Historian's book traces rise of mass imprisonment

In the 1970s, politicians – and the public – interpreted the social movements, rising crime rates and economic downtown as proof that welfare programs didn’t work and certain marginalized groups were unfit for full citizenship. These attitudes were codified in a public policy of “getting tough” that echoes today in “law and order” political rhetoric.

In her new book, “Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America,” historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann examines the political choices and discourse that have led to American mass incarceration and rising inequality.

The war on drugs, mass incarceration and the erosion of the welfare state were intertwined phenomena, writes Kohler-Hausmann, assistant professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences. Tough strategies were seen as solutions to myriad problems of governance that arose from the economic dislocations and political upheaval of the era.

“In the ’70s there was an ascendancy of the notion that crime and poverty are the result of deviant, maladjusted individuals or a cultural pathology,” says Kohler-Hausmann. “Punishment and social subordination were the logical response given these assumptions.”

To understand how political thought changed from an emphasis on rehabilitation to the embrace of punitiveness, Kohler-Hausmann looks at welfare, drug and criminal sentencing policy in the 1970s, including the debates that led to the repudiation of New York’s drug treatment programs and the enactment of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Those laws, the nation’s harshest, “helped entrench the idea that low-level drug sellers were irredeemable and state efforts to transform racialized ‘pushers’ into full citizens were futile,” she explains.

The focus on welfare fraud and the “welfare queen” were responses to several complex problems, explains Kohler-Hausmann. With the era’s economic shifts, there was an increasing demand for public assistance and states searched for ways to keep down the number of people on the welfare rolls. At the same time, the welfare grants were too low for people to live on, so many took side jobs. Instead of approaching these issues as economic or policy problems, key politicians framed them as evidence of welfare recipients’ criminality and laziness and initiated fervent anti-fraud campaigns.

“Anti-welfare fraud campaigns pushed welfare cheating into newspaper headlines and political speeches for decades,” writes Kohler-Hausmann, “while increasing economic inequality and stagnating real wages, arguably much more broadly registered trends, did not emerge as dominant political issues.” Welfare is now so thoroughly discredited, she notes, that politicians are still passing stigmatizing policies, such as mandating drug testing or prohibiting beneficiaries from withdrawing more than $25 per day from cash machines.

“In this period, it became commonsense that only ‘toughness’ worked to manage crime,” says Kohler-Hausmann. “This logic led politicians and prosecutors to see prisons principally as places to warehouse and punish, to increase sentences and the number of people sent to prison, to expand the range of social problems penal systems were asked to manage, and to increase the police presence in low-income communities of color. All these factors contributed to the dramatic expansion of the penal system in the late 20th century.”

Getting tough fundamentally changed the postwar mission of government, she writes: “It shifted from an emphasis on transforming marginalized individuals to protecting ‘deserving’ citizens from these groups. These punitive policies helped produce the trope of a nation divided between rights-bearing, taxpaying Americans and a racialized, denigrated ‘underclass’ who are not entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		 Julilly Kohler-Hausmann