Social Welfare Policy
GOVT 2305
What is Social Welfare Policy?
One Definition: the principles,
activities, or framework for action
adopted by a government to
ensure a socially defined level of
individual, family and community
well being. – Source.
Some online reading:
Pearson: Social Policy and the
American Welfare State.
Cengage: Chapter Outline.
Here’s a great website where you
lose a hour or two:
The Social Welfare History Project.
The term is used to describe the
policies and programs designed to
address poverty and the lack of
opportunity in society.
In short, these are policies that are
addressed to help the poor.
These policies can exist on all levels
of government.
They can also be established by
private organizations as well as
public institutions.
There is a tremendous degree of
overlap between social welfare
policy and many other types of
policies. Health and Education
policy, as well as policies related to
jobs and criminal justice can fall
under the broad heading of social
welfare as well.
In this section we stick primarily
with policies directly related to the
poor and how (or whether) they
are to be given assistance.
We will focus primarily on Social Security
and the various policies associated with it,
as well as the policies promoted by Lyndon
Johnson as part of his War on Poverty.
We will also look at the backlash against
these programs and determine the current
state of social welfare policy.
We will focus on what are referred
to – often negatively – as welfare
The Welfare State
Various countries have different views
on what provisions and benefits ought
to be provided to its citizens. Most
countries are far more generous than
the United States. And more states are
far more generous than Texas.
Much of this is the product of the
political culture of both.
Should a social safety net be
provided for the people? Should
society guarantee to its citizens a
certain standard of living, or should
everyone be on their own
The following programs and
policies are related to social
welfare policy:
Social Security
Head Start
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
Unemployment Insurance
Social Welfare policy begins with
the premise that inequality in
income and wealth is a problem
that can be addressed by
governmental policies.
The question is multi faceted: Should
government intervene? If so how? And might
governmental intervention cause more harm
than good?
There’s no consensus about that.
Some disagree that that poverty is
a problem that requires
governmental intervention.
Social welfare policy is among the most
controversial and contentious policies.
And even if there is agreement that
this is a problem, there is
disagreement about what the
nature of the problem is. This
means that there is disagreement
over what the solutions to the
problem ought to be.
Here’s an ancient question:
Why are people poor?
Through factors related to the
greater society or to individual
failings? This distinction matters.
Who are the poor?
The elderly?
Ethnic minorities?
Should they all be treated the
same? Is poverty similar in all
groups, or is it distinct?
Childhood poverty as opposed to
old age poverty for example. Each
is distinct and requires a unique set
of policies to address.
Questions about the facts
associated with poverty.
There are disputes regarding the extent of
poverty in the United States and what
factors make people poor.
- See poverties.org.
For random background see the
Wikipedia on Poverty in the United
States, especially its section on
measures of poverty.
It mentions that poverty can be considered
in absolute or relative terms.
Absolute poverty is measured by
poverty thresholds, which the
Census Bureau uses to estimate
the number of people in poverty,
and by the HHS to determine who
is eligible for assistance.
So we have two ways to measure
absolute poverty:
Poverty Threshold
Poverty Line
The poverty threshold refers to an
income level that marks the
difference between living and
poverty and not living in poverty.
The level is based on a formula which
focuses primarily on the minimal cost of
food needed to sustain a family. Click here
for how the formula was established.
A family of four is judges to be in
poverty if their after tax income is less
than three times the amount they
would be expected to pay on food
based on the thrifty food plan.
The "Orshansky Poverty Thresholds.“
The Development and History of the U.S.
Poverty Thresholds – A Brief Overview.
Next up: a timeline of people below the
threshold 1959 – 2009.
It might overestimate poverty by
not taking into consideration
welfare policies that provide
assistance in purchasing food.
It might underestimate poverty by
not taking into consideration other
necessities that have experienced
greater degrees of inflation than
food – shelter and education for
The poverty guidelines are created
by the Department of Health and
Human Services to determine
financial eligibility for federal
These are tied into nondiscretionary programs like
Medicare and Medicaid.
Click here for the 2012 Annual
Federal Poverty Guidelines.
Here’s an interesting – constitutional
point – what authorization exists
within the Constitution to collect this
Some opposition exists to the very idea that this
information be collected since it can lead to calls for
federal action. The next slide has links to recent stories
about a controversy over whether the Census’
American Community Survey should be funded.
