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February 12, 2004

Sandy Schram (Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research)
Contextualizing Racial Disparities Under Welfare Reform:
Toward a New Poverty Research

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Sandy began by describing his participation in a group called "Perestroika," which is working to promote methodological pluralism in the field of political science: this is an "increasingly mainstreamed" attempt to move beyond conventional "scientistic," "objective," "rational choice" analysis of isolated issues in order to situate them in their historical and political contexts. In his own particular area of interest, that of welfare reform, this kind of "new poverty research" has meant a recognition that the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 has NOT been the success that statistics make it out to be, but has resulted rather in perpetuating larger patterns of racial bias. Working with the admittedly "incoherent categories of white, black and Hispanic" (and disaggregating the latter category into those who self-identify as white and non-white), it becomes apparent that the increasing trend of the past 7-8 years is that whites leave welfare roles more rapidly, and are less likely to cycle back onto them. Since welfare reform, the racial composition of the welfare population has become darker, and the popular stereotype of welfare as a "black program" has become increasingly true.

In his paper, Sandy traces the multiple interpretations that can be made of the available statistics; in themselves, they do not prove racial bias. To show how "profoundly racist, euphemistic and myopic" our welfare policies are, one needs to look at them in historical context; the use of apparently racially neutral language is "socially obtuse." Our welfare policies fail to account for, and so end up reinforcing, racist distinctions. The many studies of "barriers" to self-sufficiency, for instance, do not confront well-documented practices of racial discrimination in hiring. The orientation of such studies is entirely personal; they do not consider broader historical contexts. Work on "barriers"--"a term of art in public policy research"--becomes, in Sandy's analysis, a rationalization of racial neglect; focus on self-esteem, motivation and dress is an excuse to do nothing about the larger questions of economic injustice. Welfare reform is thus actually perpetuating the problem it pretends to attack. Describing black failure (to move as quickly as whites do from welfare to work) as a problem of personal deficiency simply re-inforces long-standing assumptions in this country about why people are poor. We need to think structurally.

Discussion thereafter was lively. It was suggested that the pattern Sandy identified has its analogue in all reform movements: should the focus be on the renovation of individuals or the system? Is the problem that there are no statistics for changing the system--and that we do not know how to get them? Or that we do not WANT to get them? It was asked what particular contribution sociology could make to the study of American culture: does it help us understand our use of terms like "boundaries," the ways in which our social categories have an "inner and an outer" dimension that we understand as timeless, rather than as historically constructed? How can the work of sociologists function as an intervention to change such understandings? In the long-standing communitarian/libertarian debates about a utopic state in which everyone is equal, for instance, is it more useful to suggest that we begin at the same point or from a state of inequality?

Mention was made of discussions in this series last fall about the centuries-old human desire to find in numbers an escape from the messy particularities of the social world. It was suggested that Sandy's work took a turn beyond what we had earlier described as the tendency of counting to change what we count; was he tracing instead an insistence on counting as a way of REFUSING to change what we know? Or was it rather that, beginning with assumptions about racism, Sandy was frustrated in his inability to find the numbers to support his instincts, that there was an "absence of agreement between the numbers and what he knows"? Has research been done to support his conclusion? Is he unhappy with the set of numbers available?

It was claimed that statistics will "never prove anything in a definitive way," that what is needed is a more politically thoughtful interpretation, one which looks not at isolated factors or linear causality, but at more illuminating questions. Is there a flaw in the work of social scientists who refuse to run models without a "race dummy"? Are their numbers on the wrong scale? It this a question of not having the right statistics? Or is it a matter of discourse--an insistence on looking at the problems individualistically, rather than structurally--that is, of asking the wrong questions? Can we run better regressions? Or is it that we know the answer, but do not have the evidence to prove it? Sandy said that he "wouldn't want to mortgage evidence to statistics," that evidence "goes beyond statistics and is not entirely dependent on our ability to count." He insisted that "some interpretations are better than others," and that his "story is a better story" because it is a better account of history and context. It was suggested that a diagnostic feature of good science is not starting with a story and then finding the evidence to prove one's presumptions, but rather searching for the evidence to dis-prove what one thinks one knows.

Are we looking at only "1/2 the animal"? Why aren't social scientists using a different methodology, broadening their approaches to make them more inclusive of social factors, analyzing their statistics within relevant contexts? Who has tried to show, in a sophisticated way, the relations between the individual and structural dimensions of these problems? Sandy directed us to Glenn Loury's The Anatomy of Racial Inequality; to the theoretical work of Iris Marion Young on an alternative to the "fault model" understanding of responsibility (using structural models rather than attacking the problem on the level of individual discrimination); and to Durable Inquality, in which Charles Tilly suggests that all "human capital" models of social analysis are flawed, that what is significant in such studies always proves to be the "unexplained variants."

Sandy also made mention of "Notes from the Underground,"in which Fyodor Dostoevsky said that "if we could ever predict what men could do, then men would go mad." Sandy observed that, if we could identify the sources of racism, we would simply find other ways to re-create the racial privilege in which we are so invested. He ended our conversation with the assertion that "social science is an oxymoron": the social sciences have been "profoundly perverted by trying to be scientific." The issues of social life cannot be answered scientifically, "because the reality we study is a moving target." It was suggested that such descriptions are based on a mis-understanding of how science works.

Such matters are likely to be under continued consideration at our next meeting, on Thursday, February 19, when Sharon Burgmayer of the Chemistry Department will discuss "The Teleology of Green, or: Is There Meaning in Orange?" In the interim, the discussion is invited to continue online.

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