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

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

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.


The Great Society Programs: The Need for a Restructuring

April 16, 2012 Leave a comment

The welfare programs of the Great Society, while admirable, have been a marked failure for the federal government, both in their success rates and in their administration. The federal government bureaucracy is too bloated and complicated to effectively administer these policies. Moreover, by imposing its will on the states, the federal government is diminishing the opportunity for experimentation and flexibility. Allowing for these would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the Great Society programs, as each state would be able to tailor funds towards its specific needs rather than adhere to a blanket method provided by the federal government. Indeed, the Great Society resulted in substantial “governmental fragmentation, inadequate coordination, growing intergovernmental conflict, and federal intrusiveness,” all of which hampered the administration of welfare policies (Conlan, 6). To avoid these problems, the role of the federal government in welfare policy must be reduced and delegated to the states, as they were before the Great Society.

The role of government in administering welfare programs not only should be restructured, but it also should be substantially reduced. Some economists such as Milton Friedman have argued for the implementation of a negative income tax, where people who earn below a certain amount receive supplemental income from the government rather than pay taxes and then receive a welfare check. One of the War on Poverty’s fatal mistakes was in assuming the poor’s needs were primarily social instead of economic (Danziger, 7). The NIT would address this economic need while substantially reducing the government’s role in welfare programs, and, in theory, would eventually eliminate the need for welfare programs altogether, instead using the tax code to establish a social safety net. Compared to AFDC, NIT “provides recipients greater freedom of choice…does not interfere directly in labor markets, and has relatively modest…work disincentives,” a crucial factor in welfare’s long-term effectiveness (Danziger, 11). Through greater nationalization of income maintenance, the NIT creates “a more uniform, effective, and equitable welfare system” by decentralizing federal involvement in traditionally state and local initiatives such as community development (Conlan, 20-21).

While an NIT would effectively reduce the role of government in welfare administration, it is imperative that this program also includes work incentives to avoid fostering a culture of welfare dependency. Without these incentives, the poor will become comfortable receiving a fixed income from the government, thus diminishing their motivation to seek employment and resulting in a continuous increase in the number of people on welfare. It is true that “the poor need support,” but the poor “also require structure” and inducements to become effective members of society (Mead, 22). By enacting limits and contingencies on welfare recipients, the poor would then be enabled, even enticed, “to achieve their long-run goals,” such as steady employment or a stable family life (Mead, 23). Enforcing certain productive values and targeting individual characteristics and incentives better motivates welfare recipients to seek employment and “integrates the seriously poor into the larger society” (Mead, 27-28).

The Great Society was correct in enacting a social safety net for America’s most vulnerable populations, but its methods and administration resulted in ineffective welfare programs and a bloated government bureaucracy. Intergovernmental relations need to be restructured, beginning with a reduction in the federal government’s role in welfare programs. This restructuring, coupled with work incentives and increased emphasis on personal responsibility, would create more effective policies in the long-term and reduce the number of welfare recipients. Indeed, welfare should no longer be considered a handout from the federal government, but rather a localized system that motivates individuals to become socially and economically responsible citizens.


Conlan, Timothy. From New Federalism to Devolution: Twenty-Five Years of Intergovernmental Reform. Washington, DC : The Brookings Institution, 1998. 1-35. Print.

Danziger, Sheldon. “Welfare Reform Policy from Nixon to Clinton: What Role for Social Science?”. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, 1998. Print.

Mead, Lawrence M. The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1997. 1-38. Print.

A Theory of Poverty: Culture and Powerlessness

April 4, 2012 2 comments

The Culture of Poverty


     The causes and effects of poverty, to this point, have not been fully analyzed and evaluated in social science academia. John Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, published in 1958, made the startling revelation that as America’s private sector became wealthier, the public sector deteriorated, perpetuating income inequality. Within this work, Galbraith describes the existence of “insular” poverty, which “manifests itself as ‘island’ of poverty,” with unique and specific characteristics attributable to the group, not just individuals (Lemann, 150). It is these group, not individual, characteristics that perpetuate a certain culture, one that produces people who “are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities” (Lemann, 150).

The prevalent and permeating sense of hopelessness and helplessness within an impoverished community greatly contributes to the aforementioned psychological state. The poor “are like aliens in their own country,” plagued by widespread feelings of “powerlessness” and “unworthiness” (Lewis, 7). This overwhelming sense of detachment from one’s own country, this marginalization, prevents the poor from relating their socioeconomic situation to those of others like themselves throughout the world, thus illustrating a lack of class consciousness. An isolationist perspective, then, perpetuates the sense of powerlessness by dissuading the poor from class organizations such as trade unions. Indeed, when they do become members of such organizations, or “when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world,” the poor cease to be part of the culture of poverty (Lewis, 7).

It is not only an isolationist mindset that perpetuates this culture. Physical detachment and invisibility significantly contribute to the poor’s political powerlessness and general sense of hopelessness. In the past, unskilled and semi-skilled workers constituted the poor, a mixed group that was able to see and envision a better life due to their constant interaction with the middle class. Now, the poor “are losing their links with the great world” through physical isolation from America’s middle class. The poor are only able to see themselves, giving them “little reason to hope” for a better job or a better future (Harrington). Further, this isolation makes it easy for the majority of Americans, as well as for the political system, to ignore this increasing population, diminishing what little political power the poor previously possessed. Thus, despite a person’s potential to be “paragons of will and morality,” if he is born into a desperate, disadvantaged situation, he has little chance of escaping this culture of poverty, propagating a vicious cycle that can only seemingly be stopped by significant outside intervention (Harrington).

Indeed, in order to truly help America’s growing population of the poor and destitute, this ingrained culture must be changed. The poor must feel part of this nation; they must believe that they are an integral component in the social and political processes of American government. By involving the poor in “successful and significant social action,” by giving them a say “in decisions and institutions that affect” their lives, they can then “develop psychological and social competence that will enable them to climb out of poverty” (Rubin, 18). Through this political and social involvement, the poor will then feel like they are important and influential members of their communities. Essentially, this participation produces “good citizens” who are conscious of their neighborhoods and cities, and who work to improve their surroundings through organized participation with local government (Crenson, 358).

The characteristics of impoverished neighborhoods, many of which are almost completely isolated from mainstream American society, must be transformed. It is these characteristics, namely the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness so ingrained in impoverished communities, which create the nearly inescapable culture of poverty. Only by changing these characteristics, and the poor’s debilitating mindset, can individuals overcome the culture of poverty.


Crenson, Matthew. “Organizational Factors in Citizen Participation.” Journal of Politics. 36.2 (1974): 356-378. Print.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America. New York: millan Publishing Company, 1962. Web. < America excerpt.htm>.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Alred A. Knopf, 1991. Print.

Lewis, Oscar. “The Culture of Poverty.” Society. 35.2 (1963): 7-9. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <;.

Rubin , Lillian B. “Maximum Feasible Participation: The Origins, Implications, and Present Status.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 385.14 (1969): 14-29. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. < html>.

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March 25, 2012 1 comment

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