The deeper history of "defund": How the "get tough" policies of the '70s and '80s led to disaster

Historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann on the destruction wrought by "common sense" crackdowns on crime and welfare

By Paul Rosenberg
Published May 29, 2021 12:10PM (EDT)
Police Officer figurine (Getty Images)
Police Officer figurine (Getty Images)

The notion that "Defund the Police" cost the Democrats House (and possibly Senate) seats is dubious at best, and doesn't reflect online dynamics. No candidates who lost ran on that idea, for the simple reason that it's a social movement slogan that emerged from the crucible of almost constant protests. "Defund" was never meant as a strategy to win elections, or even to define the converging movements involved in last summer's protests, whose principal aim as positive: We might say the point was to re-fund the non-police, that is, to shift resources to nonviolent alternatives that promote public safety more effectively, as well as more equitably. 

There are various alternatives, all involving a rethinking of assumptions that hardened into their current forms almost half a century ago through an interrelated set of "reforms" that led to the mass incarceration, extreme income inequality, paramilitary policing and draconian drug laws that have finally brought America to a long overdue point of racial reckoning. Those reforms and the logic behind them are the subject of a 2017 book, "Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America," by Cornell historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, which examines the turn toward enacting "tough" welfare, drug and anti-crime laws in three key state-level examples, and the way those were framed as "common sense" policies. 

"These policies did not reflect the inevitable failure of the state or the congenital degeneracy of poor communities of color," she writes. "Instead, they actually helped entrench these assertions in the political vernacular." Those assertions are now being questioned with a political seriousness never seen before. But the questioning is often fragmented, or narrowly focused in one policy area. To fully understand the interconnected nature of the defining assertions, their policy consequences and how they came to be — as well as how are now being challenged and could be overturned — Salon spoke with Kohler-Hausmann about her work and its relevance for the current moment and the struggle to shape a more liberated future, carried on by Black Lives Matter and allied social justice movements. 

Your book deals with three distinct areas of social policy where crucial changes were initiated in the 1970s — drugs, welfare and crime — under a common rubric of "getting tough," which profoundly reshaped how politics was seen, creating a new self-justifying "common sense." You argue that these changes can best be understood by examining that common rhetoric and the reasons for its political success in the context of different alternatives. Is that a fair description? 

Yes. "Getting Tough" is a study of the political logics, or "common sense," that both enabled and were produced by punitive trends in social and criminal policy during the 1970s. While people often think of the book as a history of the origins of mass incarceration, it really was born from my time spent working with anti-poverty and welfare rights groups. I was organizing in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton's "welfare reforms" that repealed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the New Deal program that had provided cash grants to poor parents. I wanted to understand the cramped, warped rhetorical space we operated in. We were constantly confronting these hardened racist, sexist and classist assumptions that seemed impervious to all the studies, reports, protests and personal testimony highlighting the damage that punitive policies inflicted. The book was an effort to understand how those ideas had metastasized in our political culture. 

I was particularly intrigued by what seemed to me a paradox. More and more, people were characterizing the politics of the late 20th century as a period of state shrinkage or retreat. Both critics and supporters of the increasingly conservative Republican Party said they aimed to "shrink government." Ronald Reagan is oft quoted as saying, "Government isn't the solution, government is the problem." And by 1996, Clinton agreed that "the era of big government is over." 

I was fascinated that this characterization persisted when we know elites spent these decades building the most expansive, expensive and intrusive penal and military infrastructures in U.S. history. Beyond simply pointing out the hypocrisy or blind spots in politicians' rhetoric, I wanted to investigate the relationship between a retrenching welfare state and growing penal system.  

Why focus on the 1970s? And why these particular subjects? 

The 1970s seemed critical since the decade was the pivot between the high point of liberalism in the 1960s and the ascendency of Reaganism in the 1980s. I decided to focus on three high-profile state level policy fights in drug and welfare policy and criminal sentencing where lawmakers ended up embracing "tough" solutions to vexing political problems. Instead of assuming this was the only reasonable response to conditions (which is what many claimed at the time), I wanted to explore the alternative paths that were proposed and understand why elites elevated punitive responses. 

What did studying these struggles in tandem show?

Looking at penal and welfare history together reveals that the late 20th century was marked most profoundly by shifting governing strategies, not the repudiation of government responsibility. Although disagreements about the proper size of government were obviously important, I argued that many political contests of this period were less about whether the state had a role in managing social problems than over which strategies, professional authority and institutions should be empowered to do so.

