• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


Yantra Bertelli, review of Quadagno, The Color of Welfare

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 11 months ago



Yantra Bertelli

The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. By Jill Quadagno. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. pp254. Hardcover, ISBN 0-19-507919-1.)


            Jill Quadagno’s The Color of Welfare explores the historical impossibilities underscoring the United States welfare state and its inability to attend to the needs of working class and working poor citizens. Her work shows how racial inequalities were transformed and reconfigured within state institutions, leaving families unprotected and disparities geographically etched into neighborhood streets. Quadagno highlights the ways competing definitions of liberty and freedom, from Reconstruction to present day, inform the possibilities of the welfare state. She animates the specter of “the color-line” with this important sociological scholarship.[1]

            Quadagno revisits the academic work, explaining U.S. limited welfare state development as resulting from the constraint of liberal values, weak working class coalitions, problematic democratization and industrialization, or the institutional and structural constraints in the development of public policy, to investigate the role of institutionalized racism. She subtly reformulates Theda Skocpol’s model that describes the process of policy formation, “policy feedback loops”, to incorporate the social dynamics that drive public policy. Instead of understanding the meat of the policies themselves as the ultimate constraints to future policy, Quadagno argues that the social dynamics that drive policy formation, through its myriads of negotiation, frame what is possible for future reformulations. It is here that the politics of race limit future policy.

            Quadagno identifies the public policies of the 1960’s as an emerging “equal opportunity welfare state,” trying to answer past inequalities intrinsic to the New Deal. She explains this process of becoming, what she terms a “dialectical interaction”, as a relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Civil Rights movement. The policies of the New Deal, imbued with racial inequalities, festered over decades with contradictions between the United State’s ethos of liberty and the lived reality of African Americans. Quadagno understands the War on Poverty as a unique break from past policy due to problems brought about by these contradictions. The limits of New Deal policies crippled the ability of the state to protect its citizens appropriately. The War on Poverty needed to subvert the processes and power structures of past public policy. The Civil Rights movement both influenced the War on Poverty’s public policies and was given room to gain additional political and societal power by the openings the War on Poverty created. These dynamic interactions informed the ideologies of the “equal opportunity welfare state.”

            In her chapters, Quadagno traces the failures of the New Deal. When the Social Security Act established a foundation for national state welfare the omission of domestic and agricultural workers mirrored a compromise between Roosevelt and Southern Democrats.[2] The Wagner Act established closed shops, further limiting the protections black laborers could enlist and New Deal housing policy institutionalized housing segregation. These incomplete social protections coupled with the two-tiered system of welfare policy, Social Security and Aide to Families with Dependent Children frustrated the inclusion of African American’s and created a second-class citizenship. Quadagno argues that while other industrialized nations were institutionalizing stronger welfare state provisions, the United States was still undergoing the process of democratization. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965 that the United States experienced full democratization and therefore the possibility for more universal welfare policies was inhibited.           

            I found Quadagno’s ideas about competing definitions of liberty particularly compelling. She contends that, “positive freedom to act on one’s conscious purposes and develop one’s capacities” is in tension and conflict with the “negative freedom from external constraints on speech, behavior, and association.[3]” Enlisting the example of housing segregation to illuminate her points, the struggle of African Americans to gain access to adequate neighborhoods, services, and borrowing opportunities were in conflict with the perceived “liberty” or rights of white families to choose who lived next door or their right to “protect” the property values in their neighbors. Another example can be seen in chapter 6, “The Politics of Motherhood,” when Quadagno discusses efforts to create subsidized childcare policies that would disentangle daycare from its association with Aide to Families with Dependent Children. Here an opportunity to extend benefits to a wider group of working class families was in conflict with the “right” of patriarchal leaders within the family and within communities (including government officials) to influence the characterization of white and black motherhood. Quadagno compliments the scholarship exploring the relationship between racialized public policy and the trajectory of the reproductive rights movement in the United States. In Dorothy E. Roberts’ work she looks at the ideologies that surround individual liberty and asks how these ideas infect dialogues surrounding “choice.”[4] By following the legal history of the black body in the United States Roberts reveals the codification of “negative” liberties in law over equality, repositioning women’s bodies (specifically the bodies of black and native women) in debates over reproductive rights.  

            Because the War on Poverty faced an industrialized nation still in the process of extending democracy to all its citizens, broader inroads into strengthening the welfare state could not be realized. “The failure of America’s policy agenda reflects a failure to live up to America’s creed.”[5] Quadagno concludes that race haunts the development of public policy and the complete inclusion of African American’s remains unrealized.

            As a sociological intervention, Quadagno’s book helps us to comprehend the reach of racism and the problematic absence of discourses considering the influence of racial ideologies in the study of public policy. Her work helps us to recognize the motors behind policy feedback loops and the contours that limited what was possible. One shortcoming, however, is an examination of tax expenditures, what has been coined as the invisible welfare state. Though I have no doubt that race mattered in the course of the invisible welfare state, how might this consideration complicate Quadagno’s characterization of the relationship between unrealized democracy and an underdeveloped welfare state? 


[1] “The color-line” refers to W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk where he predicts that the twentieth century would struggle with slavery’s predecessor, the “problem of the color-line.”

[2] Pg.20 Quadagno explains the development of the welfare state regime.

[3] pg.6 Quadagno outlines competing definitions of liberty. 

[4] Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing The Black Body: Race Reproduction and The Meaning of Liberty. 1996.

[5] pg. 197


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.