Welfare has never been popular in America Essay

Welfare has never been popular in America. Even as he established the first federal welfare programs in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt called welfare “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” and proclaimed that “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber”.1 This predisposition of welfare as a problem instead of a solution to one of society’s major troubles has continually resulted in policies fuelled by gender, racial and class bias. The various rules and requirements for obtaining welfare along with previous policies have put poor single mothers and blacks at a disadvantage.

For over thirty years, politicians and voters have traded ugly tales about poor single mothers who need welfare. Seventy-two percent of mothers receiving welfare have no more than two children, and sixty-one percent of recipient mothers do not bear children while on welfare.2 Yet everybody seems to know someone who has had extra babies to get more welfare. Most adult recipients would like to be in the labour market: thirty-nine percent combined wages with welfare or cycled between them; the majority of recipients leave welfare within two years; and two-thirds of mothers who leave welfare do so to take jobs.

But everybody seems to know someone who refused work because she enjoyed “welfare as a way of life”.3 There is no evidence that welfare causes poor unmarried mothers to be mothers, to be unmarried, or to be poor; and the average monthly welfare benefit ($377 for a family of four in 1995) hardly supports a desirable standard of living for mothers who parent alone.4 Yet everybody seems to know someone who did not marry so she could milk the public treasury for welfare benefits. Mythical welfare mothers have powered welfare politics and have kept welfare reform high on the national agenda.

As a result of the aforesaid “welfare stories”, previous American governments have consistently been very strict in determining the eligibility of welfare recipients. The Personal Responsibility Act (PRA) removes poor single mothers from the welfare state to a police state.5 Under the new regime, they are denied the income security afforded to all other workers. Moreover, they are subjected to stringent and intrusive moralistic regulation in exchange for meager and temporary assistance. In this welfare police state, poor single mothers must purchase their families’ short-term survival by sacrificing basic rights the rest of Americans take for granted. The welfare police state provides cash assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid to poor single mothers, but only if they reveal their most intimate relations.6 Worse yet, it provides cash assistance to poor single mothers only if they forfeit the right to care for their own children.

Alongside measures that punished poor mothers for their marital condition at childbirth, policymakers also developed rules requiring that biological fathers fulfill the traditional paternal provider role, whether or not they had ever been married to the mothers of their children. In 1950, Congress took a first stab at enforcing mothers’ economic dependence on biological fathers by requiring welfare offices to notify law enforcement whenever a fatherless child enrolled in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

7 In each of its welfare reform initiatives since 1967, Congress has insisted that recipient mothers must disclose the identity of their children’s fathers; in 1974, it made maternal cooperation in the establishment of paternity a condition of receiving welfare.8 Since 1974, the paternity establishment provision has been accompanied by increasingly stringent measures to enforce child support, which codified the expectation that biological fathers, not government, ought to provide economically for poor single mothers and their children.

With enactment of the PRA, poor single mothers fell victim to racialized images of them as lazy, profligate, and immoral. The law treats them and the public perceives them as breeders rather than mothers, as dependents rather than workers?in short, as people sorely in need of discipline, control, and reform. The subordination of these mothers in welfare law follows not only from the general fact that women’s care-giving work for their own families is not accorded economic value, but also from the specific problem that what poor single mothers do as care-givers for their children is not considered work at all.9 Welfare law?and much public discourse?rejects poor single mothers as mothers, and thereby negates the care-giving work they do for their children.

Introduced by Richard Nixon in the summer of 1969, the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) offered a guaranteed annual income to all poor families with children; however, its income formula favoured families with a wage-earning parent.10 Providing benefits to each of two parents in a household while capping family earnings, FAP further subsidized the wives of low-wage men when they remained at home to care for their children.11 The FAP benefits formula tacitly directed poor single mothers to marriage; work requirements for heads of households, whether single or married, punished solo mothers for parenting alone.

