The Poverty Reform Movement

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8: The Poverty Reform Movement

Poverty affects people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Poor people live in cities, in towns, and in the country. Poverty can strike people of all ages, from the youngest infants to the most elderly citizens. Poor people have one thing in common. They all go without various basic necessities, such as sufficient food, adequate employment, decent health care, and sanitary housing. They lack political power and often go unnoticed by politicians and their fellow citizens.

American leaders and citizens throughout the nation's history have tried to figure out the best ways to help the poor. Some believe that all U.S. citizens are responsible for the poor, the ill, the elderly, and the disabled. They suggest that aid should come from families, religious organizations, private charities, and community groups. Others feel that although such groups perform important functions, the federal government should take responsibility for the disadvantaged. They contend that the government should help fulfill basic needs, such as money, housing, and food for those who are unable to provide for themselves.

During the 1800s, organized community-wide efforts to help the underprivileged were undertaken. Since then, various reformers and political leaders have addressed the issue with mixed results. Even the most successful reforms have failed to end poverty. At the start of the twenty-first century, more than thirty million people in the United States lived in poverty.

Colonial era

During the early years of American history, local government made decisions about dealing with the poor. They generally established laws similar to Great Britain's "poor laws." Such laws offered financial assistance and aid in finding jobs for those able to work. Methods for helping the neediest members of a community varied. For the elderly, ill, or disabled, money and supplies were usually provided. Those who were physically able to work were often placed in workhouses. These were facilities usually run by churches that provided jobs for the unemployed.

From the earliest days of government assistance for the poor, citizens have strongly debated the best way to help the needy. This debate continues in the twenty-first century. Over the years, many people believed that giving direct assistance to the poor would make them dependent on such aid. Some citizens suggested that this dependency would give the poor no incentive to seek work and ultimately prolong their poverty. Others argued that every society has an obligation to help those who desperately need it. They note that for those who need help the most, cash assistance is necessary for survival.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the American economy was largely agricultural. The number of people living in cities and towns gradually increased during that period. However, most people lived in farming communities. In such communities, people tended to live with or near their extended families. Farmers often developed support networks among neighbors and relatives. They would give or seek help when times were hard. Many farmers faced hardship on occasion, but they could usually rely on others in the community to help out.


A severe economic downturn usually associated with high unemployment.
direct assistance:
Cash payments made to people on welfare; other types of welfare include housing that is paid for, in part, by the government, and vouchers to be used to buy food or pay for rent.
The condition of one who lacks money, resources, and material goods.
social services:
A range of services, often provided by the government, that promotes the well-being of disadvantaged or disabled citizens. Services can include health clinics, counseling, and job training, among others.
social welfare:
Private or government efforts to help disadvantaged or disabled individuals.
Government-funded help for the needy, in the form of money, supplies, and services.
A facility, often run by a church, designed to provide jobs for the poor and unemployed; also describes a prison housing minor criminals.

During the 1800s, the United States experienced a dramatic shift in its culture and economy. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s, began to impact the United States by the late 1700s and early 1800s. It was a period of numerous inventions and innovations that allowed goods to be produced mechanically. Products that had formerly been produced by hand in people's homes were now mass-produced by machines in factories. With the construction of numerous mills and factories in Northeastern cities, people left farming communities in large numbers. Some were seeking adventure but most were simply looking for steady work. By the end of the 1800s, the United States had altered significantly. It had changed from a collection of agriculture-based colonies to a nation made powerful by its manufacturing industries.

As more and more people moved to cities to find work, the family structure changed. People in urban, or city, environments were less likely to share living spaces or resources with relatives. So, when they experienced difficulties, they struggled alone. In a rural community, relatives or neighbors might step in to help if a family faced hard times. These support networks were harder to form in an urban setting. In addition, most of the factory jobs that held such promise turned out to be undesirable. They involved long hours, unsafe conditions, and low pay.

The nation as a whole increased its wealth tremendously during the 1800s. However, many personal fortunes were made primarily by the small segment of business owners who had seen profits soar with each new improvement in the manufacturing processes. Many in the working class, in contrast, became stuck in a cycle of poverty. They made barely enough money to pay expenses and never had the opportunity to get ahead. Women, children, and African Americans and other minorities were especially hard hit because their wages were the lowest.

