Welfare is a public policy concept in which government programs are introduced to help a society’s poor or disabled population reenter the workforce and care for themselves. This paper will take an in-depth look at the institution of welfare in the United States. Proceeding from a brief history of modern welfare programs, this essay will then review many of the issues that have arisen concerning this form of public policy as well as the ongoing attempts in Congress to correct these issues.
Keywords Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC); Cash Transfer; Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA); Welfare Dependency; Welfare State
In 1977, the budget director for the state of New York, Peter Goldmark, offered his thoughts regarding social welfare programs. "Welfare," he said, "is hated by those who administer it, mistrusted by those who pay for it and held in contempt by those who receive it." Goldmark was certainly not alone in his assessment of social welfare programs. Indeed, while the notion of using public funds to help the destitute get back on their feet is a noble concept for left-leaning idealists, in practical application, it has generated more controversy from both sides of the American political aisle than it has addressed poverty in the United States. In the latter twentieth century, this controversy became even more heated in light of two recessions, unpredictable economic development and subsequent budget austerity.
This paper will take an in-depth look at the institution of welfare in the United States. Proceeding from a brief history of modern welfare programs, this essay will then review many of the issues that have arisen concerning this form of public policy as well as the ongoing attempts in Congress to correct these issues.
A Brief History of Welfare in the United States
Welfare, a public policy concept in which government programs are introduced to help a society’s poor or disabled population reenter the workforce and care for themselves, is by no means a new idea. However, government was not always the primary donor to the poor — in the Middle Ages, the impoverished looked to churches and other charities for help rather than to political leaders.
While most societies viewed the poor in a negative light, in the sixteenth century, public attitudes concerning the poor began to change. In Great Britain, the introduction of the "English Poor Law" cast a light on the plight of the poor, calling for the reform of the impoverished population as well as eliminating poverty itself. The English Poor Law remained in effect for more than two and a half centuries. Its significance cannot be understated, as it represented a major shift in government policy toward the poor, creating institutions and programs designed to reduce the number of impoverished people and restore economic balance among the people (Slack, 1995).
While the English Poor Law cast a light on the need seen by many to help rather than isolate the impoverished, the stigma of poverty has persisted throughout history. An interesting change of attitude, however, occurred during the early twentieth century, when the stock market crashed in 1929.
When Wall Street collapsed on what was coined "Black Tuesday," individual shareholders saw their holdings dwindle into negligible sums. However, the tumble was not limited to investors — assets of countless businesses also shrank, sending 11,000 banking institutions into insolvency. Within three years of Black Tuesday, stock market prices were 20 percent of what they were worth prior to 1929. Consumer confidence collapsed concurrently with the stock market, which meant production also fell off. By 1932, manufacturing output was halved, and up to 30 percent of the American workforce lost their jobs (Nelson, 2008).
The stigma of poverty was suddenly lifted during the Great Depression — there were simply too many members of the U.S. population who could be classified as below the poverty line to be considered social pariahs. The economic tumult of the Depression, the impotence of policymakers to rebuild economic institutions and systems and, above all, the increasing number of American poor vaulted Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the presidency in 1933. With his election came a mandate to help people get back to work.
Roosevelt introduced the "New Deal" while accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and he made good on his vow upon entering office. In addition to filing legislation to stimulate industrial recovery and prevent future collapses from taking place, Roosevelt also pushed for unprecedented billions in federal spending to help create jobs and provide relief for the poor. While industrial and infrastructure recovery was an important part of this New Deal, the driving force behind the initiative was poverty relief and recovery. Political concerns were certainly expressed about the focus and effectiveness of this set of proposals, but in the face of public demands for relief, such concerns were marginalized (Bonatti & Thomsson, 2007).
In 1944, FDR also introduced the notion of a "Second Bill of Rights," which lent a philosophical ideal to his proposed policies. Stemming from his concept of the "four freedoms," freedom of speech, religion, fear and want, the Second Bill of Rights was designed to emphasize the latter of these freedoms by working to ensure that every individual had a right to make as comfortable a living as possible (Sunstein, 2006).
One of the longest-lasting aspects of Roosevelt's "welfare state" (a system in which the government assumes responsibility over the health, education, employment and social security of the people) was that of Social Security, which is used to help the handicapped and elderly remain free from want. Thirty years after the Roosevelt administration, the leadership team of President Lyndon Johnson took charge to build upon the legacy of FDR. Johnson managed to invest $6 billion in Medicare and another $1.3 billion in education reform appropriation. Johnson, addressing both U.S. Capitol chambers, declared a "war on poverty," prompting more people to get involved and the federal government to get more active in servicing the people's needs
In addition to his Medicare and education measures, Johnson's "war on poverty" included the introduction of the Head Start program, work study initiatives, food stamps, and the health care insurance program for the poor, Medicaid. In the years that immediately followed, Johnson's war seemed to be fomenting a return, as poverty levels dropped and living standards improved. Less than a decade later, however, poverty levels remained steady. In fact, Sheldon Danzinger of the University of Michigan said in 2004 that Americans have allowed poverty to again fall off the public's national agenda (Siegel, 2004).
Indeed, while the nobility of Roosevelt and Johnson reinvigorated the debate on the need to help the poor return to the rolls, there remains controversy about whether the government's role of managing the distribution of public funds to offset poverty is necessary. This paper will next look at the controversy over the modern welfare state.
Civic Responsibility or Budget Drain?
There are many different aspects of the American welfare state. As the definition provided earlier in this essay demonstrates, it is manifest in a broad range of areas. Most of these arenas are, however, somewhat benign in terms of their political sensitivity — after all, public education, Social Security and health care are universally applied programs. Alternatively, "welfare" more often than not evokes more attention from both advocates and critics alike, in large part because of the stigma that remains attached to the nation's poor. However, another critical factor is a simple matter of dollars and cents.
When one of the cornerstones of FDR's New Deal, the Aid for Dependent Children (as it was known then), was initiated, its payments to eligible children were only about $32 per month (equal to $360 today), and only one of three children actually received the benefit. By the 1960s, however, the program was renamed "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" (AFDC), and benefits were expanded to include grants for mothers. The benefit itself grew as well, a 60-percent increase in only twenty years. Furthermore, the number of people receiving the benefit more than doubled during the 1940–1960 timeframe. What was even more troubling to budget monitors was what...
(The entire section is 3819 words.)