- Survey for health, poverty
benefits threatened in Congress
- Getting rid of census survey is
- Don’t Replace Data With Ideology
The point is simple. If people have
no statistical evidence of the
existence or nature of poverty,
there’s little ability to promote
policies to address it.
Again, both of these measures are
related to the absolute level of
poverty in the United States. Many
policies in existence are tied into
these measures.
It is often, and controversially, pointed out that
absolute poverty in the United States is nowhere
near as bad as it is in many foreign nations.
Creature comforts can be relatively
easily attained – indoor plumbing,
televisions, refrigerators, cell
phones etc….
In material terms, today’s poor (in
the US anyway) live better than the
kings of yesterday.
So here’s the political question(s):
Is absolute poverty in the United States a
problem that government should attempt to
solve? Could it be that poverty is a condition
that has no real solution? Or perhaps the
solution to poverty has already been established
and sufficient means have been put in place to
solve it, its just up to each individual to take
advantage of it? Or perhaps there are those who
see the existence of poverty as means of
ensuring that they stay in positions of privilege.
But poverty can also be relative.
How poor are people relative to
others? This also can have a
political component since the
poorer one is the less power one
has to positively impact policies
that affect them.
This gets into highly controversial
areas. Is income and wealth
inequality in the US a problem that
requires intervention?
Does economic inequality lead to political
inequality and does this pose a problem for
democracy? Does it also violate basic
principles of fairness?
Big Issue:
How do we know there is
inequality in the US? How do we
measure it?
Economists commonly study the
distribution of wealth and income
and worry about its effects.
And a quick clarifying point:
Income refers to how much is earned by and
individual or other entity in a given timeframe –
usually a year.
Wealth refers to the quantity of money,
property or other possessions held by an
individual or other entity.
Inequality in each is different.
The most common measure of
income inequality is the Gini
coefficient. The lower the number
the more equal the distribution,
the higher the number the less
equal the distribution.
The following graph shows how
inequality has fluctuated over
American history.
Here is a measure of the inequality
of counties in the United States
using a different measuring
technique, the Thiel index:
Notice that two of the most
unequal counties in the United
State are in Texas: Dallas and Harris
Does this negatively impact politics
in the state?
In a related note, does this
inequality allow for social mobility?
We like to think that people in the
United States can rise in society
relatively easily, but is this true?
Is there evidence supporting the idea?
Here’s a link to a recent Senate
Committee hearing on the subject.
It argues that mobility is less likely
now than in the past.
Assessing Inequality, Mobility, and
And commentary on the subject matter.
How is economic inequality dealt
with by governmental programs?
This takes us beyond simple social
welfare policy into civil rights
policy. Do existing economic
arrangements violate the “equal
protection clause” of the 14
Is inequality the result of natural,
legitimate processes, or is it the
product of illegal discrimination?
If it is the former, there is no cause
for governmental action. If it is the
latter, then there is.
But there is strong ideological
disagreement about this. The
traditional conservative point of
view is based on individual liberty
and tends to hold that
governmental actions to address
inequality violates the liberty of
those with high levels of income
and wealth.
The liberal viewpoint – which is
based on a strong commitment to
equality as a value – is that these
imbalances are the consequence of
discrimination and strong
measures need to be taken to
address them.
Examples include controversies
over disparate pay rates – and
advancement opportunities - of
women and men performing the
same jobs.
One of the arguments for
progressive tax rates – especially
steeply progressive rates - is that it
helps address inequality in income
A brief overview of the history
social welfare policies.
Here’s a complicating factor:
The poor, especially poor males, can
be seen as threats to the social order.
Laws dealing with the poor are often
also concerned with what to do with
idle young males who might also be
tempted to commit crimes.
Keep this in the back of your mind
as we proceed. Social policy is not
made in isolation. It overlaps with
criminal justice policy, education
policy jobs policies and many
Can a society be stable if it has lots
of poor people?
What if there are many poor,
unemployed males?
Despite its controversies, social
welfare policy has a long history.
Let’s have a quick look at it.
Care for the poor has been a
central feature of many religious
traditions for millennia.
Religious based support, as well as private
charity in general, allows for discretion
regarding who is judged deserving of
support. This also applies to local
governmental control of poverty programs.
But this allows for discrimination
as well. One of the arguments
made in favor of the national
government controlling assistance
for the poor is that local prejudices
cannot enter into who gets
assistance and who does not.
There is still tremendous
ideological conflict regarding what
institutions are best suited to
provide poverty assistance, as well
as practically everything having to
do with poverty.
