Welfare and Imprisonment: How "Get Tough" Politics Have Excluded People From Society

As opposition to Trumpism rekindles the necessity of doing politics at the local and state levels, Getting Tough is a vital reminder that reactionary ideas gestate at the local level before they get nationalized. And, with enough organizing, so too might emancipatory ones.As opposition to Trumpism rekindles the necessity of doing politics at the local and state levels, it’s important to note that reactionary ideas gestate at the local level before they get nationalized. And, with enough organizing, so too might emancipatory ones. (Photo: VOCAL-NY / Flickr)

Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Princeton University Press, 2017

Opponents of the US prison-industrial complex have long insisted that the problem is bigger than the unprecedented number of people this country locks up. The problem is how much the criminal legal system penetrates the lives of the most marginalized members of society — and how much it pervades the logic of the country as a whole. For critics of this vast carceral power, the challenge remains not only in undoing decades of public policy, but also in supplanting even more deeply rooted political logics that justify putting people in cages or otherwise violating and abusing them.

This tendency has often been summarized as “law and order,” referencing the language that conservative politicians from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump have used in rallying for repression. Yet such phrasing misses a crucial component of what led this country to be so punitive: politicians did not just crack down on “crime” — they cracked down on whole communities. Criminalization did not just send more people to prison; it resulted in a wholesale exclusion of working-class communities of color from claims to citizenship.

In Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America, historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann examines the two foundational realms of this crackdown. The ethos of “getting tough” was an article of faith among the New Right at that time. The same impulse that led Nelson Rockefeller to implement the harshest drug laws in the country in 1971 New York — including a proposal that all drug dealers get life sentences — also prompted Ronald Reagan to criminalize welfare recipients…

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