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Redefining Compassion to Reform Welfare: How Supporters of 1990s US Welfare Reform Aimed for the Moral High Ground

Robin Stryker and Pamela Ward

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) eliminated the entitlement to assistance put in place by the 1935 Social Security Act, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Although the PRWORA eliminated part of the social safety net, its supporters argued that the reform was compassionate and would benefit welfare recipients. Much has been written about the politics of federal welfare reform, but the role played by redefining compassion so that this cultural value could be associated plausibly with welfare reform legislation largely has been overlooked. This paper provides a combination of historical narrative and systematic content analysis to document both the content of that redefinition and the processes through which it occurred.

Building on literature on the role of values and frames in public policy making and the role of ideas in institutional change, we suggest that defining welfare reform as compassionate was an important part of successfully legislating the PRWORA. In turn, defining welfare reform as compassionate required redefining an abstract and general value—compassion—seen as important to welfare policy making and debate in the United States. For 60 years—and even as support for “big government? eroded and reformers increasingly sought to attack welfare programs for perversely discouraging work and promoting dependency—federal welfare policy and debates over it embodied a “traditional? value of compassion. Compassion expressed itself through long term institutionalization of, and bipartisan commitment to, a need-based entitlement to public assistance as a “safety net? for the “truly needy.? In a few short years in the early 1990s, welfare reformers succeeded in redefining this “traditional? definition of compassion so that a substantial segment of the political elite equated compassion with reduced government assistance, decreased welfare rolls, government fiscal constraint and promoting increased individual responsibility. Although compassion still meant caring for children and caring for each other, the federal government was incapable of compassion, caring for children required parental responsibility, and people could only care for each other through personal involvement and interaction within the community. The redefinition of compassion removed the final set of barriers to passage of the PRWORA. As well, the redefinition of compassion in Congressional debates about welfare reform during the Clinton era facilitated the appeal of George W. Bush’s rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism? in his 2000 election campaign.