Much is known about poverty in the U.S. and efforts to combat it. Here is a brief summary based on Karen Seccombe’s 2007 book “Families in Poverty.”
Cash welfare programs begin with the “Mothers’ Pension” program starting in 1896. This was aimed mostly at white widows; payments were in exchange for the service of motherhood. Payments were low and there was emphasis on moral reform: women were monitored for drinking, poor housekeeping, and relationships with men.
ADC which dates from 1935 was part of Social Security. Payments were intended to keep single mothers from depending on income from children and, with unemployment widespread, to keep women and children out of the workforce. Mothers were not expected to work and raise children at the same time. States had authority over eligibility and benefits and regulations varied between states.
ADC was amended in 1939 to move widows to a new program increasing the welfare stigma for the mostly never married or divorced women who remained. Over time, ADC became increasingly expensive and unpopular with taxpayers and beneficiaries, and women’s labor was more and more wanted in the workforce.
The Kennedy administration saw ADC give way to AFDC, “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” which provided for training for useful work. The Johnson administration added Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, and Vista to help reduce poverty by making work pay.
By 1975 welfare was increasingly seen as discouraging work. President Nixon proposed FAP, “Family Assistance Program,” to allow low income families to receive benefits while working. FAP wasn’t enacted, and other programs to encourage work were seriously underfunded.
The Reagan Administration brought cuts to AFDC, Food Stamps, Medicaid, school lunches, family planning, housing, legal aid. Welfare payments were cut by 30%.
The Clinton administration under pressure from Republicans adopted the idea of welfare to work with TANF, “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,” in 1996. Provisions for childcare and health care helped mothers with children to find and keep jobs. Lifetime limits were imposed on benefits. States retained control. How has it worked:
- Poverty rates remain high
- Families leaving welfare often have health issues
- TANF fails to help many needy families
- Childcare assistance is commonly inadequate.
During times of full employment welfare to work programs may make sense, but when jobs are scarce they are cruel. In good times or bad incomes must be sufficient to pay for health care, child care, transportation, and other family needs. Pushing people off welfare to flounder in poverty makes no sense.
Cash welfare was never intended to end poverty and has not done so. If we want to do that we need to try harder. Programs must be designed not to raise families to the poverty level and abandon them there, but to raise them well above poverty as is the case in many countries in Europe where poverty has been substantially eliminated.
Reference: Karen Seccombe, “Families in Poverty,” Pearson: 2007