[This post is a part of Blog Action Day 2008 – Poverty.]
wel•fare. n. The good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being.
The title of this post is a bit misleading—I’m pretty sure I know when welfare became a dirty word: ending welfare was a plank of the Reagan platform (“Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.”). But it got really dirty in the 1990s, when President Clinton promised in his 1993 State of the Union address to “end welfare as we know it”:
Later this year, we will offer a plan to end welfare as we know it. I have worked on this issue for the better part of a decade. And I know from personal conversations with many people that no one, no one wants to change the welfare system as badly as those who are trapped in it. I want to offer the people on welfare the education, the training, the child care, the health care they need to get back on their feet, but say after 2 years they must get back to work, too, in private business if possible, in public service if necessary. We have to end welfare as a way of life and make it a path to independence and dignity.A year later, House Republicans and Republican candidates signed the “Contract with America,” the third tenet of which was:
3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.Finally, in 1996, Congress passed Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program that had been in place since 1935. (PRWORA actually expired in 2002, but Congress has continued to fund it in the absence of a replacement program.)
The question really is, then, should welfare be a dirty word? Current events provide decent context for answering the question.
Welfare in the United States began with the Aid to Dependent Children program as a part of the original Social Security Act of 1935 (it was later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children for obvious political reasons). It helped fund state programs that, in essence, provided financial assistance to single mothers (later revised to cover any single parent). The general idea, it seems to me, was that children should not suffer because their remaining parent cannot bring in sufficient income to support them. This was obviously a serious concern during the Great Depression, but, in fact, many of the state programs were started much earlier in the century.
In this context, it makes sense that the 1990s saw the culmination of the backlash against welfare. Reagan Republicanism created the belief that welfare was a “reward” for not working. The flush economy of the 1990s reinforced the impression that not working was a “choice.” And, of course, the characterizations of “welfare queens” by the media had become the image of welfare.
But, of course, single parenthood didn’t go anywhere. Just the opposite. Divorce rates continue to climb at the same time that most states have eliminated alimony (child support remains, but is notoriously insufficient). The drug war has broken up millions of families, particularly those of color. And abortion has become a scarce commodity in many communities.
And now the economy, for lack of a better word, sucks. Commercial paper is the foundation for most large companies’ payrolls. The lack of credit will make it increasingly difficult for parents to house and clothe their children during gaps in employment. And, god forbid, should the equity injection prove insufficient or overseas investors start calling in debts, the federal government will have little choice but to print more money—read, inflation—making it next to impossible to pay for everyday goods.
In 1929, our generation’s grandparents were teenagers. Most came out the other side of the Great Depression able to house, feed, and educate our parents, making them most prosperous generation in history.
Don’t we want good fortune, health, happiness, and prosperity for the children of 2008?