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The History of Welfare in the United States

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The welfare system within the United States has evolved over time to address the needs of economically disadvantaged Americans. The purpose of the present sample essay is to develop an overview of the history of this system.

Origins of the welfare system in the 1930s 

The essay will have four parts.

  1. Firstly, it will discuss the beginnings of the system during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  2. Secondly, it will describe the developments that happened within the system during the 1960s.
  3. Thirdly, it will consider the further developments that occurred in the 1990s, which are in fact the aspects of the welfare system that the average American thinks of when he simply hears the word "welfare".
  4. Fourthly, the essay will reflect on controversies and challenges pertaining to the healthcare system that are underway in the present day.

The economic collapse of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, was the primary historical catalyst for the emergence of the welfare system within the United States. It is easy to understand why this was the case: as a result of the crash, a large number of Americans who were previously able to economically take care of themselves were now in need of assistance simply in order to remain on their feet.

A couple of the first initiatives toward the creation of the modern welfare system were the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 and the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, signed by Hoover and Roosevelt, respectively (Hansan). These laws focused on enabling the federal government to provide financial assistance to individual states. These state funds could then be channeled in order to provide assistance to the American people in whatever ways were deemed most effective. 

The major breakthrough in national welfare, though, came with the Social Security Act of 1935. As Hansan has written, this legislation contained three main parts:

  1.  "a system of state administered Unemployment Insurance programs designed to provide temporary financial assistance to able-bodied workers;"

  2.  "a universal and contributory social insurance program or eligible wage earners who retired or died, leaving a spouse or family;"  

  3.  "a system of state-federal public assistance programs for aged, blind, and dependent children deemed unable to earn wages" (paragraph 10).

This was clearly the beginning of the welfare system as Americans today have come to know it. Taken together, the programs of the Social Security Act were designed to provide a comprehensive economic safety net for Americans who were out of work for one reason or another.

Historical roots of the welfare system - Roosevelt's New Deal policies

Conceptually, then, the origins of the welfare system can clearly be understood as rooted in President Roosevelt's New Deal policies (Wallis, Fishback, and Cantor). And these policies were, in turn, formulated as a comprehensive response to the threats and dangers presented by the Great Depression. The situation back then, for example, was so desperate that Burg has quoted the New York Times as reported the following in the year 1931:

"Several hundred men and women in an employed demonstration today stormed a grocery store and meat market in the Gateway district [of Minneapolis], smashed plate glass windows and helped themselves to bacon and ham, fruit and canned goods" (91-92).

Clearly, then, the Great Depression had thrown many Americans into a very desperate situation; and this made it clear that there was in fact a dire national need for a safety net that could protect Americans against at least the worst consequences of economic collapse. The welfare system first emerged as a result of the growing awareness in the first place of this basic policy need and in the second place of the necessity of meeting the need in order to ensure national stability. 

Welfare developments in the 1960s

A key innovation in the national welfare system that had emerged in the 1930s occurred in the 1960s when President Johnson "signed into law the bill that led to Medicare and Medicaid. The original Medicare program included Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Part B (Medical Insurance)" (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, paragraph 1).

Hard as it may to believe from the perspective of the present day, prior to the implementation of these welfare programs, many elderly persons and poor persons simply could not afford healthcare, and it was very difficult for them to find any way to access the care that they may have needed to preserve their lives and/or enhance the quality of those lives. Over time, Medicare and Medicaid have become integral elements of the American welfare system, to the point that it is difficult to imagine how there could have even been a time when they were not present within the nation. 

The incorporation of Medicare and Medicaid into the national welfare system can perhaps be understood as a function of the burgeoning consciousness of issues pertaining to social justice that characterized the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s. Obviously, it seems unjust that a significant portion of Americans should be excluded from access to healthcare as a result of the financial status; indeed, it is even somewhat difficult to understand how adequate access to healthcare could be considered any less basic of a protection that adequate protection from starvation during times of economic hardship.

In any event, Medicare and Medicaid have been going strong ever since, and they clearly continue to serve as important avenues of access to the healthcare system in the present day. Moreover, one of the purposes of the healthcare reforms signed into law by President Obama has been to coordinate Medicare and Medicaid in a more effective way in order to eliminate inefficiencies and improve the quality of care delivered to participants in the program. 

Developments in the 1990s

In the 1990s, one of the provisions of the original Social Security Act of the 1930s—the one which entitled families to governmental aid for dependent children—was overridden by a new program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). This is the program that most Americans are typically referring to when they speak about "welfare". The legacy of TANF has been somewhat ambiguous. As Katz has written:

"With TANF, the federal government eliminated the partial entitlement to public assistance, added work requirements, and time-limited benefits. As a result, the size of the welfare roles—but not the prevalence of poverty—went down" (paragraph 3).

TANF constituted a reform of the welfare system, through which it was mandated that persons and/or families must meet certain additional criteria and conditions in order to be eligible for receiving governmental funds. The idea was that this would encourage people to become independent again, as opposed to depending on welfare for the long term.

This development in the welfare system can perhaps be correlated with the returning ethos of liberal individualism and free market capitalism that has characterized the past couple decades of the history of global society. The 1990s in the United States, as opposed to the 1930s, were a time of considerable prosperity. Moreover, the ethos that prevailed during this time was not the essentially socialistic ethos of the New Deal but rather the deregulated ethos of neoliberal capitalism.