We’ll look at some figures below.
Like many aspects of American
public policy, our approach to the
poor is based on British tradition.
Poverty within a feudal system was
considered to be a function of
one’s place in society. Its important
to note that keeping lower classes
in poverty was a great way to keep
them in their places.
But it was also assumed that the basic needs of
lower classes would be met by those who held
higher ranks. They were obligated to do so.
Here are some random sites
related to poverty in feudal
A list of feudal rights.
Medieval Life.
Outdoor relief referred to assistance
given to people to alleviate poverty.
This could be in the form of goods like
clothing or food, or simply money.
Money has always been the simplest
form of outdoor relief, but suspicions
exist that the funds are not used to
relieve poverty, but for other
Britain had a variety of poor laws
over its history.
The most famous were the
Elizabethan Poor Laws.
A lingering consequence of these
laws is the distinction made
between the deserving and
undeserving poor.
The undeserving poor were either able
bodied – and would be put to work –
or idle – and could be sent to prison.
In extreme cases vagabonds were rounded
up, held in stocks and banished from town.
They were also sometimes whipped and in
extreme cases executed.
The idea that unemployment
sometimes increase due to
economic circumstances took a
while to catch on.
The deserving poor were those
who were old, handicapped or
otherwise physically unable to
Assistance was provided to these
people in one of two forms: indoor
relief and outdoor relief.
Indoor relief was provided by work
projects that generally involved
moving into a workhouse where
accommodations and employment
were provided.
For poor kids this could be placement in an
orphanage or come other institution if the child
was actually orphaned, or whose parents were
simply unable to take care of them.
British government claimed the
ability to force people to work and
to enforce family responsibility.
There were no governmental
policies regarding the poor in
colonial America. Families were
expected to care for needy
members and the church could act
as an extended family when the
family was unable to do so.
Poverty policies were primarily
charity driven. Workhouses would
be established to provide indoor
relief and force the poor to work.
Many early settlers – those who
settled in the moralistic colonies in
New England at least – had
Calvinist opinions of poverty and
the poor. Poverty was the result of
moral deficiency. Work was an
essential part of life and the able
bodied poor were seen as
Interesting side note: Many of the
settlers of Jamestown were
members of the nobility and were
not used to working for
themselves. Historian argue that
some of the early hardships there
was the result of their
unwillingness to work.
Its important to note the attention
the founding generation paid to
happiness and the general welfare
in both the Declaration of
Independence and the
As we probably know, the Declaration of
Independence, while not mentioning
welfare, argues that people have the
unalienable right to the pursuit of
happiness. But it isn’t clear what it means.
The word happiness is mentioned
repeatedly by the founders in many
“The happiness of society is the
end of government.”
– John Adams.
The Articles of Confederation
mentions the poor – not kindly
The better to secure and perpetuate
mutual friendship and intercourse among
the people of the different States in this
Union, the free inhabitants of each of
these States, paupers, vagabonds, and
fugitives from justice excepted, shall be
entitled to all privileges and immunities of
free citizens in the several States;
The U.S. Constitution contains the
word welfare. The promotion of
the general welfare is mentioned in
both the preamble and Article
One, Section Eight:
. . . To promote the general welfare . . .
But it is ambiguous.
What does Promote the general welfare mean?
Throughout the 19th Century,
poverty was seen as being a sign of
immorality, idleness and often tied
in with alcoholism or drug use.
Apparently there was quite the
morphine epidemic following the
Civil War.
The slow transition from rural to
urban areas and the increased
participation of women in politics
began to lead to a change – among
many though not all – about the
causes of poverty and whether
poverty could be dealt with
Poverty in rural areas differed from
poverty in urban areas.
Opportunities for self sufficiency
existed on the farm that did not
exist in cities. As cities grew, a new
type of poverty developed ,and so
did organizations designed to
provide charitable assistance.
The Progressive Movement began
to develop policies to focus on
what they believed to the
underlying causes of poverty. This
led to cooperation with others, like
the Temperance Movement.
Charity Organization Societies
began to spring up in urban areas
to address the need of the poor.
These included efforts to assess
the needs of individuals so that
assistance could be effective. The
Settlement House Movement was
part of this effort.
So was the establishment of the
profession of Social Work.
Members of the profession led the
way to redefining poverty from
being a condition that results from
immorality, to a problem based on
the circumstances that surround
the urban poor. These can be
alleviated with the proper policies.
