A framework for understanding public policy that I learned about during my graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno is the Social Construction Framework (SCF). The SCF argues that we project social constructions onto groups and that the targets of a policy and the social constructions attached to the targets greatly influence the form of the policy. Some groups, like military veterans, are advantaged in this system while others are seen as deviants, like drug addicts. Policy directed toward an advantaged group tends to be more generous while policy directed toward a deviant group tends to be more punitive in nature.
In exploring the history of welfare in the United States, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day share several quotes from Bill Clinton, whose presidential administration reshaped the welfare system of the 1990s. What the authors present is an administration that is designing policy to aid the poor as we would expect based on the SCF. The category of poor people was split into two distinct sub-categories, the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were those who worked hard, didn’t take advantage of the system, but had some bad luck and needed help getting by. The underserving poor did not have jobs and didn’t seek out jobs. They may have been drug addicts and may have had other problems that were attributable to poor decision-making or poor character.
In the book they write, “as Clinton was announcing plans to bolster the efforts of the working poor – whom many saw as deserving, but for whom there was little to no aid – he once again borrowed from [Harvard professor David] Ellwood, making the case that the working poor play by the rules but get the shaft. It was time to make work pay.”
Clinton’s policy was designed to help those who were seen as the deserving poor, who would fit a category in the SCF usually named dependents. The working poor are economically and politically weak, and policy which targets them usually provides more positive rhetoric than substantive aid. The underserving poor, the deviants in the SCF, were targeted with policies which took away benefits. Failing to work, testing positive for drug use, or being unable to submit a form, would result in the underserving poor losing their benefits. When we think about social assistance programs we see a lot of policies that can be understood through this SCF lens. We craft policies and narratives based on the social constructions of our target populations, bringing real world outcomes from the fictional narratives and social constructions of our collective minds.