Even as the number of poor rose considerably, the general attitude toward the poverty-stricken became hardened. Many politicians believed that government assistance to the poor would cause more harm than good. They thought assistance would injure the recipients' pride and sense of independence. Some people believed the rich had gained wealth because of their virtue, while the poor were being punished for their sinfulness. Up until the 1850s, those who could not repay their debts were treated as criminals and sent to prison. Deprived of any possible way to earn money to repay their debts, such people were often housed in large prison cells along with violent criminals. They endured miserable conditions for months or even years.

Unable to turn to the government for aid, those who were destitute, or extremely poor, had to rely on private or religious charities to survive. During the first half of the 1800s, a number of social reform movements arose, in part as a way of combating the social ills that worsened as urban populations increased. These movements attempted to improve education, reform prisons, abolish slavery, and aid the poor.

Scientific charity

During the latter half of the 1800s, particularly in the decades following the American Civil War (1861–65), the pace of industrialization quickened. Waves of immigrants continued to reach U.S. shores, settling primarily in cities. Multitudes of former slaves, freed during the war, left the South in search of jobs in the North. Urban populations swelled, as did poverty, overcrowding, and unemployment rates. The rapidly expanding economy proved very unstable. Periods of prosperity were followed by economic depressions, known at the time as "panics." During such panics, many members of the working class joined the ranks of the poor. They lost their jobs, their meager savings, and sometimes their homes. The U.S. government offered few safety nets for the poor. Most aid activities fell to state and local governments, which offered little assistance, and to private and religious charities. In large cities, abundant charitable organizations existed. However, each operated independently and with little knowledge of what the other groups were doing.

During the 1880s, a movement arose among reformers to coordinate the efforts of various charitable groups so they could provide services to the needy more efficiently. Such networks, which were established in major cities throughout the Northeast, were known as Charity Organization Societies, or COS. The movement to take a systematic, organized approach to studying poverty and distributing aid was known as "scientific charity." The reformers associated with this movement were firmly opposed to direct cash assistance for the poor. They believed that such aid would remove the incentive to find employment and would only prolong poverty.

Instead, the COS system involved sending an agent to the homes of the poor to determine the extent of that family's need. The agent would offer advice on living a morally upright and financially thrifty existence. Many reformers at the time believed that poverty was not caused by outside influences but were really the result of character flaws. Some people contended that if the poor could only receive the proper guidance about how to live their lives, they could change their ways and improve their circumstances. Thousands of women, mostly from the middle and upper classes, volunteered as home visitors. They offered advice on managing a household, holding themselves up as role models for the poor.

Although a number of reformers believed that home visitors' friendship and moral guidance offered a universal cure for poverty, many of the charity workers themselves came to feel differently. The home visitors witnessed the extent of the poor's suffering, including how they were deprived of the basic necessities for survival. Many charity workers were moved to take action. They thought they should be giving practical rather than moral guidance. They pointed poor families in the direction of agencies that provided aid and services, helping them navigate the complicated web of private and religious organizations.

Settlement houses

An alternative to the scientific charity movement came in the form of settlement houses. Such facilities were established in large cities beginning in the 1880s. The settlement movement sought to lessen poverty while studying its causes. Reformers contended that poverty stemmed not from the personal failings of the poor but from flaws in society. The idea behind the settlement movement was that volunteers, usually well-off and well-educated young men and women, would "settle" in homes in poor urban neighborhoods and offer services to those living nearby. The needy people in these areas would benefit from the services while the volunteers would learn first-hand about the dreadful living conditions of the poor.

The first settlement house, Toynbee Hall, was established in London, England, in 1884. Shortly thereafter, the idea spread to the United States. The first American settlement house, known as the Neighborhood Guild, was founded in New York City in 1886. Three years later, social reformer Jane Addams (1860–1935) and her college classmate Ellen Gates Starr (1859–1940) opened the Hull-House in Chicago, Illinois. It eventually became the best known settlement house in the nation. By 1900 more than one hundred settlement houses existed in the United States. That number had grown to more than four hundred by 1910, serving the poor in large cities and small towns.

Settlement houses performed a variety of functions. Most served as community centers, giving those in the neighborhood a place to gather for companionship and support. Settlement houses offered classes in music, art, and cooking, as well as providing job training. A number of settlement houses provided day care and schooling for young children as well as social and recreational outlets for older children. Recent immigrants benefited a great deal from settlement houses, which served as friendly havens in a country that often did not welcome foreigners.

