Cover image for Democracy Without Decency: Good Citizenship and the War on Poverty By William M. Epstein

Democracy Without Decency

Good Citizenship and the War on Poverty

William M. Epstein


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03633-5

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03634-2

280 pages
6" × 9"

Democracy Without Decency

Good Citizenship and the War on Poverty

William M. Epstein

“What is it like to fly back in time and then to move forward to the present, stopping off at various agencies, state-funded programs, and other service-providing organizations that have fought poverty? A careful reading of William Epstein’s book allows one to do just that. It is an exciting journey, one that is full of meaning and social importance. This is an engrossing study for social-change makers, policy and program creators, sociologists, and students from various disciplines. There is a great deal of knowledge to be gained here. And there are many lessons to be learned by those who address inequalities in social services, health care, and education, and by those who work to end the polarization of classes. This book has the potential to change social policy.”


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The conservative attacks on the welfare system in the United States over the past several decades have put liberal defenders of poverty relief and social insurance programs on the defensive. In this no-holds-barred look at the reality of American social policy since World War II, William Epstein argues that this defense is not worth mounting—that the claimed successes of American social programs are not sustained by evidence. Rather than their failure being the result of inadequate implementation or political resistance stemming from the culture wars, these programs and their built-in limitations actually do represent what the vast majority of people in this country want them to be.

However much people may speak in favor of welfare, the proof of what they really want is in the pudding of the social policies that are actually legislated. The stinginess of America’s welfare system is the product of basic American values rooted in the myth of “heroic individualism” and reinforced by a commitment to social efficiency, the idea that social services need to be minimal and compatible with current social arrangements.

“What is it like to fly back in time and then to move forward to the present, stopping off at various agencies, state-funded programs, and other service-providing organizations that have fought poverty? A careful reading of William Epstein’s book allows one to do just that. It is an exciting journey, one that is full of meaning and social importance. This is an engrossing study for social-change makers, policy and program creators, sociologists, and students from various disciplines. There is a great deal of knowledge to be gained here. And there are many lessons to be learned by those who address inequalities in social services, health care, and education, and by those who work to end the polarization of classes. This book has the potential to change social policy.”
“This masterfully conceptualized book turns policy debates upside down. Economists from Adam Smith to Larry Summers have ignored the facts that breed poverty in the land of plenty. William Epstein’s critique highlights the inanity of the poorly designed programs of the War on Poverty as well as subsequent antipoverty efforts and their consistency with mass preferences. Not many social scientists, especially economists, realize that poverty is not an economic issue. The roots of poverty lie in a political climate. It’s the ‘poverty of culture’ that sustains inequality as a national character. In this case, American individualism and its rituals of affirmation of good citizenship perpetuate the corruption of rationality.

“Epstein’s brilliant analysis brings home the stark realities of the nation’s unfortunate preferences—which usually escape the attention and ability of most policy thinkers—in a very engaging discussion. Students, academics, and policy makers will find this book refreshingly useful in their professional deliberations.”
“William Epstein’s Democracy Without Decency is a shattering of shibboleths, an exercise in iconoclasm, and a sober and in-depth critical analysis of the lamentable failures of many large-scale American social welfare programs. He effectively demonstrates that hugely expensive programs intended to materially assist the poor and oppressed within the United States have accomplished very little—except, all too often, to add to the burdens of those they are aimed at helping. This volume should be required reading for all students of social welfare, government, public policy, and public administration. It would also make an excellent gift for your congressional representatives and senators. Epstein dissects the supposed accomplishments of major welfare programs—those dealing with poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, and housing—one by one. Using both government and independent research studies, he shows how these programs have failed to produce their anticipated gains. This is a steep and thorny path, and not for the faint of heart, but those who undertake this admirable and exceptionally scholarly intellectual journey will be well rewarded.”
“Appearing during the Great Recession, Democracy Without Decency is a timely indictment of the nation’s failure to address the poverty experienced by millions of Americans. Despite the advent of the welfare state, social programs that evolved during the New Deal and the War on Poverty are notable for their inadequacy. Nor do complementary efforts by voluntary private groups compensate for the failure of government social programs. Epstein attributes protracted poverty and widening inequality to Americans’ philosophical romanticism, managers’ adherence to a cult of social efficiency, and patronage on the part of stakeholders, all bound by popular consensus. Required reading for Obama supporters worshipping at the altar of hope and change.”
“Despite a screen of self-deceiving rhetoric, the United States remains one of the most ruthlessly unequal societies in the world. William Epstein’s disturbing argument—constructed so powerfully that effective rebuttal seems at times impossible—is that this is so because that’s the way the American people want it. Anyone seeking to understand the nature of Western societies needs to engage with this book.”
“Epstein makes an interesting case for seeing public policy, in a relatively open society such as the United States, as a generally reliable indicator of popular wishes. His arguments are always vigorously expressed. . . . This book will be of interest to students of American social policy, and will give food or thought to readers in countries, such as the UK, that have looked to the US for social policy ideas.”
“This is a compelling work. Epstein is a wordsmith. The writing is concise and prickly. The reader will remember his words and thoughts. . . . It is one of the great social welfare muckraking books of all time.”