In the debates over drugs, criminal sentencing and welfare policy in the 1970s that I researched, the most pressing questions were over who deserved state protection and services and on what terms. In other words, welfare and crime policy were critical staging grounds in the long historical struggle over the social contract. Through them, groups struggled over who deserved voice in the polity, what were citizens' rights and obligations, and what in turn were the state's responsibilities to its citizens.

What happened as a result? 

Penal expansion was elite's response to the insurgency and economic changes in the late 20th century. By the 1970s, economic slowdowns, deindustrialization, rising crime rates and widespread political upheaval all highlighted the limitations of liberalism's promise to secure social order by rehabilitating and integrating marginal individuals. Voices across the political spectrum advanced their visions for the future, ranging from revolution to minor tweaks of the status quo. In the stories in my book (and many other places), policymakers replaced the ostensible commitment to social integration with an emphasis on "tough" strategies of exclusion, coercion, punishment, surveillance and the retraction of rights. 

I argue that the spectacle of enacting these punitive laws was an underappreciated force in shaping "common sense" about the impossibility of securing economic and social security for all residents. And just as the civil rights movement was challenging white supremacy, punitive policies also reinscribed racialized hierarchies by constricting targeted groups' ability to claim the rights and benefits of full citizenship. In other words, the worldview that stymied our anti-poverty organizing in the 1990s was forged in part through these earlier struggles. 

If this wasn't the only possible response to social conditions, why did "getting tough" win out?

For powerful interests, this was often the more politically lucrative and salable path. It targeted groups that were already vulnerable and marked as suspect, protected the status quo and remade state legitimacy. I also spend a lot of time in the book talking about the importance of pre-existing political conditions, particularly the shape of the U.S. welfare state. The paltry, privatized, racially stratified social welfare system impeded efforts to address inequality through the welfare state. I also argue that punitive policy built upon the U.S. tradition of "conditional citizenship," where the right to civic voice and basic survival were never guaranteed by virtue of residence or citizenship. Instead, full citizenship is actually earned, contingent upon proper behavior and fulfilling certain qualifications like working, paying taxes and being "law-abiding." These notions of citizenship made punitive policies' denial of rights, benefits, livelihood and civic standing seem palatable and fair.  

As penal and welfare institutions both backed away from their (always conflicted) promise of transforming marginalized individuals, the programs focused more on shielding "good" citizens from "bad" ones. They promised to protect the "taxpayers" from the "tax-takers." In powerful ways, therefore, the embrace of getting tough represented the state's explicit abdication of responsibility for the well-being of the most vulnerable groups in society. 

You describe "getting tough" as a shift away from the previous approach "to secure social order by rehabilitating and integrating marginal individuals and spaces." But there were continuities between the approaches, as well as sharp differences.  

People often understand the 1970s as a time when the penal system repudiated (or at least de-emphasized) the goal of rehabilitation in favor of simply delivering punishment. This was not just a shift in language. It accompanied real changes in how penal institutions functioned. For example, many states in the 1970s and '80s abandoned indeterminate sentencing, the practice where parole boards control the duration of incarceration and only released prisoners once they were deemed sufficiently "reformed." 

Frankly, there wasn't always a huge enthusiasm for welcoming prisoners back into society in the first place. And when crime rates increased in the post-World War II period, newspapers and elites reported that none of the rehabilitation programs actually "worked" anyway. As prison demographics shifted to include higher and higher percentages of Black and brown people, the appetite for retribution intensified and popular support for rehabilitation eroded further among influential groups. 

Lawmakers in many states replaced the old indeterminate system with determinate (or fixed) sentencing, where sentence lengths corresponded to the crime of conviction, not to parole boards' subjective assessment of an individual's rehabilitation. As lawmakers and judges gained more authority over the length of prison terms, they helped propel a frenzied punishment binge. Elites engaged in toughness bidding wars that ratcheted up sentence lengths, sending more and more people to prison for longer terms. 

What were the most notable differences? How did the logic change?

If the purpose of the penal system is simply social quarantine, retribution or deterrence, then it does not matter as much how the person being punished responds to the encounter with the state. When the stated goal of state punishment is to catalyze some transformation within the targeted person, there is much more space for questions like: Are incarcerated people actually being "reformed"? How does that state gauge reform? How frequently are people returned to prison? Are there sufficient or responsive services available to facilitate "rehabilitation"? Did prison actually help the people held there? And, ideally, what does the convicted person feel would be most conducive to their well-being? 