It is easy to see how this may have led to a situation in which public and governmental sympathies turned away from the concept of a universal protective safety net for all Americans and toward the concept of individual initiative and personal responsibility. In short, within a situation in which economic opportunities are in fact present, it becomes reasonable to expect people to take advantage of them. The New Deal, on the other hand, was specifically formulated within a situation in which no such opportunities existed.        

Challenges and controversies of welfare in 2015

By the present time, a couple important issues have emerged regarding the welfare system. One of these can perhaps be understood as a legacy of the reforms enacted by TANF: this consists of a kind of sociological suspicion of and bias against welfare recipients. Another of the main issues that has characterized the past decade or so of welfare history within the United States, has pertained to the question of whether it would be just and/or necessary to implement drug testing for recipients of welfare (that is, TANF funds) from the government (Newell).

The rationale here would be that if welfare recipients were to spend their welfare money on obtaining illicit drugs, then they would essentially be "stealing" money from hard-working Americans (in the form of taxes) and using that money not in order to sustain themselves but rather to pursue self-destructive lifestyle choices. 

The important point for present purposes is perhaps that this perception of welfare recipients' potential behaviors is not exactly supported by the extant evidence on the subject. Rather, it would seem that public (and especially Republican) nervousness regarding the nature and magnitude of welfare money being used to fund drug habits is informed by a strong bias against the welfare recipient population, and that this is primarily driven by the assumption that to be poor itself is tantamount to a kind of crime.

Clearly, this is very different from the kind of perception of poverty that would have prevailed when the Social Security Act first established the welfare system: back then, almost everyone was poor, with the result that there was no social stigma associated with being in such an economic condition. Indeed, it is quite strange that such a public perception actually exists today, given the fact that the recent economic recession has hurt the financial prospects of the large majority of Americans (Plumer). The cultural ideological situation, however, would not seem to be reflective of this economic reality.  

Moreover, another, and perhaps far more crucial, problem facing the welfare system at the present time is the potential depletion of the national Social Security fund. As the Baby Boomer generation begins to enter into old age while the number of workers within the nation declines, the financial equation may become tilted in such a way that the expenditures of Social Security to recipients begins to significantly outweigh the influx of money into this fundamental welfare program (Caplinger).

Aside from all ideological considerations, then, there is the strictly pragmatic issue that the financing scheme that has funded the welfare since its inception in the 1930s may no longer be viable, insofar as that scheme depended on a basic parity between influx and expenditure that no longer exists at the present time. This will be a difficult problem to solve. On the one hand, working people will resent seeing a spike in their taxes. But on the other, if such a spike does not occur, the welfare system as it is presently known may well be on the verge of financial bankruptcy. 

Final thoughts

In summary, the present essay has discussed the history of the welfare system within the United States, tracing that history all the way from its origins during the Great Depression under the Roosevelt presidency to the present day. An important theme that has emerged here is that in recent times, the essentially socialistic ethos underlying the welfare reform, and which led to productive developments in the 30s and 60s, has begun to erode, with a more neoliberal capitalistic ethos beginning to influence the popular imagination in a relatively strong way.

Moreover, the financing scheme that has supported the fundamentals of welfare (including Social Security) may no longer be viable, for strictly demographic and financial reasons. Over the coming times, then, the American welfare system can expect to face significant challenges. These include both ideological challenges against the very concept of welfare as such, and pragmatic challenges against the financial sustainability of the system.

Works Cited

Burg, David F. The Great Depression. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2005. Print. 

Caplinger, Dan. "Why the Next Social Security Crisis Could Be Just a Year Away." Daily Finance. 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. <http://www.dailyfinance.com/2015/02/17/social-security-crisis-nears/>. 

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. "History: CMS' Program History: Medicare & Medicaid." 2015. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. <https://www.cms.gov/About-CMS/Agency-Information/History/index.html?redirect=/History/>. 

Hansan, John E. "Origins of the State and Federal Public Welfare Programs (1932-1935). The Social Welfare History Project, 2011. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. <http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/programs/origins-of-the-state-federal-public-welfare- programs/>. 

Katz, Michael B. "The American Welfare State." History in Focus, 2008. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. <http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/welfare/articles/katzm.html>.  

Newell, Walker. “Tax Dollars Earmarked for Drugs? The Policy And Constitutionality Of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients.” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 43.1 (2011): 215-254. SocIndex with Full Text. Web. 1 June 2015. <http://www3.law.columbia.edu/hrlr/hrlr_journal/43.1/Newell.pdf>. 

Plumer, Brad. "This is How Everyone's Been Doing Since the Financial Crisis." Washington Post. 13 Sep. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/13/this-is-how-everyones-been-doing-since-the-financial-crisis/>. 

Wallis, John Joseph, Price Fishback, and Shawn Kantor. "Politics, Relief, and Reform: The Transformation of America's Social Welfare System during the New Deal." National Bureau of Economic Research, 2005. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. <http://www.nber.org/papers/w11080.pdf>.



Ultius, Inc. "The History of Welfare in the United States." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 31 Jul. 2015. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-history-of-welfare-in-the-united-states.html

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Ultius, Inc. "The History of Welfare in the United States." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. July 31, 2015. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-history-of-welfare-in-the-united-states.html.

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Ultius, Inc. "The History of Welfare in the United States." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. July 31, 2015. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-history-of-welfare-in-the-united-states.html.

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