Many settlement house volunteers reached beyond their neighborhoods in an attempt to reform the larger society. They engaged in campaigns for job safety, a ban on child labor, and improved housing for the poor. A number of the volunteers, many of whom were women who lived in the settlement houses, became lifelong activists for the underprivileged. They worked for national organizations, the government, and universities.

Alice Hamilton (1869–1970), a volunteer at Hull-House, later became the first woman professor at Harvard Medical School. Several years after working at Hull-House and other settlement houses, Frances Perkins (1882–1965) was named the Secretary of Labor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). Perkins was the first woman in the United States appointed to be one of the presidential advisers known collectively as the Cabinet.

The Progressive Era

Historians generally consider the first three decades of the 1900s to be the Progressive Era. During this time, the United States experienced a burst of social activism. The reforms of this period were a response to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The nation had grown very rapidly in terms of power and population. With that growth came many changes, including an increase in such problems as poverty, corruption, overcrowding, and the mistreatment of workers. Some of the poor found themselves with no alternatives but to live in shacks in large urban areas. In these areas, known as slums, the poor struggled to survive.

Reformers joined together to achieve positive social change, or progress, calling themselves progressives. Some sought to give women the right to vote nationally. They finally won this battle when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920. The Nineteenth Amendment states that the right to vote should not be denied due to gender. Others believed that many of society's problems could be traced to the excessive consumption of alcohol. In 1919, a ban on alcoholic beverages was set to begin after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. This ban was later repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933. Many progressives addressed racial discrimination, while others sought to improve the nation's public schools.

Many of the progressive campaigns focused on poverty. Various reformers believed that political corruption enriched politicians while ordinary people struggled. Business owners were criticized for creating a system where factory workers put in long hours in unsafe conditions for extremely low wages. Progressives believed that a quality education was the key to lifting millions of immigrants and other children out of poverty. They fought for voting rights and political power for African Americans and women. They considered these rights to be necessary tools to help women and blacks improve their financial circumstances.

The Muckrakers

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of crusading journalists and novelists rose to prominence by writing articles and books that exposed scandal, corruption, and abuse. These writers were determined to expose issues of social injustice to the public. Many of them endured harsh criticism from powerful members of society. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09) called these journalists "muckrakers," a term describing someone who rakes up animal dung and garbage. The reference to raking muck came from the classic work The Pilgrim's Progress, by seventeenth-century English author John Bunyan.

Roosevelt actually embraced many aspects of progressive politics and social reform. And, he supported the muckrakers' intentions. However, he criticized them for occasionally seeing only the negative aspects of society. In spite of the negative tone of the term "muckraker," reform-minded journalists eventually embraced the nickname. Their work was published in national magazines such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan, as well as in novels and nonfiction books.

One of the best known muckrakers was Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Sinclair wrote dozens of books, most of which addressed social injustice. The Jungle, his most famous work, exposed the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in Chicago's meatpacking industry. The novel criticized the greed of business owners and discussed the suffering of the immigrant workers. The book was a huge success. Although Sinclair intended to gain sympathy for the workers, his readers focused more on his exposure of the filthy conditions in meatpacking plants. A public outcry inspired by the novel led to the passage of laws to make the industry safer and cleaner.

Influential Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis (1849–1914) helped change the way people viewed society's obligation to take care of the poor. He wrote numerous newspaper articles detailing the miserable conditions in New York City slums. It was a subject that most people knew very little about. His book How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, included essays and photographs taken by Riis showing the bleak lives of the homeless and other desperately poor people.

As a journalist with McClure's and other magazines, Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) wrote numerous articles exposing corruption in city governments. He later collected these articles into a book, The Shame of the Cities (1904), which earned him widespread fame.

Another influential muckraker was Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944). She became a journalist during an era when few American women worked outside the home. Also writing for McClure's, Tarbell crafted an in-depth series of articles exposing the corruption and unfair business practices at Standard Oil Company. Controlled by John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil held an illegal business monopoly. A monopoly occurs when a business becomes so large and powerful that it controls the industry and other companies can no longer compete with it. Such businesses are able to fix, or set, prices higher knowing that customers have no choice but to buy from them. Tarbell's articles, collected in the two-volume work The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), made her famous and led to reforms against monopolies and price fixing. Her book contributed to the successful prosecution of Standard Oil, and the company was forced to end its monopoly in 1911.

During the Progressive Era, the general view of the poor evolved. More and more reformers believed that poverty was caused by faulty social and economic systems rather than character flaws among poor individuals. A number of journalists, known as muckrakers, devoted themselves to investigating and exposing these faulty systems. They sought to make the world aware of the effect of corruption on the common people.

