Knowledge, Politics, and Welfare Reform: Examining the Policy Changes in the General Assistance Program in Washington State
In the discussion of policymaking, a controversial issue has been the underlying behavioral assumptions of collective actions. On the one hand, scholars who support Institutional Rational Choice Theory argue that policy makers base their decisions on the costs and benefits assigned to the policy outcomes (Hall & Tayler, 1996; Ostrom, 2007). This is consistent with the evidence-based policymaking (Bogenschneider, K. & Corbett, 2010). One the other hand, scholars who support Social Construction Theory argue that policy designs are the products of social construction and the power resources of target populations (Schneider & Sidney, 2009; Stone, 2012). Social policy scholars have added a focus on the role of knowledge in shaping anti-poverty policies (O’ Connor, 2001; Schram & Soss, 2001). However, few welfare reform studies have discussed the interplay between knowledge and politics through both theoretical lenses, especially when the government is facing large budget shortfalls. Moreover, limited scholarly attention has been paid to a nationwide trend of shrinking the fully-state-funded General Assistance (GA) programs. This paper aims to investigate the two theoretical claims and fill the gaps by examining how knowledge was used to inform the recent GA reform in Washington State.
Using qualitative content analysis of written and electronic documents of legislative activities, I examined the research used by various participants at different stages of a three-year process (2009-2011) during which the state’s GA program was substantially revised and eventually eliminated. Multiple data sources were collected, including seventeen videos of the legislature (work sessions, public hearings, and floor debates) and their supporting materials. Instances of referring to research or evidence in these data sources were transcribed and systematically coded. I first analyzed the types of policy participants and research evidence involved in the reform. Next, I examined the link between problem framing, evidence use, and policy justifications (i.e., rational choice and social construction narratives). Lastly, I discussed how knowledge and political ideology interplayed during the reform process.
I argue that social construction of the target population dominated the institutional rational choice mechanism. This dynamic varied at different stages of the consecutive legislative process. At the early stage, the GA-recipients were stigmatized as undeserving poor with multiple medical and behavioral problems. This negative construction was attached to potential alternatives that replaced cash benefit. At the middle stage of crafting policy alternatives, medical treatment and vocational rehabilitation through a policy mechanism of social regulation were justified with compelling cost-benefit arguments. Regarding the final stage of decision making, research or evidence was manipulated by partisans with substantial ideological conflict over social issues.
This study demonstrates that the stigma attributed to poor people significantly affects the policy choices and consequences. This finding suggests that social workers and policy researchers in various settings should be alert to how research and evidence can be used to inform policy at different stages of the policymaking. Future advocacy work and research should consider challenging the negative construction of the target population as well as offering convincing evidence on positive social outcomes of cash programs.