Welfare and Incarceration in the U.S.

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Julilly Kohler-Hausmann is an Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. She received her doctorate from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her current book project, Tough Politics: Criminalization and Degraded Citizenship in 1970s America, explores how the embrace of punitive welfare, drug, and criminal policy during the 1970s restructured conceptions of citizenship and state legitimacy in the United States. Her research has been published in the Journal of American History, Journal of Social History, Journal of Urban History, and the edited collection Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex. Prior to graduate school, Julilly spent six years organizing around labor, welfare, and antipoverty issues. 

Her article “Guns and Butter: The Welfare State, the Carceral State, and the Politics of Exclusion in the Postwar United States” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.” It is freely available to the public.

Could you briefly describe your article?

My article “Guns and Butter” makes the case for approaching welfare state retrenchment and mass incarceration as intertwined historical phenomena. Integrating penal and welfare history of the last quarter of the 20th twentieth century reveals that diminishing social welfare benefits for the poor were symptomatic of shifting governing strategies, not the repudiation of government responsibility. Although disagreements about the proper size of government were obviously important, I argue that many political contests of this period were less about whether the state had a role in managing social problems than over which strategies, professional authority, and institutions should be empowered to do so.

In the debates over drugs, criminal sentencing, and welfare policy in the 1970s that I researched for my book, the most pressing questions were over who deserved state protection and services and on what terms. In other words, welfare and crime policy were critical staging grounds in the long historical struggle over the social contract. Through them, groups struggled over who deserved voice in the polity, what were citizens’ rights and obligations, and what—in turn—were the state’s responsibilities to its citizens.

By the 1970s, economic dislocations, rising crime rates, and high profile movements all helped inspire challenges from both the left and the right to the government’s promise to secure social order by rehabilitating and reintegrating marginal individuals. In response to these challenges, policy makers across a range of institutions replaced an ostensible commitment to social integration with an emphasis on “tough” strategies of exclusion, coercion, punishment, surveillance, and the retraction of rights. Despite the anti-government rhetoric of many during this period, massive state-building projects accompanied this reorientation.

I argue that if we want to understand how this historical shift happened, we can’t approach rehabilitation and punishment as opposites. Although they were not functionally interchangeable, they frequently shared assumptions and aims. They both often attributed inequality, crime, and drug use to behavioral or cultural causes. Elites deemphasized the professed commitment to rehabilitation within both the welfare and penal system in the era after 1970, but that commitment had always been partial and conflicted. For people of color, it had often been utterly hollow.

So I am arguing that while tough criminal policies were instrumental in the political project of discrediting means-tested welfare programs and the people they ostensibly served, overlaps between their governing rationales facilitated the embrace of more explicitly exclusionary policy.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?

Although my research traces the genealogy of policies that expanded the penal system, it is also in conversation with the rich literatures on the welfare state, politics, and citizenship during the late twentieth century. In this sense, my article can be seen as one answer to Heather Thompson’s important 2010 JAH article, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters.” She called for historians to not just do the important work of chronicling developments within the penal system, but also to show how the advent of mass incarceration intervened in other transformations. I argue that the policies that expanded the penal system also worked to undermine social welfare programs and the demands of various subordinated groups, such as welfare recipients, drug users, and prisoners.

The punitive criminal policies that were so instrumental in exploding the penal system after 1970s also helped solidify a particular understanding about society’s “problem” people and the capacity of the state to positively affect citizens’ lives. The political spectacle of “getting tough” on various racialized targets did not merely index popular opinion or reflect a conservative drift in the American electorate; they were also instrumental in producing it. Punitive policy forwarded the argument that the targeted populations were unwilling to conform to social norms, uncontrollable without coercion, and ultimately unsuitable for self-governance and full citizenship. Rather than an inevitable consequence of the “failures of liberalism,” punitive policy reified all these assumptions in public discourse.

This research also suggests we might be cautious about positioning the welfare state and the carceral state as antithetical or sequestered in different periods. There is much that is analytically helpful about the concept of the “carceral state,” but ideally it will not be deployed in a way that portrays the welfare state as irrelevant or vestigial. The penal system and welfare system have long co-existed, sometimes symbiotically. Elites typically used both law enforcement and social provision to secure social stability, especially when faced with disorder or political insurgency.

Portraying the carceral state as supplanting a welfare state may also inadvertently divert attention from the welfare state’s ongoing relevance, particularly for the families who have kin and loved ones entangled within the penal system. For just one of many examples: in some areas, families living in public housing risk eviction if they allow people with felonies to live with or visit them. Navigating social welfare and penal systems together multiplies the unique pressures of each. The two systems interlock in really insidious ways and we cannot understand the full force of the state without taking both into account.

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

I hope my work can contribute to the long tradition of scholarship and activism aiming to undermine the assumption that punishment and surveillance are the inevitable solutions to social problems, especially those imagined to emerge from the poor and communities of color. One way to help denaturalize this “common sense” observation is to write history that reveals the ways criminalization is often a contingent, contested historical process—not just settled fact.

This research project also suggests that there are pitfalls to positioning punishment and individualized treatment as opposing and incompatible state strategies. Although there has been more emphasis on one or the other in various periods, the two have often gone together. For example, the state has historically approached some drug users as appropriate candidates for treatment and others as criminals. Simultaneously, many of those entering drug treatment do so under the threat of sanctions from law enforcement.

Approaching treatment and punishment as a binary can constrict public debates to questions about how best to manage individuals. It forecloses serious consideration of political responses that address wider social relations, particularly systemic economic, racial, and gender domination and exploitation. Breaking out of that rehabilitation/punishment binary could help create space to consider a broader set of interventions.

Lastly, writing this article highlighted for me the importance of addressing the political implications of criminal and social policy. Stripping rights, fingerprinting welfare recipients and searching their homes, felon disenfranchisement, and constricting “convicts’” access to jobs do not only have dramatic material effects, they also degrade our civic culture. The tradition of “civil death” is deeply rooted and largely unquestioned in the United States, but many countries do not assume that people convicted of a crime (or drawing certain state benefits) forfeit such a broad range of rights and benefits. These stigmatizing policies further undermine the voices of their targets in broader public debates and position the state as largely unaccountable to millions of Americans. This has deeply troubling implications for our democracy.

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