The Great Depression and the New Deal

During the 1920s, the United States experienced a period of great prosperity. Many people were still poor, particularly farmers, but businesses boomed and a number of workers benefited from higher wages. The practice of buying consumer goods on credit became widespread. Also, smaller investors began participating in the stock market. The American economy soon became increasingly unstable. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Thus began a decade-long downturn known as the Great Depression (1929–41). During the Depression, many businesses folded, banks closed, millions of workers became unemployed, farmers lost their land, and families all over the country saw their life savings wiped out.

Those workers who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs saw their wages cut and their hours increased. More and more workers lost their jobs, with unemployment reaching 25 percent at the height of the Depression. President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) quickly became the object of resentment. Although he took some measures to revive the economy, aiding banks and other businesses, he did little to relieve the dire poverty experienced by millions of people.

Hoover believed that the responsibility of helping the poor and reviving the economy belonged to state and local governments and private charities, none of which had the means to provide much help. Hoover also disapproved of cash assistance for the poor, believing that handouts would cause poor people to lose their pride and dignity. In the presidential election of 1932, Hoover lost by a substantial margin to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who rose to power amid promises of relief for the ailing nation.

Roosevelt immediately began implementing a program that came to be known as the New Deal. It was a series of laws, policies, and new government agencies designed to rebuild the economy and provide assistance to the poor. He instituted programs to aid farmers, to revive banks, and to provide jobs. Roosevelt also made funds available to states that had run out of relief money. This allowed many of the poorest citizens to receive some cash assistance. American workers made several gains under the New Deal. A minimum wage and maximum working hours were established. In addition, steps were taken toward eliminating child labor. New Deal laws also made it easier for workers to join a union and to bargain with employers as a group for improved wages and conditions.

The New Deal did not bring immediate and substantial economic recovery. However, it did bring the nation out of a crisis and provided much-needed help to many businesses and millions of citizens. One of the most significant changes brought about by the New Deal was that the federal government helped to provide a safety net to its neediest citizens. In 1935 the Social Security Act (SSA) was passed. The law substantially increased the government's role in social welfare, or assistance to the underprivileged. The SSA included several benefits, including a monthly pension plan for the elderly. The government provided immediate cash assistance to the elderly. In addition, it set up a program whereby workers and employers pay a payroll tax, building a fund to pay monthly benefits to all workers upon retirement. The SSA also offered insurance to the unemployed and aided needy children and the disabled.

Although its impact was felt for decades, the New Deal essentially came to an end as the United States recovered from the Great Depression. The recovery occurred as the country began preparations to enter World War II (1939–45). The buildup to war effectively reignited the economy, providing millions of jobs and revitalizing industries. The United States entered the war in December of 1941 when the Japanese military bombed the navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The decade following World War II was a time of optimism and economic prosperity in the United States. Poor people did not disappear during the 1950s, but they certainly became less visible.

The plight of the needy received renewed attention in part through the efforts of political activist Michael Harrington (1928–1989). In 1962 Harrington's book The Other America: Poverty in the United States was published. In the work, he pointed out that between forty and fifty million Americans were stuck in a cycle of poverty. Harrington's work was extremely influential. It was read by the general public as well as policy makers, including President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63). When Kennedy was elected to the presidency in 1960, the principles of the New Deal had been revived. Kennedy spoke persuasively about spreading opportunity to all Americans. He proposed new legislation to address poverty and racial injustice. Kennedy never had the chance to fulfill his goals as he was assassinated in November 1963. The vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69), then assumed the office of the presidency. Johnson pledged to make Kennedy's plans a reality.

The Great Society and the war on poverty

Within a few months of becoming president, Johnson announced plans for a sweeping legislative program to guarantee civil rights, improve public education and health care, and protect the environment. Referred to as the building of a Great Society, this program echoed Roosevelt's New Deal in its scope and impact. Johnson immediately put into motion civil rights legislation that had been promoted by Kennedy. During the summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. This act ended legal segregation in the South, prohibiting racial and gender discrimination in schools, workplaces, and any facility that served the public. Under segregation (a separation of the races), whites and blacks had attended separate schools, sat in different areas on buses and trains and in restaurants and concert halls, and were not allowed to use the same water fountains, beaches, parks, and the like. The following summer, due in large part to the heroic campaigns of civil rights activists, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act was considered a landmark piece of legislation that banned all restrictions on citizens' ability to vote.