When the purpose of the institution is to simply warehouse or deter future crime, there isn't much incentive to evaluate the institution's effect on an incarcerated person. In fact, when the theory is that punishment should scare off possible future criminals, then the incentive is even reversed; the more dehumanizing, violent and deplorable the conditions, the better. There are real distinctions between these two missions and there were real political consequences for the elite repudiation of a commitment to "corrections" in the '70s and '80s (although talk of rehabilitation continues to circulate, especially in courts and prison and post-release programming.) 

The "common sense" explanation for that shift is that the earlier approach had failed because it was too soft. This was basically the argument that conservatives advanced at the time. But there was also a critique from the left (as well as from those affected) that played an important role in undermining the earlier consensus. What were the most significant elements of this critique? 

Yes, it is critical to note that the fall of the rehabilitation ideal was not simply a response to conservative pressure. Groups on the left, including many people directly subjected to these state projects, mobilized damning critiques of the ways coerced treatment and rehabilitation operated in practice. 

We can't understand this shift away from "corrections" if we approach rehabilitation and punishment as opposites. Firstly, they actually share some key assumptions. Both often attributed inequality, crime and drug use to behavioral or cultural causes. And rehabilitative and punitive programs both aimed their intervention at the level of the individual, not the broader power dynamics and the larger economic, social or political context. 

It is also critical to note that while elites de-emphasized the professed commitment to rehabilitation within both the welfare and penal system in the era after 1970, that commitment had always been partial and conflicted. Even in the halcyon days of "corrections," the rehabilitation ideal coexisted with a commitment to racial subordination, both in society and within prisons, and the formal legal acceptance of convicts' "civil death." Civil death is one of the starkest manifestations of the conditional citizenship I mentioned before. It is the notion that in lawbreaking a person broke the social contract and thereby forfeited their claims on the state: their civic voice, their right to certain rights and their access to key services.  

This logic was being challenged, right? It didn't add up for those being excluded?

For people of color, the promise of "reintegration" into society had long rung hollow in a society committed to white supremacy. For people convicted of crimes, the commitment to rehabilitating them coexisted discordantly with laws that barred them from the markers of full citizenship, such as juries, voting and many jobs. 

Furthermore, those people targeted for rehabilitation often found the programs excruciating to navigate. Many incarcerated people complained that programming and parole boards arbitrarily imposed their own constantly changing definition of rehabilitation. Or they felt coerced into performing white, middle-class notions of productive respectability to win their freedom. Therefore, while many on the right had always critiqued the state commitment to rehabilitation as foolhardy and coddling criminals, criticism also came from the left and incarcerated people themselves. With the rehabilitative ideal under this pincer assault and the period's intensifying insurgencies within prisons, the old rationale had fewer defenders, opening up space for this pivotal struggle to redefine the purpose of the prison. 

Some in the prisoners' movement at the time rejected notions of crime as mere individualized deviance and saw criminalization and state violence as undergirding capitalist exploitation and racial subordination. They advocated remaking society, not remaking individuals. Their visions obviously lost out, but it is impossible to understand their criticism when people think that the only alternative to today's draconian, punitive regimes is a return to the emphasis on personal rehabilitation. 

At one point you write, "These [tough] policies helped produce the political reality they purported to reflect, erecting barriers to the civic and economic participation of poor people, particularly within urban African American and Latino communities." What would be a significant example of this broader pattern? 

One of the main things I learned from my research for this book is that social policy is a truly powerful force molding social reality. Law and policy — particularly criminalization — help create social meaning, interpret the world and define the terms of debate over the causes and possible solutions to social problems. 

The political spectacle of getting tough on various racialized targets did not merely index popular opinion or reflect a conservative drift in the American electorate; it was also instrumental in producing it. That spectacle of "getting tough" helped transform highly contested claims about the failure of liberalism and social welfare programs into common sense. Tough policies forwarded the argument that certain marginalized populations were unsuitable for full citizenship and ungovernable without coercion or containment. They helped produce the racist idea that there were hyper-threatening discrete groups in society, steeped in a matriarchal "culture of poverty" and totally divorced from dominant social norms, that could only be managed by prisons and policing. Of course millions utterly rejected this logic, but state action wields intense lethal and explanatory force.

In other words, politics and policy created social categories such as the "underclass" or "super-predators." They didn't discover them. This masked what was actually a lack of political will to redress racial and economic inequality with claims of inevitable futility: visions of a hopelessly incompetent, impotent state and of an irredeemable, menacing underclass.

Could you give a specific example?

Let me use the story of the origins of the "welfare queen" trope. In the 1960s and '70s, economic slowdowns, job losses, population migration patterns and new legal rights to public assistance converged to swell the number of people claiming welfare. Welfare rights activists organized people — especially Black women, who had often been previously excluded — to claim benefits to which they were entitled. As more and more people claimed benefits, states faced ballooning welfare caseloads increasingly associated with people of color.  

