Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Campus Only Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts



Second Department


Reader 1

Professor Michael J. Fortner


This thesis explores how shifting conceptions of the social contract surrounding welfare in the mid-to-late 20th century have affected crime and incarceration. In the first chapter, I review prominent academic literature surrounding the mobilization for welfare retrenchment. I identify a pervasive narrative in the recent academic literature that views the austere shift in poverty governance as an elite-led initiative to draw a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” that took particular aim at the urban Black poor. To understand the origins of the shift in poverty governance, this thesis studies the politics of welfare police before and after the election of Governor Reagan who sought to reform Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Analyzing newspaper articles from 1960 to 1980, I conducted a discourse analysis to assess the validity of this existing research surrounding the origins and rhetorical content of welfare retrenchment mobilization. Comparing political rhetoric to data on public attitudes, I argue that elites led the way in redefining welfare, but that widely-held preexisting beliefs made the public susceptible to subscribe to this political advocacy. Particularly, political actors created a narrative that incited anger towards welfare recipients through appealing to conceptions of economic citizenship and potentially inflaming racial prejudices.

In the third chapter, I evaluate the consequences of this newfound social contract around welfare by surveying empirical research on the relationship between welfare spending and crime and incarceration. I find compelling evidence that suggests social welfare spending is negatively correlated with crime rates. Significantly, these findings challenge a prominent element of the neoconservative conception of welfare as being a contributor to lawless behavior. I also identify profound social and economic costs

associated with the neoliberal paternalistic welfare state in terms of incarceration. Ultimately, I conclude that the neoliberal paternalistic welfare apparatus has been more adept at criminalizing the poor than ameliorating their deprivation. In assessing the American approach to poverty governance, there exists an understated paradox that neoliberal paternalism, while marketed on the ideal of reducing public expenditure, comes with its own costs in practice.

This thesis is restricted to the Claremont Colleges current faculty, students, and staff.