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interviews

On Disciplining The Poor

by Sanford Schram
July 20, 2020

This interview with Sanford Schram, professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Sanford Schram | My name is Sanford Schram. I focus on American politics and public policy, particularly regarding the politics of policies that affect people in subordinate positions in our society, especially as stratified by issues of class, race, and gender.

frank | Can you explain poverty governance? 

I write about this a lot in our book, Disciplining the Poor. Poverty governance is a question of state management of the poor. Social welfare policy in the United States has historically been not about helping the poor, but managing them.  

Largely we see poverty governance as an issue of how the state decides to manage the poor so that they become less of a challenge to the established order in our society.

And less about eradicating poverty.

The US government periodically has said that it wants to abolish poverty, but it really never does much to pursue that goal. Instead, most money goes towards disciplining the poor and getting them to be compliant with standard norms of work and family, so as to make them less of a threat to the established order. When they fail to adhere to that order, the government punishes them. 

Over time, especially over the last 30 years, social policy has become more aligned with criminal justice policy. Historically they were seen as at opposite ends of the continuum - as the left and right hands of the state. Social policy is theoretically seen as more maternalistic and caring, while criminal justice is more paternalistic and punitive. Over time, however, I think they've become integrated.

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TWO LATIN GIRLS POSE IN FRONT OF A WALL OF GRAFFITI IN LYNCH PARK IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK CITY, THIS PROJECT IS A PORTRAIT OF THE INNER CITY ENVIRONMENT, IT CONTAINS LIFE, GREAT MURALS ON THE WALLS OF BUILDINGS AND PEOPLE ENJOYING THEMSELVES, TODAY’S INNER CITY IS A CONTRADICTION TO MAIN STREAM AMERICA’S GAS STATIONS EXPRESSWAYS SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES, BLACKS, LATINS, AND POOR WHITES LIVE THERE. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES

When did you see that integration start to really take place?

Well, that's an interesting debate that people have. Some people argue that it begins with the War on Poverty, ironically, in the sixties. When Johnson decided to pick up the challenge of addressing poverty that had been left to Kennedy, he declared a war on poverty. There were a lot of initiatives to try and help people at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, but he also started to pour more money into criminal justice, policing in particular. We started to see the rise of mass incarceration, even in the early 1970s. And then you get the famous 1994 Crime Bill where Clinton, another Democrat, feels obligated to say that in exchange for helping the poor, we are also going to discipline them. I think that the two, social policy and criminal justice, have been hand and glove.

Do you think that convergence is understood? 

No, not widely. 

The public tends to hold contradictory views about what the government should be doing to help low-income individuals and families. According to the polls, most people feel that the government doesn't help the poor enough and that we should be way more generous. On the other hand, people tend to believe that only those who are trying to be self-sufficient through paid employment are deserving of help. They want to help them more, but only if they play by the rules. And of course, a lot of people on the bottom really can't afford the play by the rules.

For example, if you want to have a family, very often, you have to do it outside of marriage. Or if you want a decent paying job, you often have to work off the books. So right there work and family are being “violated” from the very beginning. It is out of necessity, given how we've structured our society so that a lot of people live in the shadow of the legitimate economy, culture, society. And then the state deems them to not be seen as deserving of the generosity that people claim they want to heap on them.

How does paternalism play a role?

Paternalism is very much in play here in a contradictory way. At one level paternalistic behavior means the patriarch dictates what should be done. The state often takes on that role when families or individuals don't conform to the standards of society. That's the negative side of paternalism. The positive side is that the patriarch wants to do this in the name of tough love, or caring for people so that they'll do what's right. A lot of charity, for instance, I think is caught up in this contradiction between the negative and positive pulls of paternalism. A lot of charity is conducted by people of privilege who have resources to help uplift those in their community, or around the world, to better comply with the standards that they have. 

It’s a bargain - we will help you, if you promise to be like the kind of people we think you should be. 

You speak of a new wave of neoliberal paternalism. How do you feel like this differs from other modes of paternalism?

After I wrote Disciplining The Poor, I wrote The Return of Ordinary Capitalism, where I discuss the idea of neoliberalism in more depth – and the role of corporations in particular - and the idea of uplifting the poor.