The 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act strengthened work provisions by requiring certain recipients to work off their benefits?workfare.12 By 1988, welfare policy expected poor single mothers to work outside the home; it did not expect outside work of married mothers, even if poor.13 Under the Family Support Act (FSA) of that year, the Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS) program specifically conditioned welfare eligibility on the single mother’s participation in work, education, or employment-related training programs.14 The FSA’s various provisions codified the assumption that poor single mothers should work outside the home.

Although the FSA clearly defined welfare as a stepping-stone to self-sufficiency through wages, it left open the question of whose wages a caregiver and her children were to depend on. The FSA did not expect married mothers to earn their own wages, for example, as it exempted one parent in two-parent families from participation in the mandatory work program.15 Moreover, the FSA did not address the labour market inequalities that left about half of single-mother families below the poverty line in 1994.

Hence, even as the FSA told poor single mothers to get a job, it did not provide the means for them to achieve economic independence through a job.16 In addition, while the FSA did provide funds for training, education, and social supports that might have enhanced the wage prospects of recipients, states often did not fully spend the funds.17 As a result, although many mothers exited welfare for stretches under the FSA, many returned when low wages, no benefits, and inadequate childcare put the well being of their children at risk.

Racial stereotypes also play a central role in generating opposition to welfare in America. In particular, the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy remains credible for large numbers of white Americans. In a culture in which economic failure is often attributed to lack of effort, blacks’ economic problems themselves reinforce the stereotype of laziness.18 And over the past decades this problem has been exacerbated by the emergence of a highly visible black urban underclass that has exerted an inordinate influence over popular images of blacks, even though it constitutes only a small fraction of African Americans.

To determine why such an underclass exists, the rate of labour force participation (LFP), reflecting “an active intention of working, given the opportunity”, can be used.19 What this means is that those who have dropped out of LFP are not people who are merely unemployed and looking unsuccessfully for work; rather, LFP dropouts are people who have entirely “given up hope or ambition of becoming part of the labour force”.20 The statistics are shocking. “In 1954, eighty-five percent of black males sixteen years and older were participating in the labour force, a rate essentially equal to that of white males; only four-tenths of a percentage point separated the two populations. Nor was this a new phenomenon. Black males had been participating in the labour force at rates as high as or higher than white males back at the turn of the twentieth century”.21

“Beginning in 1966, black male LFP started to fall substantially faster than white LFP. By 1972, a gap of six percentage points had opened up between black males and white males. By 1976, the year the slide finally halted, the gap was eight percentage points. To put it another way: from 1954 to 1965, the black reduction in LFP was seventeen percent larger than for whites. From 1965 to 1976, it was two hundred and seventy-one percent larger”.22

This change was absolutely unprecedented; until this happened “we had never witnessed large-scale voluntary withdrawal from (or failure to enlist in) the labour market by able-bodied males”.23 The tragedy of this decline in black LFP is compounded by the fact that, during the same period, it was mirrored in almost every other aspect of black activity in American culture.

For example, after steady improvement from the 1950s to the early ’60s, black schools and educational performance suddenly took a nosedive during the years of radical growth and proliferation of welfare programs (i.e., after 1964), resulting in what is now an enormous gap between blacks and whites.24 In fact, it was precisely among the youth that the changes in attitudes and performance were most pronounced: Across the board, in every area, the young behaved differently from everyone else. The black family had remained fairly stable for decades; but as the new generation grew up, the number of “one-parent” families among low-income blacks rose dramatically.25 Beginning in the mid-1960s, the changes all happened to the poor, and they happened all at once.