For good background read:
Women, Settlements, and the
Redefinition of Poverty
The women of the settlement house movement
documented many environmental problems
contributing to poverty in America, factors
produced or magnified by America’s rush to
industrialize, factors such as poor health due to
industrial accidents, tenement fires, polluted
factory air, contaminated mass-produced food,
and garbage-filled city streets.
They redefined poverty from being
a condition, to being a problem
with a solution.
Factors like unemployment,
overcrowding, and physical
disabilities were seen as leading
causes of poverty.
Media attention began focusing on
the poor.
Muckracking journalists began to
sensationalize the plight of the
One of the principal works was
Jacob Riss’ How the Other Half
Lives. It revealed to the middle and
upper classes the conditions of the
poor. Many were unaware of hwo
they lived.
These provided some support for
early efforts to nationalizing antipoverty programs.
The question was whether these
policy solutions could be adopted
and implemented successfully.
States began developing agencies
for the mentally ill. But not all
states provided assistance and the
care could be uneven. This led
some to argue that the federal
government should assume
responsibility for these and other
Federal involvement in providing
social welfare services began as a
result of the Great Depression.
The Great Depression impacted
attitudes about poverty. The
severity and breadth of the crisis
led people to see poverty as a
consequence of factors beyond an
individual’s control. For a period of
time the poor were not blamed for
their conditions.
This allowed for a critical
redefinition of poverty, one that
led to additional support for
proposals to actively address.
Public work programs were
established in order to put the
unemployed back to work.
Work Progress Administration
Civilian Conservation Corps
These were designed to allow people to
earn incomes, which satisfied the
requirement that the able bodied poor
work, and was also based on the Keynesian
notion that the problem with the economy
was a lack of demand. Money in people’s
pockets fueled demand and sustained the
Some efforts to address the
economy were found to be
The Supreme Court had yet to accept the idea
that the national government could play a role
in regulating the economy. It retained a limited
definition of “commerce” so social welfare
policymaking was constrained.
The major accomplishment was the
passage of the Social Security Act
which established an old age pension.
The act establishes old-age, survivors
and disability insurance.
This addressed the problem of poverty among
the elderly. Unemployment among the elderly
topped 50% and the value of their savings had
shrunk as a result of the depression.
Read up on the history of old age
pensions here.
This is helpful as well: Historical
Background and Development of
Social Security
The Social Security Act was a large
complex bill that established a
variety of programs.
Click here for the original text of
the bill.
The bill was designed to ensure
that measures would be in place to
care for the deserving poor in case
of economic crisis – like the Great
Here’s a walk through some of its
Title I: Grants to States for Old-Age
Title II: Federal Old Age Pensions
Title III: Grants to States for
Unemployment Compensation
Title IV: Grants to States for Aid to
Dependent Children.
Title V: Grants to States for
Maternal and Child Welfare.
Title X: Grants to States for Aid to
the Blind.
Notice that most of these are
grants in aid programs. States are
encouraged to run these programs
with matching amount provided by
the national government.
The act establishes two types of
social insurance programs. The first
is Old Age, Survivors and Disability
Insurance, which is a federal
program. The second is
unemployment insurance, which is
a grant in aid program run by the
states with federal funding.
These are paid by the recipient through
payroll taxes and are matched by one’s
employer. In the case of old age insurance,
the amount paid determines the amount
received monthly upon retirement.
The program is designed to ensure that
retirees will be able to survive after they
retire, regardless of the condition of the
economy. People are forced to provide for
their retirement.
Unemployment insurance was
somewhat novel. In order to insure
against job loss due to economic
contractions (which means the
worker is not morally faulty) the
worker and the employer pay into
a fund that can be drawn on in
case of a layoff or firing due to the
The benefits from each of these
programs is considered to be a
right – an entitlement – because
people have bought into them.
They are contributory programs.
The act also provides grants to states to
run public assistance programs based on
need. The need is provided to those who
normally wee considered the deserving
poor: the elderly, the young and the
Federal grants were intended to ensure
that states could provide these programs.
Not all states are interested in doing so.
These are the programs –
especially the one originally titled
Aid to Dependent Children – that
are commonly referred to as
This is marks the birth of the
modern welfare state.
But the impact was purposely
limited in order to minimize any
controversy associated with it.
Any group considered – even potentially –
undeserving was denied coverage. In order
to placate Southern Democrats,
restrictions were also based on race.
Nevertheless, the act was still
controversial when debated in
Congress and passed into law.