There was no consensus over how to respond to these developments, or any agreement on whether it was a problem at all. Policymakers pursued a number of different strategies. President Nixon proposed replacing the entire welfare system with the Family Assistance Plan, which would have operated almost like a negative income tax to put an income floor below low-income families. The welfare rights movement called for a guaranteed minimum income that provided sufficient funds to raise a family in material security and not coerce parents into the workforce. But it was actually California Gov. Ronald Reagan's efforts to tackle the "welfare mess" that laid the path for the way policy and politics would move.

You tell this story in detail in your book. What's most essential for people to understand about it?

Reagan rejected the strategies mentioned above and other states' reductions in grant levels. Instead, California responded to ballooning welfare costs by attempting to selectively purge the caseloads. This strategy was based on the premise that an influx of ineligible and undeserving, shiftless or cheating people had caused the growth in program costs. The changing racial composition of the welfare rolls made these claims more palatable, since they resonated with longstanding racist stereotypes. 

Fraud investigations and pruning the rolls of "ineligibles" had been part of state aid since its inception, but they took on new importance during the 1960s and ',70s. In practice this entailed increasingly punitive responses to those people earning wages while receiving cash assistance. Administrators were well aware that grant levels were typically too low to support families, especially as they failed to keep pace with the era's rising inflation, and many understood that people had to find extra income to survive. But instead of significantly increasing benefit levels, as many welfare recipients recommended, officials formed new administrative units, both within the welfare bureaucracy and the district attorney's office, to ferret out welfare fraud. They set up anonymous "tip lines" so people could report acquaintances they suspected of cheating. Legislators dramatically increased the penalties for fraud.

What happened as a result?

As other states duplicated the strategies spearheaded in California, there was a sevenfold increase in fraud investigations between 1970 and 1979. Not surprisingly, fraud convictions also expanded dramatically. 

 It was the anti-fraud campaigns in Illinois that brought us the original "welfare queen." Although the epithet eventually would be used to disparage all women receiving state aid, it originally referred to Linda Taylor, a sophisticated con artist who, among many other alleged crimes, collected welfare benefits from various offices under multiple aliases. Elites, particularly Reagan during his 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, used this highly anomalous story of the "Chicago welfare queen" to indict the entire system.  

Architects of these efforts claimed that fraud campaigns could redeem the image of welfare. But I am suggesting the reverse: The charges of criminality and the spectacle of getting tough — indicting, sentencing and eventually imprisoning recipients — had the opposite effect. Of course the anti-fraud campaign never directly implicated the vast majority of families receiving AFDC, but it ended up further stigmatizing the entire program and all its beneficiaries. 

By 1976, 85% of respondents to one poll agreed that "too many people on welfare cheat by getting money they are not entitled to."

How did this change "common sense" assumptions about welfare? What qualified as common sense and what didn't?

Rhetoric about cheaters and welfare queens eating bonbons on the couch all day obscured in the public dialogue the poverty and the work, both paid and unpaid, of parents receiving state aid. These campaigns helped to transform the problem of growing welfare rolls, poverty, low monthly grants and lack of support for caregiving labor into a problem of welfare queens. It defined the problem of poverty as a problem of the poor, at a moment when the causes of racial and economic inequality were fiercely contested. Most important, it crowded out and delegitimized in many circles the voices of the women receiving state benefits themselves, women who were organizing a vocal movement. 

While the welfare queen has receded from public consciousness a bit these days, this racist stereotype of poor women receiving public assistance as lazy cheaters was at the center of political debates over race, poverty, parenting and inequality throughout the last decades of the 20th century. It animated the anti-welfare politics that ultimately led to the abolition of AFDC in the notorious 1996 "welfare reforms." In many ways, we still live in a political landscape sculpted by these narratives.  

Obsessions about welfare fraud have never really gone away, but they've receded as other fraud narratives have become more politically prominent — most notably voter fraud.  Could you say something about their similarities? 

Interestingly, I'm working on a book right now that chronicles the politics of voter fraud, and there are some ominous parallels and connections. Welfare fraud and voter fraud campaigns share an obsession with detecting nefarious cheaters often assumed to be people of color. In response, lawmakers increase regulations, surveillance and reporting, and recruit the penal system to raise the criminal liability for everyone involved. Instead of making the system more secure or trusted, this all works to further stigmatize the specific state agencies and their broader mission, be it electoral democracy or social support. And, of course, these punitive anti-fraud campaigns deter participation and cast targeted groups as suspect and unworthy of voice in the polity.  