William M. Epstein is Professor of Social Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His previous books include Psychotherapy as Religion: The Civil Divine In America (2006) and Welfare in America: How Social Science Fails the Poor (1997).




Introduction: The Good Citizen and American Social Welfare

1. The Programmatic Precursors to the War on Poverty

2. The War on Poverty: Programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity

3. Other War on Poverty Programs

4. The Social Insurances and Welfare

5. Charity and Community Organization

Conclusion: The Iron Sculpture





It is easy to fall into the trap of broad cultural condemnation—any society but this one, any age but the present—invoking superior conditions in other cultures as though the comparisons were informed or sensible. The critical observations in the present work are made entirely within the American tradition and loyal to the hope of social progress here at home. Other societies need to heed their own critics and their own traditions. The United States is a miracle of both achievement and disappointment and offers the eternal opportunity of an open society to reconcile the two.

The rules of good citizenship achieve mass consent in the United States through an ecology of detached role organizations rather than through deliberative democracy’s boast of conscious reason. A few noble individuals may live lives of blessed rationality, but they are tortured, depressed, sometimes suicidal, and always obsessed with their behaviors—joyless narcissists. The rest of America has reached an enormous agreement over priorities, rugged and durable through the centuries, that are embedded in the daily free choices of citizens. Planned change is improbable; the grave inadequacies of contemporary social welfare, endorsed with maddening regularity over the course of the nation’s history, will likely persist.

The full history of domestic social welfare is not the current concern. Rather, the period beginning after World War II is the chunk of time in which contemporary social welfare policy has emerged, engendered by traditional values but worked out through updated arrangements. Perhaps the persistence of American indifference to deprivation and need—the knowing, accepted, and even intended failure of social welfare programs—might offer a small alert, but by no means any point of optimism. Poverty persists, and deep inequality slowly corrodes the American promise.

The Introduction opens the central theme—American social welfare policy as the consensual, mandated choice of the American people. The auxiliary themes—romanticism, social efficiency, welfare as patronage, the failure of the rational enterprise in social policymaking, and others—are developed throughout the chapters that analyze social welfare policy. The substance of the discussion involves the War on Poverty and its immediate programmatic precursors, similar programs that followed, old age insurance, public assistance, and the charitable sector. The War on Poverty, mainly conducted during the Johnson administration’s Great Society of the 1960s, was the most focused effort during the contemporary period, and perhaps in American history, to address poverty. With few exceptions of limited influence, the War on Poverty and public policy in general have largely failed to reduce poverty or income inequality or to provide much income security. The charitable sector has been similarly unsuccessful, even disingenuous. The Conclusion, “The Iron Sculpture,” reunites the material around the process of detached role organization as the mechanism of the pervasive American consensus. Rather than usurpations of power by illegitimate elites, autonomous government action, or factional politics, that is, pluralism, the American consensus accounts for the nation’s institutionalized social welfare arrangements.

Many social welfare programs are covered, but some are not. Child welfare, formal public education, higher education, urban renewal and housing, most of the social insurances apart from old age insurance, among others, are redundant stories. The goal is not encyclopedic coverage but rather to lay out a theory of social welfare provision and decision making with ample evidence. The failure of social welfare policy to remedy poverty and America’s growing inequality is the occasion for an extended meditation on American society.

Preference is best defined as uncoerced choice; enduring public and private policies thus become statements of enduring national priorities. The fundamental proposition that in a free society public and private policy reflects the social will allows American values to be illuminated through the choice of public policy rather than indirectly through devices such as surveys and less structured tools. Public and private policy is probably a more accurate and reliable statement of social preference than social science analyses and historical narratives that customarily build from impaired data to explain how apparent decision makers, tradition, intellectuals, autonomous actors, special interests, economic elites, social institutions, and others determine policy choice. The very choice of public policy defines American values and the relationship of the individual to the state and the society, defines, in a word, citizenship.

