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Social Welfare States

Social Welfare States







Social welfare states implement governmental policies and practices developed to address or insure the protection and basic needs of vulnerable populations, such as people with mental or physical disabilities, the chronically ill, children, the elderly, and the poor (including low-income workers, or the working poor). According to James Leiby, the author of A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States (1978), the term welfare state developed in the 1940s in England as a euphemism for what was then known as “charity and correction,” a form of public assistance provided to the very poor (paupers) or those with serious disabilities (the defective). From its inception, the general structure of the welfare state has typically reflected policymakers’ definition of need, rather than the reality of need as a lived experience. Thus, despite its humanitarian implications, the welfare state is a highly contested and stigmatized concept because of its relationship to poverty.


In industrialized societies, poverty is more often viewed as a consequence of defective character, behavior, and morality than a result of the unequal distribution of wealth. Since the early 1800s, beliefs about the nature of poverty have influenced the categorization of the poor as either “deserving” or “undeserving.” Michael Katz argues that in both America and England, distinctions were made between poverty as an unavoidable evil and pauperism as a consequence of immorality. Even in the early twenty–first century, the notion of the “unworthy poor” is accompained by numerous morality–based stereotypes. African Americans and other people of color who live in low–income communities are blamed for poverty, crime, and other social ills. These stereotypes justify the ill treatment of the poor and shape the policies that govern their lives. Yet social marginalization and restrictive, punitive policies actually contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. These powerful forces actually ensure that poor people will accept low–wage employment. Thus, the welfare state is intricately connected to the maintenance of a low–wage work force.

The welfare state is also a highly racialized and gendered concept. Numerous stereotypes about poor people and welfare reflect the belief that people of color (particularly women of color) saturate and abuse the welfare system. In the United States, for example, the welfare state is strongly associated with inner–city African–American and Latino families headed by women. Kenneth Neubeck and Noel Cazenave call this “welfare racism,” citing American public opinion polls indicating the general belief that most welfare recipients are African–American teenage mothers who continue to have children just to avoid gainful employment. These scholars argue that the percentage of African American families receiving welfare in the late 1990s was nearly identical to the percentage of white families receiving welfare. Yet many white Americans viewed public assistance—particularly the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program—as a “black program.” Neubeck and Cazenave contend that, over the decades, powerful politicians “forged and exploited the link between ‘race’ and ‘welfare’ to such a degree that the two terms are now politically and culturally inextricable” (Neu–beck and Cazenave 2001, p. 3).


Social welfare states reflect the historical, complex, and ever–changing interplay between social practices, politics, economics, and family life. Although models of social welfare vary widely from one country to another, in most industrialized nations the welfare state provides minimum forms of relief or assistance for people living in poverty. Moreover, in every welfare system there is a vast difference between the stated goals and intentions of the system and the actual social support provided.

In Britain, for example, the social welfare state is theoretically characterized as a system providing services and protection as a right of citizenship. In practice, however, social services in Britain are neither comprehensive nor generous. Throughout Europe, welfare systems are similarly troubled and complex. Social policies are influenced by finite resources as well as politics and racial ideologies, and people who must remain connected to these systems also generally remain in perpetual poverty.


Social welfare in the United States refers to a complex system of both entitlement programs and relief programs, most of which emerged in the 1930s. In this two-tiered system, the only stigmatized programs are those that assist poor citizens. Most direct government aid goes to people who are not poor, and these aid programs are considered “entitlements.” This was the original intent of the Social Security Act of 1935, which was created during the New Deal era. Preceded by the stock market crash of 1929 and the decade–long Great Depression, this legislation was the first permanent social assistance program in the United States and the foundation of America’s current welfare state.

The main purpose of Social Security was to provide assistance for men who were unemployed due to the Depression. The legislation included work relief provisions and social insurance to avert future economic hardships for these men and their families. However, several scholars have shown that the proposed programs in the Social Security Act excluded most Americans, particularly blacks and women. Social Security legislation provided federal subsidies to the states to enhance state and local employment programs, but there were no directives preventing states from discriminatory practices in the provision of assistance.

Moreover, Social Security was never meant to be a comprehensive assistance program. It was designed to promote employment and ensure a low–wage workforce.

