Home > The 1996 Reforms and TANF > “Ending Welfare as We Know It”: A Theoretical Argument for Reform

“Ending Welfare as We Know It”: A Theoretical Argument for Reform

Today, the welfare system needs a major restructuring. While poverty decreased in the early years of the Great Society, from 1964 to 1968, improvements stalled in the 1970s, the same time that the budget for welfare programs was at its highest. Indeed, government handouts to the poor, requiring neither a change in values nor a change in the behavior on the part of the recipients, increased markedly during this decade. Yet the number of those in poverty stagnated, halting two decades of steady decline (Murray, 58). Why did this happen? What does this mean for the structure of America’s welfare state? Image

While many reasons are provided to counter the argument that poverty stagnated in the 1970s, despite the increase in the welfare state, these reasons fail to fully examine the economic data during this period. Arguments that a bad economy and an increase in older recipients halted this progress are negated by continuing economic growth in the 1970s, and by the stagnation in poverty decline for those below 65 years of age (Murray, 58-61).  Further, “latent” poverty, meaning the dependence of recipients on government transfers, actually increased during the 1970s, reaching 22 percent by 1980. This data illustrates a troubling decrease in economic independence, a characteristic “of paramount importance in determining the quality of a family’s life” (Murray, 65). Indeed, economic independence is at the core of American values; to lose this sense of self-reliance and sufficiency indicates a larger problem in the culture of the poor, a problem reinforced through the welfare system.

Most troubling, perhaps, is the fact that young black males, a group targeted by welfare policies, “stopped engaging in the fundamental process of seeking and holding jobs” (Murray, 78). It is important to recognize that this pattern occurred during times of full economic capacity and did not hold true for older generations of black males (Murray, 80). Those born after 1950 entered a labor market with radically different rules than those born prior to 1950, leading to marked changes in behavior and a forfeit of “their futures as economically independent adults” (Murray, 82). Thus, the welfare system of the past two decades has not only led to an increase in government expenditures, but also to economic dependence and disincentives to work, reinforcing behaviors that lead to poverty.

Changing these behaviors should be at the core of any welfare policy. The days of government handouts need to end, while the days of government “hand-ups” should begin. A system “oriented toward work and responsibility” would reinforce the characteristics that constitute productive citizens, thereby creating a long-term strategy for welfare reduction (Ellwood, 2). By making work “the ultimate goal and expectation,” welfare recipients will realize that they can no longer be dependent solely upon government subsidies, but must also seek employment opportunities and take responsibility for their economic wellbeing (Ellwood, 2). Further, the ongoing issue of child poverty highlights the need for forced behavioral changes in family structures. Making absent fathers financially responsible, and reducing the number of children born to unwed mothers, would greatly reduce the number of single females with children in poverty, the largest impoverished group in the country. Changes in welfare policy, such as “promoting the establishment of paternity” and holding teen parents accountable for their children, would diminish the choices and behaviors that cause child poverty (Ellwood, 2).

The abject failure of increased government spending on welfare necessitates a massive overhaul in the structure of welfare policy, an overhaul focused on reinforcing economic independence through work incentives and behavioral changes. No longer should a citizen be able to maintain a living solely through a government check. No longer should the government continue spending taxpayer money on a broken, failed system. Indeed, welfare “as we know it” must be radically transformed into a viable, sustainable system, one that incentivizes productive, responsible behaviors and leads to a long-term decrease in economic dependency, and thus a decrease in poverty.


Ellwood, David. “Welfare Reform As I Knew It: When Bad Things Happen to Good Policies.” American Prospect. 19 Nov 2001: n. page. Print.

Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York : Basic Books, Inc., 1984. 56-84 . Print.

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