Robert Lieberman

Robert C. Lieberman, who teaches political science and public policy at Columbia University, is the author of Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State.

Recent Articles

Orwell's Poor and Ours

Orwell depicted the poor unsentimentally, but with compassion and economic realism. Today's conservative critics, who blame poverty on an absence of values, do neither.

T he very rich are different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. "Yes," Ernest Hemingway teased Fitzgerald, in a short story of his own, "they have more money." To Fitzgerald, the rich inhabited a world apart. To Hemingway, the rich were just like the rest of us, only with nicer furniture. Today's debates about poverty mirror the Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange. "The poor are different," some say. They live in a separate culture, bereft of the values that could lift them out of poverty. Public policy reinforces their lassitude by encouraging their morally and socially deviant tendencies. "They just have less money," reply others. They are regular folks in a desperate situation, and they behave as any of us would in the same circumstances. Provide for their material needs, or change the incentives that confront them, offer jobs that pay a living wage, and all will be well. Something is amiss in these contending visions of the poor—or, I should say, of poverty, for these...

Why Americans Hate Welfare

A curious paradox defines the politics of welfare in the United States. On the one hand, we are an extraordinarily generous and forgiving people. In 1998 Americans donated more than $170 billion to charity, and we have proven open to giving just about anyone (even, say, a philandering president) a second chance. Americans are willing, even enthusiastic, supporters of vast social programs aimed at protecting individuals from what Franklin Roosevelt called "the hazards and vicissitudes of life." On the other hand, Americans are more likely to be poor than citizens of other industrial countries, and American government does less than other advanced nations to shield its citizens from poverty. If we're so generous, just why do Americans hate welfare? This puzzle is at the heart of Martin Gilens's compelling book, and his answer can be summed up in a word: race. Americans dislike the programs most commonly called "welfare"-- especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and its...