The dark side of the protestant ethic: A comparative analysis of welfare reform

Sociological Theory 23 (1):1-24 (2005)
Abstract
This article examines the impact of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism on the recent welfare reform movement and the 19th-century campaign to abolish outdoor relief. Contemporary advocates of welfare reform adopted the 19th-century model of charity organization and reform as their exemplar. The welfare reform movement focused on the morals of the poor and "welfare dependence, " while the 19th-century movement attempted to eliminate the distribution of aid outside the poorhouse and to discourage "indiscriminate almsgiving" on the part of individuals. We argue that the Protestant ethos represents a uniquely Anglo-American variety of Calvinist Puritanism. We also show that while this ethos is a fairly constant component of American culture, it has under certain conditions produced severe retrenchments in aid to the poor, that is, welfare reform and the abolition of outdoor relief. These conditions include the presence of a tight labor market and political mobilization by advocates of reform. Drawing on Ragin's (1987) model of conjunctural causation, we argue that both conditions must be met before such reform movements are likely to occur. We also employ the comparative method to show why alternative explanations based on economic and demographic factors are inadequate to explain the events in question
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