The underlying goal of most Great Society programs was to improve access and opportunity for the nation's poor. Early in his presidency, Johnson declared a "war on poverty." He signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA). This act established the Office of Economic Opportunity and launched numerous programs. Among the most significant of these programs were the Job Corps and Head Start. Job Corps provided education, job training, and work placement for disadvantaged young adults. Head Start gave poor children the opportunity to attend preschool. The EOA also established Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a U.S.-based program that seeks solutions to the effects of poverty. VISTA is similar to the international program called the Peace Corps. It provides resources for adult education courses, health clinics, neighborhood centers, senior centers, and family planning clinics.

In the presidential election during the fall of 1964, Johnson won by a large margin. His victory was considered to indicate widespread approval for his Great Society programs. Johnson pushed numerous laws through Congress in the months after the election. He passed education laws that provided additional funding to public schools in poor districts and offered grants and low-interest loans to help disadvantaged students pay their college tuition. During 1965, Congress established Medicare, which provides medical insurance for senior citizens and some disabled people. Medicaid offers medical care for the poor. Congress also established the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency, which was designed to improve housing conditions, especially in cities. Johnson promoted legislation that would help put food in the hands of the hungry, including programs such as food stamps and free school breakfasts and lunches.

Johnson's Great Society programs were popular with the public, but they also drew heavy criticism. Conservatives criticized the increases in government spending to pay for Johnson's programs. Liberals charged that the programs did not have sufficient funding and did not make a substantial difference in the lives of the poor. By 1967 most of Johnson's attention, as well as substantial Congressional funding, was devoted to the escalating war in Vietnam (1954–75). Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968. Although the Great Society programs did not eliminate poverty and racial injustice, they did improve the financial circumstances of millions of people and provided legal recourse for those experiencing discrimination. In spite of later attempts to cut back on Great Society legislation, Johnson's legacy continues to make a difference in the lives of poor Americans. The Great Society marked the last sweeping effort to reduce poverty in the twentieth century.

King Focuses on Poverty

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was the best-known leader of the U.S. civil rights movement for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. He devoted years of his life to ending segregation and other forms of discrimination in the American South. His efforts proved enormously successful. He won the devotion of southern blacks and influenced the actions of powerful politicians. After the passage of significant civil rights laws during the mid-1960s, however, King realized that his efforts had done little to improve the lives of African Americans outside the South.

In 1965 riots broke out in Watts, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles. King traveled there in an attempt to learn the causes of the violence. He realized that, although African Americans outside of the South did not have to endure legal segregation, they faced widespread racism and suffered from terrible poverty. Most lived in ghettos in overcrowded and unsanitary tenement buildings. The few jobs that were available to them were undesirable and low-paying. They could see no way out of their bleak existence, and their frustration, anger, and hopelessness overwhelmed them. King came to believe that, for these black citizens, reducing their poverty was the key to achieving racial justice.

King began planning a strategy for reducing urban poverty among African Americans. He spent nine months during 1966 trying to organize black residents in Chicago ghettos. However, he found that his methods were far less effective in Chicago than they had been in the South. He faced strong opposition from the city's influential mayor, Richard J. Daley (1902–1976). In fact, Daley began withholding essential city services, including welfare payments and garbage collection, from any slum dwellers who supported King's efforts.

Determined, King became deeply involved in planning a massive demonstration to be held in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968. The Poor People's March on Washington would bring together thousands of people of all races to protest high rates of unemployment and job discrimination. King did not live to see the march take place, however. A few weeks before the date of the march, King traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. While there, he was shot and killed by an assassin on April 4, 1968.

At century's end

During the final decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, citizens and policy makers engaged in heated debate over the government's role in the assistance of the poor, just as they had for many generations before. Opponents of welfare claimed that providing direct assistance to the unemployed removed an individual's incentive to find work. They also contended that it was not the responsibility of the federal government to put food on its citizens' tables. Supporters of social welfare believed that the government had an obligation to care for its neediest citizens and to provide a safety net when no other existed. Regardless of their views, most observers acknowledged serious flaws in the social welfare system. In spite of the cost of such programs, welfare failed to raise a substantial number of people out of the depths of poverty.