You write: "The perceived need to 'get tough' undermined social welfare institutions and their expertise while bolstering the prestige and resources of other state actors and institutions, particularly law enforcement." Can you elaborate?  

The spectacle of passing and implementing punitive welfare and crime policy elevated a macho vision of political authority that discredited some institutions and aggrandized others. This all operated through highly gendered rhetoric which championed penal and military functions, not because of their programmatic efficacy or cost-effectiveness, but often simply through links to masculinist attributes. 

In these debates, "toughness" was an unassailable virtue. It was a political imperative to be tough on crime, drugs, welfare queens and communists. During the bidding wars that escalated criminal sentences during the late 20th century, it seemed that there was virtually no ceiling on the toughness appropriate for the racialized targets of the wars on crime and drugs. 

What happened on the flip side? 

The same logic belittled material aid and social welfare programs by casting them as feminine, effeminate or maternal. Welfare programs and social programs were "soft," "coddling" or part of a "nanny state." Many opponents of social spending did not just argue that investments in poor communities were ineffective and costly, but that they actively made conditions worse. Just like an over-permissive mother, they argued that social welfare investments encouraged deviance or disincentivized work. Therefore, implementing tough policy didn't just bolster the prestige and resources of law enforcement and the military, but simultaneously undermined social welfare institutions and their expertise. 

Punitive policy rested on, and reified, the assumption that the state was incapable of distributing social and material security to all citizens, but it was not anti-government. The state remained very much responsible for protecting those defined as upstanding and worthy citizens. Therefore, I am suggesting that these decades were not marked by the withdrawal of the state but the assertion of a particular, narrow vision of muscular state authority, enabled by the idea that only toughness — punishment, surveillance, coercion — could secure order in poor communities of color. 

Black Lives Matter taking center stage in the midst of a pandemic that has included massive social spending would seem to signal a sharp break with this logic. Would you agree? If so, how should this moment be understood in terms of longer-term developments? 

There have always been people who rejected the logics I investigate in "Getting Tough." Activists and movements have explicitly challenged them forever. And over the last few decades, in large part because of ceaseless agitation and organizing, it has become increasingly unviable to assert that mass incarceration "works" by any reasonable measure. Activists, particularly in the Movement for Black Lives, have profoundly unsettled the assumptions that masqueraded for so long as common sense: that policing and prisons are the inevitable response to social harm.

Abolitionist thinkers and activists have been particularly influential in forcing us all to question the inescapability of prisons and police. While there were always voices challenging the exponential growth in the penal system, calls for defunding the police and prisons are now being heard and debated even in Congress and mainstream media outlets. This is remarkable historically, and a testament to the power of recent mobilizations. 

But there are a lot of powerful people with vested interests in the status quo, and this logic of inevitability is really powerful, as evidenced by the ridicule and vitriol that often confronts people who question it. People who simply propose defunding police confront incredulous fury or are dismissed as hopelessly naive. But somehow the folks who have actually been defunding education, child care, jobs programs, libraries, public media, environmental protections and on and on and on for decades are seen as the rational grownups who should be stewarding our communities and our planet. 

I'm struck by the fact that Black Lives Matter protests erupted like never before in the midst of the pandemic. Yes, the murder of George Floyd was an outrageous trigger. But it wasn't the first. And yes, it followed years of movement-building. But it also seems significant that it happened at a moment when the collective protection of human life had been foregrounded in a way and at a scale unprecedented in public memory. Any final thoughts on how this experience may have opened up possibilities to create a new "common sense"?

Absolutely, the pandemic created new openings. It has created an opportunity to reimagine the responsibilities of government and to challenge the fantasy that the market can manage disaster or ensure widespread social and economic security. And the shutdown also offered an opening to acknowledge society's dependence on caregiving labor and to confront the ways this work — in families, schools, retirement communities — has been disparaged, effaced and desperately under-compensated.  

But the extreme events of the last year and a half don't have inevitable political implications. The real struggle is to make meaning out of this trauma, to struggle through organizing, protest, litigation, legislation, art, storytelling and the media over what meaning to attach to these events. After all, it is the massive mobilizations that have forced a reckoning about police killings, not the mere existence of state violence, which has been going on forever. It is yet to be seen what these events will mean or if they will be used to create a new common sense about what caused the heartbreaks and what can allow people to thrive. That will be dictated, in large part, by ongoing struggles to define what happened and why, and whose fault it was.  


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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