from people who are not working
and are on welfare.
13) Going back to today's economy, keeping the work ethic is
good, trying to improve oneself is admirable, but you do not
address the issue of jobs lost by and to technology, jobs that
have moved South, jobs that have moved west of California, jobs
canceled by the deep recession, defense contractors & industrial
plants closing down and laying off hundreds of workers, leaving
only either very low-paying menial jobs or nervous managerial
jobs. Where does this leave the average American worker?
I do discuss this in Chapter 4 which is about trends in
the economy that many people find questionable. There's no doubt
in my mind that economic changes are creating a tremendous
hardship for a lot of workers. I'm not denying that for a second.
I'm saying that it is largely a separate problem from poverty and
welfare. That leads to difficult transitions on the part of
people who have to take lower paying jobs. I'm saying this has
very little to do with poverty and welfare. Those battles are
going on largely over the heads of the poor, and very few people
become poor long term on account of those changes. The theme is
that the question of equality among workers is a very different
problem from that of poverty and welfare.
14) Walter Olson, in his review of your book in The Wall Street
Journal of May 6, 1992 says that the first 50 pages of the book
(Introduction & Chapter I: Crisis of Reform) and the last 50
pages (Chapter 10: The Wider Meaning of Dependency & Chapter 11:
The Prospect) are ramblings.
I don't think they're ramblings and no other reviewer has
suggested this. That comment reflects the fact that Olson, like
many conservatives, is interested mainly in the book's argument
against the idea that there are barriers that prevent people from
getting ahead. He's not as interested as I am in the political
implications of that. The first 50 and the last 50 pages, as well
as other parts of the book, are about the political implications of
non-working poverty. It's because we've had such poverty in a
situation where we do not appear to have any prohibitive barriers
that the work issue and the social issue generally have become very
important politically. It's because we can't find serious barriers
that we cannot deal with these questions in terms of the
traditional reformism of American politics. We have to go over to
paternalistic policies such as workfare, which are very different,
and even tragic, because they couldn't question the competence
which the earlier traditions assumed, and which the conservatives
go on assuming. So I just have to say that I don't agree with that
part of Olson's review. I should point out, however, that he
thought the rest of the book was terrific.
NOTE: These were excerpts from a much longer interview conducted
with Professor Lawrence Mead, who teaches Politics at New York
University. As an addendum he is one of the architects of the
welfare reforms being implemented by the State of Wisconsin.
-- Victor Acker