Negotiating the paradoxes of poverty: presidential rhetoric on welfare from Johnson to Clinton
MetadataShow full item record
This project examines how Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton discussed issues of poverty and welfare from Johnsons declaration of War on Poverty in 1964 to Clintons signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. I argue that there are four critical tensions relevant to the debate concerning contemporary poverty in the United Statespolitics vs. policy, deserving vs. undeserving, help vs. hinder, and equality vs. freedomand the key to improving the manner in which the nation confronts the problem of poverty requires understanding and negotiating these tensions. The analysis reveals that the five presidents had a mixed but overall rather poor record in confronting the four paradoxes. In general they tended either to avoid the tensions altogether, or fall to one or the other extreme. That being said, the analysis also reveals that there is considerable common ground concerning some critical issues between all the presidents, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, ideologically moderate or more partisan. Foremost among these are the beliefs that equal opportunity should be the overarching ideal, work should be rewarded well, and those that cannot help themselves should be supported as generously as possible by the government. I conclude that the 1996 law, while based in part on questionable assumptions concerning the condition of the poor, could lead to a significant re-framing of the debate away from the generally unpopular focus on welfare and welfare recipients and toward the working poor and the conditions and difficulties under which they labor, which could potentially lead to other positive transformations beneficial to the American poor.
Carcasson, Martin (2004). Negotiating the paradoxes of poverty: presidential rhetoric on welfare from Johnson to Clinton. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from