Neoliberal paternalism often involves the private sector - economic actors are incentivized to try and get involved in helping those on the bottom and promote the collective wellbeing of society overall. Once the private sector and the public sector boundaries are blurred, paternalism can take many different forms. It often takes the form of charity. It can also take the form of corporate social responsibility, as they call it, where corporations don't just try to make money but try to do so in a way that engages and uplifts the poor. It can take the form of taking on state responsibilities through privatization or contracting out. 

At its core, neoliberalism involves a blurring of the boundary between the market and the state. 

It involves getting the state enlisting market actors to try and create a public good, but to create it according to the market logic that they are most accustomed to pursuing. The risk of trying to fulfill a public purpose by private means, according to private logic, is that that can often lead to people trying to make money off these endeavors and defeat the public purpose of it all in the end.

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PUERTO RICAN BOY PLAYING BALL IN HILAND PARK OF BROOKLYN NEW YORK CITY. THE INNER CITY TODAY IS AN ABSOLUTE CONTRADICTION TO THE MAIN STREAM AMERICA OF GAS STATIONS, EXPRESSWAYS, SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES. IT IS POPULATED BY BLACKS, LATINS AND THE WHITE POOR. THIS PROJECT IS A PORTRAIT OF THE INNER CITY ENVIRONMENT IT CONTAINS ARCHITECTURE AND THE RESIDENTS ENJOYING THEMSELVES - NATIONAL ARCHIVES

That feels like a really easy way to distract a lot of people at once. Corporate entities that can afford the PR to be constantly in our face, who are in our face anyways, taking on social issues.

Distraction is an interesting term. It’s not only distracting but it also obscures public initiatives.

Torture is an extreme example of this. At one point in the War On Terror, we found out that the RAND corporation and other actors were involved in the torture program of the Bush administration. And we wanted to know more about it and they say, well, you can't, that is proprietary information of our corporation, and we're not allowed to share trade secrets with you. They say this even though they were torturing our enemy combatants, as they were called, in our name.

A more moderate example is when the government contracts for-profit providers for welfare to work programs. There’s the risk that they'll just funnel a bunch of people into dead-end jobs so that they can make money as cheaply as possible while claiming to fulfill the objective of helping poor people become self-sufficient and take personal responsibility. There is also the risk that they will do it in a way where we don't know what they're actually doing. They fudge their books, their bookkeeping is suspect, we have to sue them sometimes, some people go to jail for the fraud that's committed in these operations. Neoliberalism blurs the boundary between the market and the state, and there are many challenges associated with that. One of them is that it obscures public activity by sheltering it in the private sector so that we don't really know what's going on.

Military contracting certainly feels like a deliberate effort in obscuring. Do you think the state using corporations to support domestic social issues is an intentional choice, made specifically to hide information? 

We wrote a book that comes out this week, entitled Hard White, the Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics. In it, we argue that elites have been stoking what we call out-group hostility in the mass. They do so in order to put someone like Trump in office so that they continue to get their tax cuts by claiming that they're going to stand up for white people and assuage their anxiety, the anxiety that they helped agitate.

The question there is, what's the intention? Are they just cynically trying to manipulate people, or are they true believers? Are they mobilizing people because they feel there is a real need to be concerned about immigrants or people on the bottom of the socioeconomic order, those who are seen as a threat to the established way of life, a threat to white middle-class people? We don't really know.

The same question exists about social welfare programs. Did the government make the welfare reform bill in 1996, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, intentionally so complicated that we can't understand it still all these years later? Did they make it harder for people to get assistance intentionally? Maybe. Did they make it complicated because they didn't really care about poor people and whether they would be able to get assistance? Maybe. Or is it just complicated because they are legitimately concerned about making sure nobody gets benefits when they don't deserve them? We don't really know. 

I don't think they know, they just did it. We'd have to ask them, but they don't like to talk to us.

When you say elites, who do you mean?

There are multiple ways of understanding the elite. 

Some see the relationship between the elite and the masses as largely top-down with the elites cynically stoking out-group hostility. Richard Fording and I argue that there is a dialectical relationship between the elites and mass reflective of the power dynamics implicit in their relationship. We think that while the elite stoke fear among the mass, the elites are also responding to the mass and the mass’ growing anxieties. 