Click here for the Legislative History.
It was challenged in the courts as
soon as it was passed.
Click here for a look at the battle
over the act’s constitutionality.
The act was ultimately judged to
be constitutional based on the
taxing and spending clause of the
New taxes could be levied for new
spending items as long as doing so
benefited the general welfare.
The case was Helvering vs. Davis.
The act led to the establishment of
the Social Security Administration,
which was once within the
Department of Health and Human
Services, but is now an
independent agency.
Social Security (specifically old-age and
survivors insurance) is responsible for
36% of the tax receipts from the
federal government and 20% of its
In FY 2011, this amounted to $819 and
$725 million respectively.
Social Security revenues are placed
in a trust fund. Read here for issues
related to the trust fund.
Because the act’s constitutionality
rested on the tax and spending
clause of the constitution, it is
considered a revenue bill, and the
tax writing committees in Congress
have jurisdiction over it.
In the House, it’s the Ways and
Means Committee ,and specifically
its Subcommittee on Social
Note the it gets its own
In the Senate, It’s the Finance
Committee and its Subcommittee
on Social Security, Pensions and
Family Policy.
Any amendments to Social
Security, and welfare in general,
are considered in those
And the act has been heavily
amended. The most noteworthy of
those amendments happened in
The Social Security Act of 1965
created Medicare and Medicaid.
While the original social security
programs dealt with providing outdoor
relief to the deserving poor, these
provided health care for the elderly
and those in poverty. Notice how
social welfare policy was expanded
and overlapped with health policy.
Medicare guarantees access to health care
(insurance) for those over 65 and the
disabled of any age. It is financed like
Social Security with a payroll tax deducted
from a worker’s paycheck and matched by
employers. Like Social Security, it is based
on contributions so recipients have a right
to the benefits provided. It is an
entitlement program.
Medicaid is a means tested program
(meaning that need has to be established)
that provides medical assistance to the
poor and the disabled. Medicaid is a grant
in aid program that is funded mostly by the
federal government but run by the states
according to federal guidelines. Payments
go to health care providers, beneficiaries
can be charged a small co-payment for
services received.
Hard to remember which is which?
You care for the old (Medicare) and
aid the poor (Medicaid).
Works for me.
Both programs are run by the
Center for Medicare and Medicaid
Services, which is an agency within
the Department of Health and
Human Services.
Together with Social Security,
Medicare and Medicaid are 42% of
the US budget. Health and Human
services are 28% of the Texas
budget as well.
Medicare and Medicaid were
among a variety of programs that
expanded the welfare state during
the Great Society. Others included
The Economic Opportunity Act of
All of these were part of what Johnson
referred to as the War on Poverty.
The Great Society was Lyndon Johnson’s effort
to broaden the reach of New Deal in order to
address the root causes of structural poverty.
The New Deal primarily focused conditional
poverty related to the Great Depression. Many
people affected by its programs would not have
been in poverty if not for that event. The Great
Society dealt with the persistent poverty that
occurred whether the economy was expanding
or contracting.
This made it controversial.
An addition controversial change occurred when
Aid to Dependent Children (Title IV of the SSA
Act of 1935) was expanded to Aid to Families
with Dependent Children.
Allegations were made that ADC encouraged
father to leave families in order to make their
kids eligible for benefits. But allowing fathers to
stay in with families opened the program up to
the charge that the undeserving poor were
being benefitted by the program - AFDC.
Beginning in the 1970s opposition to Great
Society programs began to build. These hit
their stride in the 1980s with the election
of Ronald Reagan who campaigned against
these policies. He argues that existing
policies kept people dependent upon them
and did not encourage self-sufficiency.
Welfare Reform became topical
This remains a controversial points: Do welfare
programs increase dependency on
governmental assistance. Does any type of
assistance discourage changes in the behavior of
the people receiving that assistance?
Are the benefits provided by welfare (especially
if the benefits included health and child care)
greater than those one would receive by getting
a job?
Most reform efforts focused on Aid
to Families with Dependent
Children. It was held that the
program did not have strict enough
work requirements. A variety of
modifications were made to the
program to enhance these
These came to a head in 1996 with the
passage of the Personal Responsibility
and Work Opportunity Act of 1996.
Work requirements were put in place,
a lifetime limit of five years was placed
on the program, and states were given
greater flexibility to design their own
systems as they saw fit.
AFDC had been a grant in aid
program. TANF was a block grant