Lawrence M. Mead

Associated Professor of Public Service, NYU Wagner; Professor of Politics and Public Policy, NYU Wilf Family Department of Politics

(212) 998-8540
NYU Department of Politics, 19 West 4th Street, New York, NY 10012
Lawrence Mead

Lawrence Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University, where he teaches public policy and American government.  He has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Wisconsin.  He has also been a visiting fellow at Princeton and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. 

Professor Mead is an expert on the problems of poverty and welfare in the United States.  Among academics, he was the principal exponent of work requirements in welfare, the approach that now dominates national policy.  He is also a leading scholar of the politics and implementation of welfare reform programs.  He has written seven books and over a hundred other publications on these subjects. These works have helped shape welfare reform in the United States and abroad. 

Government Matters, his study of welfare reform inWisconsin, was a co-winner of the 2005 Louis Brownlow Book Award, given by the National Academy of Public Administration.  More recently, he has also written and lectured on the sources of American primacy in the world.

Professor Mead has consulted with federal, state, and local governments in this country and with several foreign countries.  He testifies regularly to Congress on poverty, welfare, and social policy, and he often comments on these subjects in the media.

He is a native of Huntington, New York, and a graduate of Amherst College.  He received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. 


The stakes of political conflict involve contending values and issue definitions as well as policy. Welfare reform was the most important change in American domestic policy since civil rights. Its significance hinges crucially on how participants understood the issue, but existing research fails to resolve what their perceptions were. Most accounts suggest that welfare reform was an ideological contest concerning the proper scope of government, but there are other views. This study gauges the welfare agenda rigorously by coding speakers in congressional hearings on the basis of how they framed the issue and the position they took on it during the six chief episodes of welfare reform that occurred between 1962 and 1996. The reform efforts aroused four distinct divisions. Over time, positions moved rightward, but more important, the dominant issue changed: The ideological debate about government was overtaken by a more practical debate about how to manage welfare. This is the first study to track the substantive meaning of any issue in Congress over an extended period of time using hearing witnesses and a preset analytic scheme.

Mead, Lawrence M.. Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men. AEI Press, 2011.



Most members of the National Association of Scholars worry about the politicization of the university. Academia gives undue preference to racial minorities in student admissions and faculty appointments. Teaching and research is often slanted toward minority grievances and Third World claims against the United States. At most leading universities and colleges, the faculty is so liberal that conservative viewpoints are scarcely admitted, even though in society politics and culture have trended rightward in the last thirty years. Leftism has become a defining feature of academe.1 All this violates the academy’s own values, which claim to stress open and honest dialogue regardless of politics.

However, critics have largely overlooked another danger to the university— scholasticism. That term originally referred to medieval philosophy, but it has come to connote academic work that pursues refinement at the expense of substance. Some medieval scholastics debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Likewise, today’s academics often address very narrow questions, and they are often preoccupied with method and the past literature of their fields. The university claims an ability to treat the large questions facing society, but today’s faculties typically work on much smaller issues confined to academic specialties. Scholasticism has no politics; it will not likely exacerbate political correctness. Yet it threatens the essence of the university as a philosophic enterprise.

Here I speak mostly about scholasticism in political science, my own discipline, but similar changes have occurred in other social sciences and academia as a whole.


Criticism of trends in political science centers on specific methodologies—quantitative methods or rational choice. However, the more worrisome development is scholasticism—a tendency for research to become overspecialized and ingrown. I define that trend more closely and document its growth through increases in numbers of journals, organized sections in the American Political Science Association, and divisions within the APSA conference. I also code articles published in the American Political Science Review to show a growth in scholastic features in recent decades. The changes affect all fields in political science. Scholasticism serves values of rigor. To restrain it will require reemphasizing relevance to real-world issues and audiences. To do this should also help restore morale among political scientists.



Lawrence Mead addresses the problem of nonwork among low-income men, particularly low-income black men, and its implications for families and children. The poor work effort, he says, appears to be caused partly by falling wages and other opportunity constraints but principally by an oppositional culture and a breakdown of work discipline. Mead argues that if government policies are to increase work among poor men, they must not merely improve wages and skills but enforce work in available jobs. Using the same "help with hassle" approach that welfare reform has used successfully to increase work among poor mothers, policymakers should adapt the child support enforcement and criminal justice systems so that both actively help their clients find employment and then back up that help with a requirement that they work. Men with unpaid child support judgments and parolees leaving prison would be told to get a job or pay up, as they are now. But if they did not, they would be remanded to a required work program where their efforts to work would be closely supervised. They would have to participate and get a private job and have their subsequent employment verified. Failing that, they would be assigned to work crews, where again compliance would be verified. Men who failed to participate and work steadily would--unless there were good cause--be sent back to the child support or parole authorities to be imprisoned. But men who complied would be freed from the work program after a year or two. They would then revert to the looser supervision practiced by the regular child support and parole systems. If their employment record deteriorated, they could again be remanded to the work program. Mead estimates that such a program would involve as many as 1.5 million men who are already in the child support and criminal justice systems and would cost $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion a year. It is premature, says Mead, for such a program to be mandated nationwide. Rather, the best role for national policy at this point is to establish and evaluate promising model programs to see which work best.


