Welfare State

It’s common for ‘welfare state’ to be spoken of in pejorative terms as a cushy hammock that discourages large numbers of moochers from working, that breaks up families because it makes men unneeded as providers, and that is paid for by economically vulnerable working class taxpayers who shouldn’t have to foot that bill. Thus, the term can be a negative reference to the extensive and expensive system in which American government tries to become intermediary in caring for the poor.  

Others see the welfare state as a wonderful element of society - without which families would break up and many others would be unable to live.  Thus, the term can be positive reference to the safety net of social programs provided by government to the poor and “down on their luck,” the idea being that the economy on its own is not enough, that things happen that are no one’s fault and leave people deserving of help. Sometimes, for example, someone gets laid off and is suddenly at risk of being homeless.

Still others understand the welfare state to be a much bigger collection of government activities, indeed as all of the programs that somehow support the economy and/or aid individual taxpayer, whether they be rich, poor, or middle class. By this view the welfare state includes public school funding, tax breaks for big business, hospital subsidies, bridge-building, mortgage tax deductions, Medicaid payments for nursing home care, Medicare payments to health practitioners, and Federal Reserve activities meant to encourage economic growth. In other words, the welfare system (see below) is just one part of the welfare state. From this leftist perspective, the United States has by far the smallest welfare state of any rich nation - quite a contrast to the conservative view of welfare activities in the U.S. as far too large and out of control.

Although both leftist and conservative critics see current U.S. welfare programs as poorly designed and likely to keep people poor, they see very different flaws.  On one hand, the current system is understood by some as creating dependency (and a “culture of poverty”) among those we are seeking to help by offering not only too much - but by not asking people to contribute enough of their own energies to change. From this perspective, what the poor really need is people who see them capable of self-reliance and a free market system that rewards hard work.  Thus some conservatives would argue that markets if left on their own would -- and even today mostly do -- provide adequate opportunity for all.

On the other hand, others see the failures of welfare to raise people from poverty as arising because in addition to giving only enough aid to prevent mass unrest, there seems to be not enough to pay for education or otherwise allow poor people to acquire the skills and assets needed to “move up.” From this perspective, what the poor really need is exactly what most middle class people need: enough decent-paying jobs in their own community to give people some security and allow them to invest in the future (e.g. their kid’s college education).

How families are impacted by the welfare state is another point of departure. Conservatives believe that welfare leads able-bodied adults to fail to look hard for work, thereby causing unemployment and unnecessary welfare dependence. They also believe that welfare payments cause the breakup of families and that in turn leaves many women without the help of a provider. Leftists and liberals consider welfare payment way too low to have those effects and believe that a very small number of people are actually on the kind welfare that pays cash to adults (most welfare spending goes to the very elderly and to health care providers). To leftist, the real problems faced by people trying to sustain families in poor communities include ultra-low wages, companies that don’t make their employees full-time and don’t even tell them what hours they will work until the day before each work week begins, and all the punitive, time-consuming, distrustful, and counterproductive rules that comes with the small aid packages that some people qualify for. From this perspective, then, welfare is not the problem.

Part of the red-blue dispute involves the idea of “moving up.” Conservatives believe that poor people who work hard and fly right will move up into the middle class. Leftists argue that poor people want to move up as much as others do and are equally ready to work hard but the odds are stacked against them because there aren’t enough middle class jobs for everybody who deserves one. Some leftists also argue that moving up often means leaving one’s community and its network of mutual obligations (where neighbors and kin are there to help). That is not only risky; it also entails loss of community and can feel morally wrong, because to move up is to abandon people one cares about.

Many conservatives believe that welfare fraud is a big problem. Liberals disagree - and suggest that the real serious fraud is committed by well-off people who take advantage of poor people. They also add that some people in very poor communities have to commit “welfare fraud” now and again in order to honor their obligations to their networks of sharing that help keep them and their fellow community members alive (e.g. they share childcare across households or use part of a welfare check to help a neighbor pay for a funeral). When such “fraud” is committed recipients often get caught and then lose their tiny grant.  

Conversation Catalysts: 

Shorto, Russell, Going Dutch, April 2009 New York Times Magazine

Ferrara, Peter, America's Ever Expanding Welfare Empire April, 2012, Forbes.

William Voegeli Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State


Phil Neisser, Jacob Hess

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