In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America

In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America

In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America

In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America

Synopsis

In this history, Katz explores the roots of our ambivalence toward welfare and the welfare state, revealing the patterns which have recurred from era to era and which continue to frustrate reformers to this day. From the poorhouse era to the New Deal, from the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare, Katz provides the long perspective so often missing from the debates over "ending welfare as we know it". And this tenth anniversary edition contains an expanded introduction and a new concluding chapter, bringing the story to the present and analyzing the politics that lie behind the welfare reform act of 1996.

Excerpt

Nobody likes welfare. Conservatives worry that it erodes the work ethic, retards productivity, and rewards the lazy. Liberals view the American welfare system as incomplete, inadequate, and punitive. Poor people, who rely on it, find it degrading, demoralizing, and mean. None of these complaints are new; they echo nearly two centuries of criticism. In truth, American welfare hardly qualifies as a system. Diffused through every layer of government; partly public, partly private, partly mixed; incomplete and still not universal; defeating its own objectives, American welfare practice is incoherent and irrational. Still, this crazy system resists fundamental change. What is the source of its resilience? How are we to understand the persistence of a welfare system so thoroughly disliked and so often and authoritatively criticized? The answer rests in its past. American welfare practice has been constructed in layers deposited during the last two centuries. Despite accretions and extensions, it has served a consistent and useful set of purposes; its strength derives from its symbiosis with American social structure and political economy. This book sketches its social history.

Four major structural features mark American welfare practice. First is the division between public assistance and social insurance. Public assistance is means-tested relief. It is what we usually think of as welfare. Its major contemporary examples are Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and General Assistance. Social insurance is not means tested. It is an entitlement for everyone eligible by virtue of fixed, objective criteria, such as age, disability, or unemployment, and its benefits cross class lines. The great current example, of course, is social security. The division between social insurance and public assistance has bifurcated social welfare along class lines. With a strong, articulate middle-class constituency, social insurance, espe-

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