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Designed as a safety net to protect people from the economic insecurity of the capitalist system, the American welfare state began with the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt’s coordinated response to counteract the Great Depression. Despite considerable fluctuations in popularity, the welfare system continues to this day. The 1935 Social Security Act—and the social-relief programs of the following decades, like the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program—are the best examples of the early American welfare state; the Great Society—the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, with its accompanying programs of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)—is the best example of the liberal 1960s welfare state; the 1996 implementation of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) is a good example of the recent conservative welfare state. The American welfare state is a fluid system and the subject of much debate and criticism. Nevertheless, the basic idea that the government has a responsibility to prevent reasonably well-intentioned Americans from extreme economic and social debasement meets with enough support to make the welfare state is a significant aspect of American social policy.
Intended as a way to help the poor function within mainstream society, a welfare state is created when the government accepts responsibility for providing support for its citizens. The American concept of the welfare state differs from that of other nations in that the United States continues to promote individual responsibility; America has never adopted a system of federally controlled education or health care (for example) comparable to those of France or Great Britain. In America the conception of a welfare state is less rigid than it is in Europe, and the primary role of the American government is seen as providing aid to both public and private organizations that function on the local level. This decentralized approach ensures that the federal government does not become too domineering, acting, in theory, as a safeguard to protect democracy.
In the days since Roosevelt, many twentieth-century presidents have enacted their own form of social welfare, the collective impact of which amounts to the American welfare state. Harry S. Truman had the “Fair Deal,” Dwight D. Eisenhower had the “New Look,” John F. Kennedy had the “New Frontier,” and Lyndon B. Johnson had the “Great Society.” The Great Society, combined with the War on Poverty, was the most comprehensive of these programs. The 1960s were a time of economic prosperity, and Johnson sought to extend the nation’s prosperity to all Americans: his Great Society and its War on Poverty first explicitly focused on improving the social and material status of African Americans. Prior to the 1960s, and after the election of Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968, the federal government assumed a very limited role in poor relief; even during the Johnson Administration’s tenure, most Americans viewed welfare as a temporary evil that promoted indolence and which should be avoided whenever possible.
The Proactive 1960s Welfare State
Johnson’s 1964 Economic Opportunity Act was the first phase of the Great Society program, designed to help minorities and the impoverished move up into mainstream society through economic, social, and educational reform policies. This act allowed for the formation of several programs administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity, such as the Community Action Program, the Job Corps, and Head Start. The most ambitious and controversial of these was the Community Action Program, which—as outlined in the Economic Opportunity Act—was supposed to provide
services, assistance, and other activities of sufficient scope and size to give promise of progress toward elimination of poverty or a cause or causes of poverty through developing employment opportunities, improving human performance, motivation, and productivity, or bettering the conditions under which people live, learn, and work.
Unlike the earlier programs of the New Deal and those of following administrations, the CAP attempted to bypass the top-down emphasis of traditional welfare, instead emphasizing the need to directly involve the poor in the development of policies and programs. This ill-defined policy of the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor gained publicity for the CAP but angered the affluent because of the program’s inherent ambiguities and propensity to attract anti-establishment activists; because of this, the CAP was not very effective. The structure of the Job Corps was more similar to New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in that it provided employment to the nation’s poor, but it was plagued by inefficiency and poor funding because of a lack of Congressional support and did not produce significant results. Head Start was one of the longest-lasting programs established under the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and is still in place today despite research findings ambiguous about whether the program produces long-term results.
Other Influences on Welfare Policy
Other branches of government, most notably the Judiciary, have also had an impact on American welfare; the legal system has not always condoned federal welfare legislation. America, according to some scholars, is committed to equal justice in principle, but not always in practice: the poor and minorities do not have the advantages of the wealthy. In 1964, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said that the legal system is a synonym for “technicalities and obstruction” when ruling on welfare legislation; the poor, therefore, see the law as the enemy and not as a protector. At the same time, however, the law protects the existing rights of the poor. In 1970, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that welfare recipients were required to receive due process and proper notification before the government could revoke their benefits, establishing that welfare was not “gratuity” but “property.” By this case, the Court ensured that welfare recipients enjoyed the same legal rights extended to owners of private property.
The Civil Rights movement has also been intricately involved in the American welfare state. After the influential 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, and especially in the 1960s, the federal government adopted a liberal “reformist” policy of instigating programs like Affirmative Action to help minorities “catch up.” The Johnson Administration in particular realized that ignoring the poor and minorities would hamper the nation’s growth; despite the white backlash in the wake of the 1960s urban unrest, under-represented minority groups received federal support under Johnson. One of the best examples of this is the Education Act of 1965, which gave financial support to low-income districts to help offset the unequal funding created by local subsidies of particular schools; this act did not solve the problem, however, as wealthy districts still receive more funding, and most states do not put all tax revenue raised for education in a common fund for equal distribution. The relative amount of funding schools receive provides insight into the economic division of cities.
