Governance, Accountability and the New Poverty Agenda

44 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2010 Last revised: 16 Oct 2010

See all articles by Wendy A. Bach

Wendy A. Bach

University of Tennessee College of Law

Date Written: April 22, 2010


Across the country a new poverty agenda is emerging. These efforts are limited by the political consensus that has emerged since welfare reform and focus, as has always been the case, on the “deserving” - in today’s iteration, primarily the working poor. Mirroring national and international trends, the means of governance of these new social welfare programs has also begun to change. Where once there was a set of programs ostensibly controlled through law and regulations, in growing pockets there is now radical devolution and abandonment of traditional legal and rule making structures. Experiments in policy, program structure, and governance frameworks proliferate. These new governing structures are closely aligned with new-governance theory, which in turn holds out the promise that, through a process of deep democratic participation and continual experimentation and redesign, the governing enterprise will produce a set of policies that are more responsive to the real needs of those in poverty.

This Article argues, however, that prevalent governing mechanisms of the new poverty agenda diminish rather than enhance accountability and responsiveness. Programs structures undermine the ability of recipients to ensure that these benefits are being fairly administered. Moreover, contrary to the best of new-governance theory, the absence of substantive participation by poor communities in goal-setting and program design fundamentally undermines the experimentalist enterprise. The new poverty policy “experiments” reveal an unwillingness to test the subordination-tinged political assumptions of “deservingness” and “undeservingness” that lie at the heart of the new poverty policy, thereby limiting the ability of the experimentalist enterprise to create more responsive poverty policy. Despite these striking failures, however, new poverty programs could realize the deep democracy promise of new governance. If governing systems include effective structures to ensure accountability both to those who seek to benefit and to the communities that seek to participate in designing and evaluating programs, new-governance frameworks can be strategically deployed to facilitate the creation of a more responsive new poverty agenda.

Keywords: poverty, social welfare, new governance, democratic accountability

Suggested Citation

Bach, Wendy, Governance, Accountability and the New Poverty Agenda (April 22, 2010). Wisconsin Law Review, Vol. 239, 2010; University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 119. Available at SSRN:

Wendy Bach (Contact Author)

University of Tennessee College of Law ( email )

1505 West Cumberland Avenue
Knoxville, TN 37996
United States

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