All theories of social decision making are bedeviled by the absence of proof. Without definitive tests of cause, any assumption of originating or determinitive power is speculative. Elites that seem to be the authors of events may be working from a popular consensus or within cultural bounds, neither of which they engendered; the relationship between the individual and the times is maddeningly difficult to sort out. The few must govern, since direct participatory democracy in a large, complex society is impossible; yet the question remains whether their decisions reflect sectarian preferences or broader permissions. True tests of power are usually impossible, as large entities such as nations do not lend themselves to randomized experimentation. Yet even a randomized trial identifies only one cause in what is usually a causal chain. This is not much of a problem when the issue is the effectiveness of a drug. However, it is an enormous problem when actors perform in a social context within a tradition.

Only in the event of a clear difference of self-defined preference between alternative actors—e.g., the masses pressing for one policy and elites for another—is it possible to declare a political victor. Yet a winner in one event that may not even endure is not a prototypical power. Differences need to be tracked through many issues and across time. However, deep differences among large groups—that is, deep social cleavages—rarely exist in contemporary American social politics; the very openness of the society that facilitates an ecology of detached role organizations creates enduring agreement over much of the policy terrain.

Without a credible process for testing theory, the identification of the motor of social decision making becomes arbitrary and ideological. The standard histories of contemporary American social welfare argue toward their embedded ideologies, frequently assuming what they hope to prove by selective use of the historical record. That record is infinite and impossible to sort through without initial assumptions. Institutional histories implicitly argue for the importance of the institutions they explore; biographies accord unique prowess to individual actors; histories of group competition assume a particular form and influence for social organization; belief in the influence of the good heart finds instances in which the moral will prevails. In this way, historical analysis is at best suggestive and at worst tendentious, either flattering the vanities of dominant society, playing to partisan stakes, or simply expressing the author’s angst, disappointments, and hopes through tacit autobiography.

While the different theories of social decision making typically acknowledge some influence for mass preference, none accord it a determinative role. Except under the most coercive, authoritarian, and oppressive regimes, social policy and culture may well be the products of popular consent. In turn, a consensual social order is probably the most influential factor in determining events, according roles to all social actors that they depart from at their peril. In an open society, power is extremely diffuse, and the human vehicles of a popular will—the elites of politics, government, commerce, art, the professions, and intellect—embody that power rather than usurp it.

The theory of mass dominance cannot test its propositions any better than alternative explanations of social decision making can. It is usually possible to preserve the robustness and plausibility of a theory by isolating inconvenient events and data in special categories that accord them unique status, or that leave their true nature in doubt, or that reinterpret their essential meaning. Disconfirming data can be explained away as ambiguities that have yet to be understood, or as instances of values in transition, or, in rare cases that are relatively unimportant, as inexplicable. In other words, the ecology of detached roles can explain almost all social decision making, at least in retrospect. This is not a virtue, for the true test of theory lies in its predictive ability; no theory of social decision making has survived this level of sophistication. Instead, theories of social decision making reach conclusions through such devices as the consistency of findings, the balance of evidence, and informed guesses. These are troublingly weak substitutes for rigorous theory testing.

Without rigorous testing, the acceptance of any theory of social decision making becomes ideological, an instance of faith, convenience, and compatibility. In this way, the Left in the United States, with its theatrical sympathies for supposedly oppressed masses, has grasped theories of class dominance. Conservatives tend to justify the rule of enduring elites in terms of an “objective” national interest, national preference, the natural value of those who preside, even Darwinian survival and an overarching mystical belief in the virtues of tradition and stability. The patrician view of an autonomous and selfless class of decision makers legitimates the rational pretenses of philosopher kings. Most theories of social policymaking assume that democratic processes in the United States have been subverted. Few accept that the system is true to its assumptions and rules, and therefore they avoid the consequent conundrum: a democracy that produces problematic policy raises fundamental questions about its own value.

For a theory of mass determination, such as the ecology of detached roles, to gain currency would require an almost unimaginable honesty—we are what we invest in; the failures of American social welfare are intentional—and perhaps an agreement to improve the conditions of American citizenship. But a revolution in consciousness is unlikely to occur within a complacent America or to be forced on the nation by crisis. Catastrophes such as the Great Depression and two world wars have been absorbed with little challenge to a traditional civic ethos that is as rigid as an iron sculpture.

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