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Reluctant Good Samaritans, or
How We Got Into This Fix
Michael Katz, History

Q:  Can you put the Welfare Reform Bill into historical perspective for us?  What were the original welfare provisions - especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children - designed to do?  Why did we need them?

Michael Katz photoA: They were designed principally to help widows with children, so that mothers wouldn't have to leave home and go to work. They were outgrowths of mothers' pensions, which were state-run programs started in the second decade of this century. These programs were very limited because they were hedged with various kinds of moral and behavioral restrictions as well as citizenship requirements. By the Depression, they had been enacted in about 35 states and were assisting some 200,000 families. They were important for a couple of reasons. First, they made a substantial difference in the ability of these families to get by. They also set an important precedent. With mothers' pensions in mind, a group of very able and energetic women reformers - many of whom came out of the settlement house movement and Progressive reform - exerted influence at the time of passage of the Economic Security Act in 1935 (what we today call Social Security) to pass Aid to Dependent Children as a provision of that Act.

Some kind of help was necessary because widowhood was a much more serious problem than it is today. Men died younger then, from disease, unhealthy work, and a tremendous number of industrial accidents. Most of these men had very little insurance; it might cover their funerals. Women were unemployed or marginally employed outside their homes. They had little earning capacity. Both public assistance and private charity were meager. Additionally, wages for working men were very low. Most men worked episodically and were frequently laid off. The idea that working men could save a substantial amount of money was absurd. So widows found themselves in enormously difficult circumstances. It was plain to everybody that this was through no fault of theirs. They were the quintessential deserving poor.

Q: How have the constituencies served by welfare changed over time?

A: There were great demographic changes in what became Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The number of widows went down, and the number of unmarried mothers went up, as did the proportion of women of color. Divorced, separated, and never-married women increased. By the 1960s, widows made up only about one-half of recipients. This new population is one that gets a lot less sympathy from the public. The other great change since the 1970s is women working outside the home. It's harder now to argue that women should be paid to stay out of the workforce with their children.

Q; Are there are proportionately more people on welfare today than in the programs' early years?

A: Until the 1960s, a relatively small portion of eligible people received benefits. One reason for the explosion of recipients in the '60s was the Welfare Rights movement and court decisions. These challenges encouraged women to claim assistance for which they were eligible and made it difficult for public authorities to deny them that assistance. The numbers went from around one-third of eligible women receiving assistance to 90 percent.

Q: Some critics argue that welfare contributes to a culture of poverty and crippling dependency, helping produce crime, illegitimacy, and other social ills. Does a historical perspective support that criticism?

A: Neither a historical perspective nor social science research supports it. There's a large quantity of very competent, high-quality research on these issues and it does not in any way support the claims of critics like Charles Murray that welfare is a major source of the rise in out-of-wedlock births, dependency, and so on. A striking fact is that the rates of out-of-wedlock births and welfare use went up over a 20-year period while benefits dropped by about 40 percent.

Q: People aren't making shrewd calculations and saying, "I'll go on welfare and make money"?

This is a very big country, and I suppose if you look hard enough, you can find people who do that. From what I read in the research, most people dislike having to depend on public assistance. It's stigmatizing and a very unpleasant way of life for them. Most people can't live on their AFDC and must have some way of making money and getting some services on the side. These aren't legal but social workers wink at it because people have to survive.

Q: If welfare isn't the problem, what is?

A: The problem is poverty, which has changed in some significant ways. It's very much connected to the transformation of American cities, especially inner cities. About 78 percent of people receiving AFDC live in cities. They're feeling the effects of deindustrialization and chronic joblessness, especially among African-American men. Unemployment used to be much more episodic; people were laid off but could be called back to work. Now we have a large number of people more or less permanently detached from the labor force, and this is something quite new in American history. It's a very dramatic and alarming development. These are people who can't find jobs, have never had jobs, or aren't qualified for jobs.

The spatial arrangements of cities have also changed. The poor have become much more segregated, with African-Americans living under more segregated conditions than any immigrant group in American history. It's getting worse instead of better. This fundamental urban transformation is very bad for people at the bottom. It reinforces and builds poverty and makes it very difficult for people in this situation to escape. This transformation is the reason that such a high rate of people need some kind of help.

Q: More people need help, but we're less sympathetic to them than we ever were?

A: The moral distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor goes back to the early 19th century. The deserving poor, like respectable widows, hadn't brought their suffering on themselves and were felt to deserve sympathy and help. People called the undeserving poor have had various characteristics - none of which aroused much sympathy. On the contrary, a lot of scorn was attached to people who were ethnically different, for instance. The Irish Catholics were talked about in a way that can only be described as racist. But the most stigmatized group has been men who were out of work and unable to support themselves. In America, any man with get-up-and-go should be able to make a fortune, or at least support himself and his family. If he couldn't, there was something wrong with him: he was probably lazy or drunk.

So the demography of the "undeserving poor" has changed with American racial attitudes and views on immigration and migration. Now it's focused on unmarried mothers of color. Women are having children out of wedlock in very large numbers, and this upsets a lot of people. This attitude is one of the great forces behind the drive to change the welfare system. It combined with other forces and political circumstances to force a dramatic legislative change.

Politically, we're seeing a transfer of authority from the federal government to the states. Since the late 1980s, the governors have wanted to get control over AFDC and over Medicaid because their expenses were ballooning. The Clinton administration first responded by granting waivers of AFDC regulations to states. By 1996, all but a few states had received waivers, and states were already doing many of the things called for in the new federal legislation. At the same time, market models were applied to federal, state, and local public policies - as well as in the social and human services and in employee benefits - throughout the American welfare state. Although this glorification of the free market intensified after the fall of communism in 1989, it was at work throughout the 1980s. The free market model has been especially important in attacking entitlements, since entitlements contradict market logic in a fundamental way. People shouldn't be entitled to receive money from the government; they should earn whatever they have by working at jobs in a market economy. Even privatizing Social Security has recently gone from an idea on the lunatic fringe to one very close to the center of respectability. There is now a robust ideology about the nature and direction of change that's helping redefine the welfare state.

Q: Does the Welfare Reform Bill reform welfare?

A: In American history, "welfare reform" has been a euphemism for cutting benefits. This bill cuts benefits. It eliminates the entitlement of the poorest Americans to any kind of federal public assistance. That's a reversal of the principle on which public assistance in this country has been based since the 1930s. It's much more than a change in the details of policy. This is a fundamental, philosophical shift. It could be of very dramatic significance.

Q: How soon would you expect to see some of the effects?

A: It will take a few years. In places with high concentrations of immigrants, we'll see some effects much sooner. The Food Stamps provision may produce some very serious effects soon. I think we're looking at three to five years before we can assess the impact of this legislation, assuming it is not reversed or significantly modified.

Q: Which it could be?

A: Don't hold your breath.

Michael Katz, historian of poverty and social welfare in America, is the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor in the Department of History. His most recent book is Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History. An expanded tenth anniversary edition of his In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America will be published this fall by Basic Books.

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