The Great Depression in the 1930’s brought about the need for the creation of a national welfare system in the United States. In part 1 of this 2 part series, we covered the birth of this welfare system into World War II. In this, part, 2 we will follow that history into the present-day. For the most part, the welfare system grew slowly but steadily during the 40’s and 50’s in financial aid, but there was little in the way of real change of its basic structure.
All of that changed when John F. Kennedy assumed office in 1960. JFK intended to wage a “War on Poverty” by training Americans and putting them to work by creating educational, functional programs such as the Job Corps. After JFK’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson carried the mantle in his place. In 1965, Medicaid and Medicare were established to provide medical assistance for the elderly and disabled and those on welfare. This change meant that 1 out of every 4 Americans received some form of federal assistance.
Nixon aimed higher, looking to establish the Family Assistance Plan to guarantee a minimum income to all families in 1972, though SSI (Supplemental Social Income) was passed, establishing a base income for the disabled. Welfare rights were expanded and held up by the Supreme Court. It was to help support minorities and women that were being unfairly denied benefits in the segregated Deep South.
By the mid 1970’s, another financial crisis assaulted the United States. Unemployment soared. Energy prices rose, and inflation came into being. The requirement that single women without the presence of a father in the home were the only ones who could qualify for welfare was lifted. The welfare system and those aided by its benefits grew substantially. By 1980, Ronald Reagan and the conservatives took power because many Americans believed that the welfare system had become swollen. In the mid 80’s, unemployment insurance decreased nearly 7%, and the welfare system lost much of its federal subsidy.
In the 90’s, the welfare battle continued. Bill Clinton promised to end welfare, though he attempted to launch a sweeping federal healthcare system, while the Republicans vowed welfare reform, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who stated that the Congress would: “replace the welfare state with the opportunity society.”
This led to the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. Essentially the Act replaced open-ended federal assistance with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), setting a maximum amount that the federal government would set aside to assist states with in regards to needy families being aided by the welfare system. This Act put much of the responsibility for welfare back on the states, off of the federal government. The thought was that no one is entitled to assistance and that the welfare system had created a welfare mentality. States were urged to train people and reduce their welfare budget, as well. This put many people back into the workforce, but meant they had to take jobs that paid them an income that provided for a life below the federal poverty line. By 1999, 2.2 million families or single parents were receiving welfare assistance. That was 2 million fewer families or single parents than received such aid in 1994.
The economy boomed in the 90’s, but in October of 2008, the United States and the world faced a crushing economic crisis, the largest since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The housing bubble burst, unemployment percentages spiked to double-digit figures, banks and the stock market crashed, and America once again saw its unemployment ranks and welfare system swell. The end of the Bush Administration and the beginning of the Obama Administration have seen the federal government once again assist its citizens and its corporations with bail outs, increased welfare benefits, and unemployment duration extensions. The President Obama Administration had passed a national healthcare act at long last, known as Obamacare, though it is unclear if or when the Act will be instituted as a conservative backlash is still fighting the policy. Once again America is faced with financial crisis, and once again the federal government is expanding welfare assistance.
Opponents of a welfare state deride welfare as a bloated system that rewards the weak and robs the productive. They say that welfare burdens businesses. They also claim it causes taxes to increase, and inflation to rise, and that much is historically accurate. Proponents of a national welfare system argue that sometimes people need help, and some people simply cannot fend for themselves. That also is true. Nonetheless, somewhere there must exist a happy medium. Though no one can predict the future, history of the welfare system in this country is clear enough and easy enough to follow and one thing is for sure since its origination in 1935, it hasn’t disappeared. It has swelled, and it has slimmed down over the past 7 decades, but it hasn’t gone away, and history never lies. Perhaps it is time to stop bickering over whether or not we need a welfare system, it is here, and history says it isn’t going anywhere. The advantage of history is that we can acquire knowledge from it. If we agree that welfare in some form is here and here to stay, maybe we can examine what has worked and what hasn’t. We can also try to establish a better system that works for the most important institution, not the Congress, not the Presidency, not the Republicans or the Democrats, but the United States of America and its persevering citizens; who, through good times and bad have remained one nation, indivisible, seeking truth and justice for all.