It is beyond any reasonable doubt that these changes were caused by the welfare system. The changes in the welfare system informed the poor that there was no longer any social stigma in becoming dependent upon aid (indeed, it was a “right”); personal responsibility was denied; and all welfare recipients were equally deserving of lifelong support. The poor became pauperized.26 Low-income males found that the financial rewards of dropping out of the labour force were superior to those of holding down a job; low-income women were faced with the plain economic fact that living with a man out of wedlock and bearing illegitimate children?in effect, marrying the state?would guarantee a stable income. Many men and women chose these avenues; they were the paths of least resistance. And “the changes we made were not just policy errors, not just inexpedient, but unjust”.27

There was no longer any official moral distinction between the industrious poor and the lazy poor, or between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor. “Government policy homogenized the poor, outlawing and erasing the traditional status distinctions between those who were poor but hard working, who sought to be self-sufficient, and those who were simply no-good bums. All the poor were victims of the system”.28 Thus, virtually all low-income persons began receiving welfare payments. This had drastic effects: “The working people who made little money lost the one thing that enabled them to claim social status.

For the first time in American history, it became socially acceptable within poor communities to be unemployed, because working families too were receiving welfare. Over a period of years, such changes in the rules of the economic game caused status conventions to flip completely in some communities. To someone who is not yet persuaded of the satisfactions of making one’s own way, there is something laughable about a person who doggedly keeps working at a lousy job for no tangible reason at all. And when working no longer provides either income or status, the last reason for working has truly vanished. The man who keeps working is, in fact, a chump”.29

What has been witnessed in America over the past twenty years is the systematic destruction of an entire class?the inescapable outcome of social welfare policies. That is not to say that these results have been intentional on the part of the planners. What is important is this: The results are just as certain as if they had been intentional. “If an impartial observer from another country were shown the data on the black lower class from 1950 to 1980 but given no information about contemporaneous changes in society or public policy, that observer would infer that racial discrimination against the black poor increased drastically during the late 1960s and 1970s. No explanation except a surge in outright, virulent discrimination would as easily explain to a ‘blind’ observer why things went so wrong”.30 As far as its effects on poor black are concerned, civil rights and welfare policy in this country might as well have been determined by the Ku Klux Klan.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is talk that the poor have not been wronged by the welfare policies but by their abuse of it. There is argument that the best way to restore economic penalties translates into the first and central policy prescription: to end all economic support for single mothers.31 The AFDC payment goes to zero. Single mothers are not eligible for subsidized housing or for food stamps. An assortment of other subsidies and in-kind benefits disappear. But with that exception, the signal is loud and unmistakable: From society’s perspective, to have a baby that you cannot care for yourself is profoundly irresponsible, and the government will no longer subsidize it. The reforms described work for blacks and whites, and according to the arguers, have been needed for years.

Subsequently, Charles Murray declares that remedial social programs “inherently tend to have enough of an inducement to produce bad behaviour and not enough of a solution to stimulate good behaviour”.32 Welfare programs fail because monetary benefits increase the net value of the condition that the programs are trying to remedy.33 Most cases of social destitution (such as poverty, drug addiction, etc.) are not completely involuntary. That is, most people have some decision over their circumstances, so that even in cases of unemployment, people can choose whether or not they continue looking for a job. Programs that pay monetary benefits make the problem worse by, in effect, making destitution less painful. Thus the behaviour that the program seeks to change either becomes more attractive, or less damaging.34 Therefore, a person has less of an incentive to change that behaviour.

Murray furthermore states, “The less likely it is that the unwanted behaviour will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm”.35 Net harm, in this case, means that the program can actually increase the incidence of the unwanted behaviour. According to Murray, there are two principle reasons why remedial programs often cause net harm. Firstly, it is very difficult to change human behaviour with positive inducements such as monetary payments.36 Only in combination with negative inducements, such as legal punishment, can such programs be made to work. Secondly, when positive inducements become large, they make the targeted behaviour more attractive to more people.37

In all or even most of the developed nations, there is no general tendency for all children to experience higher poverty rates than all elderly persons. “The figures show Australia and the United States have quite high rates of child poverty, but both nations also have comparatively high incidences of poverty among the elderly as well. Children in single-parent families have a hard time escaping poverty, but so too do elderly persons living alone in a number of countries. Sweden has best succeeded in preventing high poverty rates for either age group. Britain stands out for its high rate of poverty among the elderly, even those who are not living alone”.38

Of course there are many factors that might account for these differences among nations, but it turns out that policy choices?the structures of income maintenance programs that have been created?seem to play the largest role in determining the patterns of poverty both within and among these nations. To understand the distributional outcomes within and between age groups, one needs to understand the differences in policy patterns and their surrounding politics. “The high minimum benefits and broad entitlement approach of Sweden is consistent with filling the poverty gap and lowering poverty rates among not only children and the elderly in general but also for the most marginal income groups within each age group (children in one-parent families, elderly living alone).