The number of people obtaining assistance from the government grew during the 1960s and the 1970s. This trend was due, in part, to more and more disadvantaged families becoming aware of the benefits they could obtain from the government. In addition, a change in the American economy resulted in more people becoming unemployed or being forced to accept lower-paying jobs. In the 1970s numerous corporations began shifting toward globalization, moving their operations overseas. This allowed businesses to take advantages of inexpensive labor in developing nations. The result was that many U.S. workers lost high-paying jobs in manufacturing. In turn, the number of people seeking government assistance increased. This caused resentment to rise among many other Americans, and criticism of the welfare system intensified.

While the 1980s were years of unsurpassed prosperity for some Americans, the decade also saw millions of people slide into poverty. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) sought to decrease government spending on social services. He proposed cutting back on numerous welfare programs and reversing many policies that had been established by the New Deal and the Great Society. Reagan's presidency marked the beginning of a period that continued into the twenty-first century during which many politicians believed that welfare harmed the poor more than it helped. Some conservative people suggested that, without welfare benefits, the poor would have no choice but to find work and support their families on their own.

At the end of the twentieth century, one welfare program became the focus of much of the criticism: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This program provided cash payments to families in which the main wage-earner, usually the father, was absent. AFDC had its roots in the New Deal. By the 1990s, it served millions of children and adults, and a movement to abolish the program had swelled. Critics charged that AFDC encouraged women to have children without being married and discouraged them from seeking work. Supporters of the program explained that the cost of AFDC relative to other government programs was minor. They also pointed out that AFDC families actually received a fairly small sum, on average less than $400 per month in the mid-1990s. This amount could not cover a family's costs for housing, food, and other expenses and therefore did not serve as an incentive to remain unemployed.

The political will to abolish AFDC overpowered any support for the program. In 1996 President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) signed into law a welfare reform bill that would effectively end the program. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), sometimes known as the welfare-to-work law, was passed. As a result, AFDC was replaced by a program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). With AFDC, families that met certain criteria were guaranteed payments, but no such guarantee existed with TANF. Under TANF, the U.S. government gave fixed amounts of funding to the states, and state governments became responsible for decisions regarding welfare programs. TANF established strict time limits for families receiving assistance. Each state could decide on that time limit, which was not to exceed five years over the course of a lifetime. TANF also imposed requirements that recipients find jobs after two years on assistance, with states losing federal funds when recipients do not comply.

In the years following the welfare-to-work law, statistics seemed to indicate the success of TANF. The number of people receiving welfare payments decreased, and the number of former welfare recipients joining the workforce increased. But many critics pointed out that the statistics hid the fact that many of the people who were no longer eligible to receive payments were still unemployed and continued to live in dire poverty. In addition, many of those who had found jobs were earning meager wages. They earned too much to qualify them for government assistance but not enough to pay the bills. In addition, most could not afford health insurance.

When he became president in 2001, George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) expressed views similar to those of preceding presidents. He emphasized that U.S. citizens should bear personal responsibility for their livelihoods. Bush sought a decreased role of government in social services. Soon after taking office, Bush established the Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This program provided government funding for religious and community organizations that would take on responsibility for caring for the needy members of society. Supporters hailed the program's emphasis on community rather than government administration of services for the disadvantaged. However, critics cited the practice of government funding for religious organizations as unconstitutional. In addition, many expressed concern that without assistance from the federal government, needy citizens would be neglected.

The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent open-ended "war on terror" and war in Iraq led to significant increases in military and defense spending. As a result, the government decreased spending on social services, leading to cuts in Medicaid, environmental programs, and other areas.

The trend during the final decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first was to reduce the size of the federal government, specifically to decrease government spending on social services. President Bush and other former U.S. presidents have spoken of the importance of self-reliance. They suggest that if disadvantaged people cannot rely on government assistance they will find a way to rely on themselves, with added support from private institutions and religious charities. The number of poor people in the United States has continued to grow, however, with tens of millions living in substandard housing and millions more homeless. The United States is one of the world's wealthiest nations, but the problem of ensuring that all citizens have access to a portion of that wealth continues.

For More Information


Fremon, David K. The Great Depression in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Harvey, Bonnie Carman. Jane Addams: Nobel Prize Winner and Founder of Hull House. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.

Meltzer, Milton. Poverty in America. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1986.

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1906.

Steffens, Lincoln. The Shame of the Cities. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1904.

Tarbell, Ida M. The History of the Standard Oil Company. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1904.


"From Charitable Volunteers to Architects of Social Welfare: A Brief History of Social Work" (Fall 2001). University of Michigan School of Social Work. (accessed on May 20, 2006).

"Settlement Houses." The Reader's Companion to American History. (accessed on March 12, 2006).

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