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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The question is "Why do Americans still hate welfare?":

Why Do Americans Still Hate Welfare?, by R.M. Schneiderman, Economix: As I explained in a post last month, the word “welfare” remains a charged one in the American lexicon. So in the throes of a prolonged recession ... it’s worthwhile asking: Why is this the case?

Americans – going back as far as Colonial times, when Elizabethan poor laws were in vogue – have never favored unlimited government handouts that are not contingent upon work. The Great Depression is a prime example. Various polls and historical accounts taken during that time period indicate that the American people largely favored government public works programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Direct relief, on the other hand, was unpopular... It was also highly limited. Only children, the blind and those over 65 could receive it. ... James Patterson ... writes that “the image of the poor person in the 1930s was the agrarian farmer, down on his luck, but not complaining.”...

Starting in the mid-1960s, however, that image began to change: poverty – especially welfare – became seen by many as largely an African-American phenomenon. It was also during this decade that the word “welfare,” which previously did not have a negative connotation, became “a political epithet,”...

The reason ... has to do with various social changes that occurred during that decade. They included: a dramatic increase in the number of women and children receiving public assistance, the rise of the notion that people had the right to such assistance, an increase in children born out of wedlock and the presence of large numbers of African-Americans in major northern cities, many of whom had migrated from the South during the 1940s and 1950s.

In the 1960s, policy makers and the media began to focus on poverty and anti-poverty measures for the first time since the Great Depression. But in the process, the latter appears to have offered a distorted image of the American poor. ... Martin Gilens ... demonstrates that from 1965 to 1992, the images used by various media outlets dramatically overrepresented the number of African-Americans among the poor, especially in stories involving welfare fraud.

The result, Professor Gilens says, was that both blacks and whites wrongly perceived that the majority of welfare recipients were African-American. Professor Gilens also finds a strong correlation between those who wanted to cut welfare spending and those who felt that African-Americans were less committed to the work ethic than their white counterparts. ...

The so-called welfare reform act of 1996 was –- at least in part — intended to align American welfare policies better with American values. ... Aid is now contingent upon work, and the government no longer provides indefinite assistance. Nevertheless, “welfare” remains a catch-all pejorative...

To the extent that people do "hate welfare" - and not everyone does - I think people were sold the idea that their hard-earned tax dollars were being used to support people who weren't even trying to work, people who were just "living off the system." People don't mind helping when they believe the hard luck came from events outside the person's control - that could happen to any of us - but helping those who refuse to help themselves is another matter. Creating the perception that people were living off the work of others on a grand scale was the key to undermining support for the welfare system.

[Here's something I wrote in 2005 about Nassau Senior (1790-1864) and the Poor Laws. He believed that the poor laws and dole led to a decreased incentive to work and created the arrogant attitude that workers and their families had a right to exist even if they could not or would not find work: Nassau Senior and the Poor Laws – Everything Old is New Again.]

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 03:24 PM in Economics, Social Insurance | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (46)


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