The rise of conservatism and the Republican Party to prominence has raised many questions about the future of the American welfare state. After the Vietnam War destroyed Johnson’s chances for reelection in 1968, Republican president Richard Nixon gave half-hearted support to some Great Society programs like Head Start. Under Nixon the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) scaled back the expensive and outdated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Overall, Nixon’s administration marked a return to the pro-business, anti-welfare orientation of the Republican Party. Returning to the traditional Progressive mindset touting individual initiative and self-discipline as the means for social advance, conservatives broke from the New Deal assumption that supporting the poor and unemployed was the government’s duty. Nixon’s policy of revenue sharing gave money to metropolitan areas, spurring the growth of suburban American but harming the inner city, thus exacerbating de facto segregation. Programs such as Affirmative Action also came under ire from conservatives unhappy with the welfare state; they stressed moral reform and character building rather than welfare, which they associated with vice and laziness. Mirroring late-nineteenth-century conservatives, late-twentieth-century conservatives defined poverty as a sign of moral inirmity and not the product of environment. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat, did little to correct the rising conservative outlook of affluent Americans; Carter’s unpopularity prepared the way for Ronald Reagan’s rise to the presidency on an unabashedly conservative platform.
The Debate over Welfare Reform
In many respects Reagan’s presidency marked the end of the American welfare state as a political given, though for political purposes he did not end established programs like Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Reagan ran on a conservative platform, directly repudiating the liberal welfare state: while campaigning for the 1980 election, Reagan catered to the conservative “egalitarian” ideology that opposed affirmative action programs that, according to conservatives, gave preferential treatment to minorities at the expense of the white middle class. Instead, Reagan supported the conservative view that self-discipline, personal responsibility, and hard work were the main tenets of social success; though Reagan continued education programs for minorities, he worked to end direct welfare programs. Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush focused on policies to lessen direct federal control of domestic relief efforts. They advocated, instead, a business-first orientation, arguing that business stimulates the economy, provides jobs, and increases the nation’s spending power, which in turn combats poverty, though indirectly.
Though the election of Bill Clinton in 1993 brought the Democrats back in control, the Clinton Administration did not adopt as liberal a stance toward welfare as earlier Democrat administrations. Instead, Clinton signed a Republican-sponsored welfare reform bill in 1996 intending to get people off welfare and into jobs that would help them out of poverty. Clinton’s stated purpose was to “end welfare as we know it” by changing federal assistance from a relief handout for people in poverty to a program of financial aid for needy people. The 1996 welfare reform bill allocated more control over welfare to states, limited the maximum benefits to five years of support per family, required able-bodied adults to work after two years of support, abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and ended welfare assistance to non-U.S. citizens. The reform bill also allocated four billion dollars to assist “welfare moms” in paying for child- and health care to help them get off welfare. Clinton believed that the American welfare system was “broken beyond repair.”
The American welfare state remains controversial and is primarily a political— not a social—issue. Liberals and conservatives (and to a certain extent Republicans and Democrats) differ not so much in their assessment that some action should be taken to improve the situation of the poor as in their view of the correct level of federal government influence in these programs. In many ways this is the same fundamental issue that divided Republican Herbert Hoover and his Democratic successor Franklin D. Roosevelt in their approach to the Great Depression. Hoover, a self-made businessman and engineer, implemented polices that emphasized individual charity, personal integrity, and capitalism; Roosevelt, in contrast, implemented the New Deal as a direct federal relief program that took the responsibility of caring for the poor away from individuals and placed their welfare under governmental control. In the early 1930s Roosevelt’s direct welfare program garnered great popular support, but Hoover’s reliance on businesses and individuals made him seem unconcerned about the consequences of the Great Depression. This same political split continued for decades as Democratic presidents such as Johnson implemented ambitious welfare programs and increased federal government control and Republican presidents such as Reagan lessened federal control and placed more emphasis on the responsibility of businesses and individuals.
Unlike the more rigid European welfare states, the American welfare state continues to promote individual responsibility. Rather than the federal government controlling health care and education, as in France and England, American welfare takes a more decentralized approach, the federal government assuming leadership and providing funding for state and local programs. Even liberal Democratic presidents like Johnson used federal resources more for funding localized programs like CAP and Head Start than for assuming direct federal control. Consequently, the American welfare state is much less liberal than its European counterparts, and the debate over its continued usefulness is primarily a political issue—a question of how much direct federal influence is needed to solve the problems of poverty in America.
- Bremner, Robert H., Gary W. Reichard, and Richard Hopkins, eds., American Choices: Social Dilemma and Public Policy since 1960 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986);
- Economic Opportunity Act (http://www2.volstate.edu/geades/FinalDocs/ 1960s/eoa.htm);
- Haveman, Robert H., and John Karl Scholz, “The Clinton Welfare Reform Plan: Will It End Poverty as We Know It?” Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Paper no. 1037-94 (1994);
- Quadagno, Jill, “Theories of the Welfare State,” Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987): 109-128;
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Trattner, Walter I., From Poor Law to Welfare State, 6th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).
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