Welfare Politics in Congress

Lawrence M. Meada1

a1 New York University


The stakes of political conflict involve contending values and issue definitions as well as policy. Welfare reform was the most important change in American domestic policy since civil rights. Its significance hinges crucially on how participants understood the issue, but existing research fails to resolve what their perceptions were. Most accounts suggest that welfare reform was an ideological contest concerning the proper scope of government, but there are other views. This study gauges the welfare agenda rigorously by coding speakers in congressional hearings on the basis of how they framed the issue and the position they took on it during the six chief episodes of welfare reform that occurred between 1962 and 1996. The reform efforts aroused four distinct divisions. Over time, positions moved rightward, but more important, the dominant issue changed: The ideological debate about government was overtaken by a more practical debate about how to manage welfare. This is the first study to track the substantive meaning of any issue in Congress over an extended period of time using hearing witnesses and a preset analytic scheme.

Lawrence M. Mead is a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. He has written several books on antipoverty policy and welfare reform, including Beyond Entitlement (Free Press, 1986), The New Politics of Poverty (Basic Books, 1992), and Government Matters: Welfare Reform in Wisconsin (Princeton University Press, 2004). He can be reached at LMM1@nyu.edu.


I am indebted most of all to my coders, Kendal Elliott, Ian Gold, and Frank Ortiz, who worked for seven years to produce the data reported here. I acknowledge funding from the Achelis and Bodman Foundations, Earhart Foundation, JM Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, and Randolph Foundation. I acknowledge helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper from Scott Allard, Paul Burstein, Joe Dolan, Ron Haskins, Craig Ramsey, Michael Reinhard, Michael Wiseman, several discussants at conference presentations, and several anonymous journal reviewers.