The more minimum, uniform level of income security in Britain left a number of children and many more elderly persons in poverty. Whereas in Germany income support is oriented more to reflect the differentials of occupational status, overall poverty rates can be fairly low, but those who are in the economically marginal conditions of single-parent families or elderly persons alone may find themselves left behind. The two nations with the highest poverty rates for children?Australia and the United States?have relied most heavily on means-tested, selective strategies for providing income security for children”.39 Thus a greater targeting of income maintenance resources on particular categories of needy people does not necessarily imply more adequate income support for those who are assisted. In fact, the opposite more often seems to be the case.

It is important to realize that not only the content of welfare policies but also their structure, institution and administration play a powerful role in the politics affecting the success, the popularity, and future course of the programs as well as the perception of welfare recipients. The pejorative imagery of Americans towards welfare recipients has shaped the content and structure of the American welfare state from its beginnings. As a result, race-based attitudes, policymaking, and administrative policies have long had a negative impact on public assistance programs, especially harming poor single mothers and blacks.


Chilton, David. (1984). Preface 16. Ecclesiastes, 12.

Dore, Ronald. (1994). The Return to Incomes Policy. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.

Gilens, Martin. (2000). Why Americans Hate Welfare. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Heidenheimer, A. J., Adams, C. T., ; Heclo, Hugh. (1995). Comparative Public Policy. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.

Mink, Gwendolyn. (1998). Welfare’s End. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Murray, Charles. (1984). Losing Ground. New York: Basic Books.

Murray, Chares. (1994). Testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. The Congressional Quarterly Researcher, 88.

Patterson, J. T. (1995). America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Phillips, Nancy. (1999). Whose Welfare? Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Quadagno, Jill. (1996). The Color of Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press.

1 Ronald Dore, The Return to Incomes Policy (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 27.

2 Gwendolyn Mink, Welfare’s End (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 70.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 Ibid., p. 71.

5 Gwendolyn Mink, Ibid., p. 74.

6 Ibid., p. 75.

7 Nancy Phillips, Whose Welfare? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 153.

8 Nancy Phillips, Ibid., p. 154.

9 Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 167.

10 J. T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 262.

11 Ibid., p. 262.

12 J. T. Patterson, Ibid., p. 265.

13 Ibid., p. 265.

14 Ibid., p. 266.

15 Ibid., p. 266.

16 Ibid., p. 266.

17 Ibid., p. 267.

18 Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 31.

19 Charles Murray, Losing Ground (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 75.

20 Ibid., p. 75.

21 David Chilton, “Preface 16,” Ecclesiastes 12 (1984): 3.

22 Charles Murray, Ibid., p. 76.

23 Ibid., p. 77.

24 David Chilton, Ibid., 3.

25 Ibid., 3.

26 Charles Murray, Ibid., p. 219.

27 Ibid., p. 219.

28 David Chilton, Ibid., 2.

29 Charles Murray, Ibid., p. 185.

30 Ibid., p. 221.

31 Charles Murray, “Testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources,” The Congressional Quarterly Researcher 88 (1994): 17.

32 Charles Murray, “Testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources,” Ibid., 19.

33 Ibid., 19.

34 Ibid., 19.

35 Ibid., 20.

36 Charles Murray, “Testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources,” Ibid., 21.

37 Ibid., 21.

38 A. J. Heidenheimer et al, Comparative Public Policy (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 349.

39 A. J. Heidenheimer et al, Ibid., p. 351.