Trump is very racist, but you kind of get the feeling that he feels obligated because that's the base he ended up getting, and he can't betray them. He wants to always stay popular with them. So he keeps going back to the well of racism to stay popular, which he might not do if they weren't so racist. It’s kind of like a death spiral that's occurring in the United States and in other parts of the world. The elite feel obligated to throw more red meat to the mass that wants it. 

There's a lot of blood on a lot of different people's hands in terms of how white society ends up perpetuating the system of subordination in our country.

Do you think discomfort with poor people is uniquely American?

It certainly relates to this idea about American exceptionalism, which for a long time held that the United States is this special, different, better city on the Hill. Of course, historians have spent decades pointing out that that's a crock. The United States is not a special, different city on the hill. And in fact, if we are special and different, it’s in negative ways, it’s because of the legacy of slavery. We need to appreciate how that history is distinctive to the United States, and how that might encourage the United States then to be more reluctant to talk about class differences in inequality and the subordination of the poor, because it's often so often racialized, and becomes all the more fraught.

And of course, one of the reasons social welfare has worked better in European countries than here was race. We are racially divided and white people were and are more reluctant to want to give their resources to other non-white people. The racialization of welfare politics is an ongoing struggle in the United States and really has held us back. 

Europe had a set of racial relations, a different set of politics, and a different set of state market relations that enabled European countries to have something closer to a social democracy. It gave them a more robust welfare state based on a stronger sense of inclusion and made them more willing to focus on poverty reduction. Now that immigration is becoming a big issue in Europe, there have been fractures in that line of thinking, and you start to see the Americanization of the welfare state in Europe. If it keeps up, there is not going to be much of a difference.

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YOUNGSTERS ON THE JULY 4TH HOLIDAY AT THE KOSCIUSKO SWIMMING POOL IN BROOKLYN'S BEDFORD-STUYVESANT DISTRICT, NEW YORK CITY. INNER CITY RESIDENTS ENJOY USING THIS INTELLIGENTLY LOCATED POOL. THE INNER CITY TODAY IS AN ABSOLUTE CONTRADICTION TO THE MAIN STREAM AMERICA OF GAS STATIONS, EXPRESSWAYS, SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES. IT IS POPULATED BY BLACKS, LATINS AND THE WHITE POOR. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES

We tend to tie poverty to morality, rooted in this white Protestant culture. Do you think this makes poverty more difficult to discuss or solve? When dictating a sense of morals to the oppressed controls the conversation?

Well, no, it's a great question. All these countries have morals and values, they are just a bit different. And we get our Christianity, our Protestantism, the Protestant work ethic, and notions of personal responsibility from Europe.

But I think our morals are so hard and fast. As in, if you don't play by the rules, we'll put you in jail or we will cut you off with no benefits and you'll have to go beg for charity at the homeless shelter or the food pantry. European countries are actually more moralistic in the sense that they feel a greater sense of social obligation than we do. We have a more hellfire and brimstone approach to morals, in a way that I personally consider to be immoral. The right in the United States has kidnapped the idea of morality and made it its own, and everything else is immoral. 

The hypocrisy is so obvious on the right, but do you feel like the left has also adopted an aggressive moral code and hierarchy recently?

So, I wasn't asked to sign “the letter”, but I would have signed it. I talked to several people who did sign. Of course, they are all over 75 years of age - I have to keep reminding myself that I am old - but the old left, we used to be the new left, is concerned about this. 

Take David Shor. David Shor shared a paper by Omar Wassow at Princeton, showing that rioting works best when it's nonviolent. 

He was fired based on the idea that what he was sharing was criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew about the Wassow article before it was published in the APSR. I thought his research was really interesting, not that I necessarily agree with everything in it, but I shared it with people the same week that David Shor shared it and was fired. So I’m like, Oh man, I almost lost my job. What's going on here? The young people are going to come and take away my job because I shared the Omar Wassow article with people! 

Like what's wrong with the left? We're supposed to hide good research because it might complicate how we think about Black Lives Matter? My God. I would have signed the letter for that reason alone. 

Race relations can be very fraught, and the only thing you can do is be honest about it and try to work through it. Like, I haven't thought of everything. I have bought into the culture unreflectively. I have reproduced patriarchy. But we have to deal with it, instead of, especially in a cancel culture, just calling someone out, we have to open it up somehow. So yeah, I would have signed the letter.