(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Painstakingly gathering information from numerous studies into one volume, Michael Katz produces a history and criticism of social programs, both private and public welfare. He argues that public policy has been influenced to reduce programs by misrepresentations and the “willful ignorance” of conservatives seeking to trim welfare roles, extend favor to corporations, and advance a particular moral agenda.

Beginning with a prologue entitled “The Invention of Welfare,” Katz provides twelve chapters, an epilogue, and eighty-nine pages of notes to support his points. Each chapter focuses on a slightly different aspect of “welfare,” which Katz defines as the United States Constitution’s provision for the government’s advancement of the “well-being” of the entire population. Each chapter gives a historical background to particular topics such as family support, worker’s compensation, and employee benefits, and then takes the reader through trends and legislation involving that topic into the late 1990’s. The chapters build on each other, reinforcing the trends toward greater economic equality and the abolishment of poverty on through a retreat from these goals and embrace of market models and a new form of Social Darwinism.

Katz is thorough in his use of statistical data, but in some chapters, especially the middle section of the book, the volume of this data becomes nearly overwhelming. Acronyms appear frequently and are similar enough on occasion that the reader must backtrack to find the original, spelled-out version of some program or organization. Although conservative critics have taken aim at Katz’s politics and accused him of being a “dinosaur” who fails to accept the will of the public, they never question his facts.

In contrast, Katz exposes the frequent misrepresentation that welfare reformers have used to sway the American public to support changes in policy and programs. He points out the extreme cases, from welfare “queens” to workers’ compensation defrauders, that are held up as reasons for change, when they are at best a small fraction of offenders, and at worst, only a fiction created by reformers themselves. For example, when reformers in the state of California sought to make changes to workers’ compensation laws, an ad campaign aimed at the public featured able-bodied workers who were supposedly receiving benefits. When the law was changed, making it harder to qualify for benefits, less than 1 percent of recipient cases were deemed suspicious, and few of those were investigated. The more likely defrauders of this program, Katz points out, were the workers’ compensation “mills”—doctors and clinics who specialized in these cases but rarely helped those workers they charged the system to treat. However, because the changes in the law made it harder to qualify, fewer applicants sought benefits, and the real winners turned out to be employers, who paid less in insurance premiums when fewer employees filed claims against them. Unfortunately, Katz argues, this proved a greater financial savings for these companies than the alternative of improving on-the-job safety and preventing more injuries to their employees, which was the factor that caused drops in workers’ compensation claims in previous decades.

Similar tactics have worked to the benefit of employers and the ultimate detriment of workers in other aspects of welfare. Although the granting of small pensions (first offered to American Express workers in 1875) appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, employment benefits did not expand greatly until after World War II. A wage freeze during the early 1940’s meant that employers wishing to lure and keep workers could only increase the benefits they offered. Gradually, a “private welfare state” developed that was tied to work, and employers adopted a paternalistic attitude in which they promised to take care of loyal workers through systems of health care and pensions extending into retirement. This private welfare state not only provided incentives for people to work, but also displaced the idea of universal, public welfare from the public arena. Combined with a strong work ethic, this marriage of work and benefits eventually led to the notion of the “undeserving poor,” who did not perform work to earn these benefits, but expected to be given them freely.

No social benefits have ever been free and easy to obtain, as...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)