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Americans like to think that they look after their own, especially in times of hardship. Particularly for the Great Depression and the Great Society eras, the collective memory is one of solidarity and compassion for the less fortunate. Who Cares? challenges this story by examining opinion polls and letters to presidents from average citizens. This evidence, some of it little known, reveals a much darker, more impatient attitude toward the poor, the unemployed, and the dispossessed during the 1930s and 1960s. Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs show that some of the social policies that Americans take for granted today suffered from declining public support just a few years after their inception. Yet Americans have been equally unenthusiastic about efforts to dismantle social programs once they are well established. Again contrary to popular belief, conservative Republicans had little public support in the 1980s and 1990s for their efforts to unravel the progressive heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society. Whether creating or rolling back such programs, leaders like Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan often found themselves working against public opposition, and they left lasting legacies only by persevering despite it.
Timely and surprising, Who Cares? demonstrates not that Americans are callous but that they are frequently ambivalent about public support for the poor. It also suggests that presidential leadership requires bold action, regardless of opinion polls.
"[I]n analyzing public opinion in three distinct periods of American political history, Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs set out some interesting observations for contemporary policy-makers."—Alastair Hill, LSE British Politics and Policy blog
"The authors raise important questions about public opinion, policy making, and democracy. Scholars exploring shifts in the American safety net and American politics more generally will have to attend to the authors' arguments and their careful synthesis of public opinion data. Lay audiences and policy makers will find a useful and provocative, though quite general, overview of welfare state development alongside a passionate call for progressive political leadership to address the economic inequality and insecurity of the 'second gilded age.'"—Marisa Chappell, Journal of American History
"Who Cares? makes a contribution by providing a concise history of the interplay between the development of antipoverty policy initiatives and public opinion since the New Deal and by demonstrating consistent themes in attitudes toward the welfare state."—Tracy Roof, Perspectives on Politics
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction Devoted to the Common Good? 1
Chapter 1: Dissent and the New Deal 11
Chapter 2: Warring over the War on Poverty 56
Chapter 3: Economic Anxiety in the New Gilded Age 112
Chapter 4: Searching for "the Better Angels of Our Nature" 149