A relatively small segment of the Social Security Act was the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program that assisted single–mother families not covered by Social Security. (ADC became AFDC in 1960, and in 1996 it underwent a number of changes and became the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF] program.) Conceptualized as a temporary program, ADC was funded by states through property taxes, and it is still considered to be public charity. It was also discriminatory because of the belief that only widowed white mothers were deserving of assistance. African–American women were not deemed virtuous enough to qualify for assistance.

The ADC program of 1935 was not the first means-tested assistance program for American women, and it was not the first program to be influenced by a Victorian sense of morality. In the early twentieth century, white women’s groups organized a mothers’ pension movement, advocating that impoverished women be allowed to remain at home to raise their children, just as married, middle-class mothers were expected to do. Promoting children as an important national asset, the movement framed mothers’ work as a critical component in nation–building.

Although legislation was passed approving mothers’ pensions in most states, there were no legislative requirements attached, and relatively few poor women were helped by this program. Those who did receive mothers’ pensions were widowed white women, and few activists or governmental officials ever considered the plight of impoverished African–American mothers and their children. These women remained in the low–wage workforce, cleaning the homes of white families and leaving their children behind to grow up on their own. Consequently, the first significant attempt to provide public assistance to the truly needy was tainted by both sexism and racism, reflecting the nation’s hostile attitude toward African–American women in particular. The same gendered racism would influence the administration of ADC and the public assistance programs that would follow it.


The 1950s and 1960s brought about unprecedented and dramatic transformations in American race relations. As they fought to dismantle racial discrimination, most civil rights activists understood that economic marginalization was an effective and destructive social weapon, and that it had crippled most black American families for centuries. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom underscored the devastation wrought by the intersection of racial and economic oppression. By the 1960s poverty was an uncontrolled epidemic, affecting more than 17 percent of Americans. Many of the impoverished were African Americans who, in the 1940s and 1950s, had migrated from the rural South to urban communities in the North seeking economic opportunities that had never materialized.

At the core of the 1960s urban unrest was the rage, disappointment, and misery experienced by African Americans who left blighted slums day after day to work in abysmal jobs for low wages that barely paid the rent on their decrepit dwellings. This unrest, coupled with a civil rights movement that had turned its focus toward the urban North, gave rise to a relief movement similar to the Depression era relief movements. In both eras, the masses challenged the government to consider its responsibilities to the economic well–being of its people. Other factors influencing and supporting the growing demands for social support included President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the development of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Declaring a War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson influenced the development of legislation that prohibited racial and gender discrimination in employment and programs that addressed hunger, housing, job training, and community development. The National Welfare Rights Organization, which remained active until the mid–1970s, sought to educate the urban poor on their rights to freedom from systemic tyranny in the forms of oppressive welfare policies and practices. One of the results of these combined efforts was a significant rise in the relief rolls. In their book Poor People’s Movements (1977), Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward contend that “in 1960, 745,000 families received assistance; in 1968, the number reached 1.5 million. Then, between 1968 and 1972, the rolls surged to 3 million families.... Money payments, less than $1 billion in 1960, reached $6 billion in 1972” (1977, p. 275).

Although most civil rights leaders were reluctant to fully support black participation in AFDC and other social welfare programs, quality of life did improve for the chronically poor, who now had access to a range of programs that could guide them out of poverty. The welfare state continued to be a source of much debate and controversy, however, and legislation directing policies and practices fluctuated with each new administration.


In the last years of the twentieth century, the American welfare state remained generally ineffective, uneven, and racialized. In 1996 President Bill Clinton, who had run for office on a platform promising to “end welfare as we know it,” signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Clinton’s focus on welfare reform mostly pertained to the AFDC program (which became TANF). The legislation included work requirements and time limits on assistance. Well into the twenty–first century, entitlements assisting those who are not the poorest of the poor remained intact, and the American social welfare state remained a two–tiered system that continued to define citizenship in the context of race and class.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement; Demographics and Race; Multiculturalism; Poverty; Racial Formations; Sexism; South African Racial Formations; United Kingdom Racial Formations


Katz, Michael. 1996. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America, rev. ed. New York: Basic Books.

Leiby, James.1978.A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Neubeck, Kenneth, and Noel Cazenave. 2001. Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card against America’s Poor. New York: Routledge.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1977. Poor People’s Movements. New York: Pantheon.

Cheryl R. Rodriguez

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