Field research, defined as an unstructured contact with public problems and programs, is essential to realistic policy research. Research linking governmental action to good outcomes is rare, because those who study government and those whose who analyze public problems are seldom the same. Field inquiry can help give policy research more governmental content. A lack of field contact is one reason why much of the research surrounding welfare reform has been incorrect. Ideally, the connections between policy and outcomes that respondents claim during field research should be verified by statistical analyses that use program data. Unfortunately, field research is discouraged by academic incentives favoring rigor at the expense of realism.



I investigate the link between the general features of state governments and their ability to reform welfare. The best indicator of governments’ characteristics is Elazar’s political cultures. I define what successful welfare reform means, drawing on implementation research and experience. My criteria stress process, the avoidance of political and administrative problems. I then test the link between the Elazar cultures and successful reform using recent case studies of state implementation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Elazar’s “moralistic” states perform best, and the association holds, even controlling for other influences. Results depend, however, on how welfare reform is defined.

Mead, Lawrence M.. Government Matters: Welfare Reform in Wisconsin. Princeton University Press, 2004.



People who participate in debates about the causes and cures of poverty often speak from religious conviction. But those convictions are rarely made explicit or debated on their own terms. Rarely is the influence of personal religious commitment on policy decisions examined.

Two of the nation's foremost scholars and policy advocates break the mold in this lively volume, the first to be published in the new Pew Forum Dialogues on Religion and Public Life. The authors bring their faith traditions, policy experience, academic expertise, and political commitments together in this moving, pointed, and informed discussion of poverty, one of our most vexing public issues.

Mary Jo Bane writes of her experiences running social service agencies, work that has been informed by "Catholic social teaching, and a Catholic sensibility that is shaped every day by prayer and worship." Policy analysis, she writes, is often "indeterminate" and "inconclusive." It requires grappling with "competing values that must be balanced." It demands judgment calls, and Bane's Catholic sensibility informs the calls she makes.

Drawing from various Christian traditions, Lawrence Mead's essay discusses the role of nurturing Christian virtues and personal responsibility as a means of transforming a "defeatist culture" and combating poverty. Quoting Shelley, Mead describes theologians as the "unacknowledged legislators of mankind" and argues that even nonbelievers can look to the Christian tradition as "the crucible that formed the moral values of modern politics."

Bane emphasizes the social justice claims of her tradition, and Mead challenges the view of many who see economic poverty as a biblical priority that deserves "preference ahead of other social concerns." But both assert that an engagement with religious traditions is indispensable to an honest and searching debate about poverty, policy choices, and the public purposes of religion.


In the last decade, caseloads in AFDC/TANF have shifted dramatically up, then down. Of existing studies based on time series or state panel data, some tend to underplay the role of welfare reform. All say little about that policies drove the decline or about the role of governmental quality. An approach using cross-sectional models explains interstate differences in caseload change rather than the national trend but allows more discussion about the role of policy and government. Results suggest that grant levels, work and child support requirements, and sanctions are important explainers of change, along with some demographic terms and unemployment. These policies in turn are tied to states' political opinion, political culture, and institutional capacity. Moralistic states seem the most capable of transforming welfare in the manner the public wants.



The article suggests a new model for the implementation of social programs based on welfare reform in Wisconsin. Existing models tend to be top-down or bottom-up, but in Wisconsin the leading counties and the state government worked interactively to transform welfare. Existing accounts of the Wisconsin reform stress state-level leadership, but key features such as high participation in work programs and an emphasis on "work first" rather than training were developed first in Kenosha and several other counties and then adopted statewide. The article also dramatizes the critical role of strong program management and organization.


When Western counties seek to reform welfare so that recipients have to work in return for aid, this poses implementation as well as policy problems. This study of work requirements in Wisconsin illustrates the challenges. It also confirms success of a top-down model of implementation. Wisconsin’s welfare work programs had little impact on dependency through the mid 1980s because work was not a priority and work programs were underdeveloped. From 1985–6, however, the state increased funding and built up the employment bureaucracy. It required that more recipients participate in work programs, enter jobs rather than education, and avoid welfare if possible. It attuned the bureaucracy to its goals through funding incentives. These measures along with strong economic conditions then drove the welfare rolls down, with largely good effects. Wisconsin’s achievement rested on its good-government traditions. Not all regimes have the same capacity.



The national caseload of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (since 1996, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) rose 34 percent between 1989 and 1994,then fell 50 percent through June 1999 (data from U.S. Administration for Children and Families). These are the sharpest changes in the history of the program. They sparked a heightened interest in caseload dynamics. The simple model I report here reveals more about the policy causes of change than prior studies.


Thirty years ago, welfare reform was a liberal issue. In the 1960s and 1970s, government planners proposed that cash welfare benefits be raised and extended to the entire low-income population. But those proposals were rejected, and since the 1970s, the welfare debate has turned sharply rightward: The goal today is more to reduce dependency than to relieve poverty. The most recent welfare reform, enacted by the Republican Congress in 1996, was very conservative. Partly due to it, the number of families on cash aid has fallen by half in the last five years.


Mead, Lawrence M.. The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty. Brookings Institution Press, 1997.


Mead, Lawrence M.. The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America. Basic Books, 1992.


Mead, Lawrence M.. Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship. Free Press, 1986.