Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Intellectual Origins of `Welfare Dependency'

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Intellectual Origins of `Welfare Dependency'

Article excerpt

There is no way to overestimate the effect that Charles Murray's book Losing Ground had on the intellectual debate on poverty.

Steven M. Teles (1996: 148)

Gilder, far more than any careful and responsible social scientists, spoke to the interlaced economic, personal, and moral anxieties that fuelled conservatism's triumph in the era of Ronald Reagan.

Michael B. Katz (1989: 147)


In November 1999 Senator Jocelyn Newman released a major discussion paper on the Federal Government's planned reform of the Australian welfare system. Central to the Government's concerns -- and as indicated in the paper's title, `The challenge of welfare dependency in the 21st century' -- is the incidence of `welfare dependency', which (the paper argues) is best combated by extending the strategy of `mutual obligation' (Newman 1999). As Anna Yeatman (1999) has written: `the rhetoric of mutual obligation begins with a rejection of dependency. Dependency is associated with both passivity and long-term, self-destructive reliance on unearned economic support, or "welfare"'. The Government's solution is thus to involve greater numbers of welfare recipients -- including the elderly, disabled, and single parents -- in workfare schemes or community-based volunteer projects. Although the subsequent reports from the Reference Group on Welfare Reform generally focused on participation as a goal (McClure 2000a, 2000b), an abiding concern about dependency remains firmly on the official agenda.

At the heart of the Government's approach to welfare reform are a series of concepts and assumptions which need to be critically examined. The central term I propose to analyse here is `welfare dependency'. What does it mean and what is the impact of making it central to policy debate? Understanding this term will give us insight into the logic and desired outcomes of the current wave of welfare reform. As Raymond Williams argued in Keywords (1976), and others have reiterated since, `the terms that are used to describe social life are also active forces shaping it' (Fraser & Gordon 1994: 78). While I am not arguing that the Howard Government is consciously following a position outlined by conservative critics of the welfare state, I do contend that `welfare dependency' is an ideologically loaded term which has the effect of placing the blame centrally on welfare recipients themselves for their unemployment and poverty. This makes an understanding of the origins of the term crucial.

Origins of the term `welfare dependency'

As with much Australian fashion, the source of the current rhetoric on welfare dependency is to be found on the other side of the Pacific. There is a long tradition of argument in the US that, once given welfare assistance, recipients will cease to seek work or attempt to overcome their difficulties. Welfare was frequently conceived as weakening the moral fortitude of recipients. This pervasive belief led to early forms of government welfare being tightly restricted and narrowly targeted. Only a select few fell into the category of the `deserving poor'. Greater numbers were considered `undeserving', to whom it was unwise to provide welfare (Katz 1989, 1996).

It took the Great Depression and the expansion of the concepts of social and human rights to design welfare programs that aimed to assist all poor people and not just the `deserving poor'. As unemployment and poverty escalated, so too there developed a nascent welfare state. Nevertheless, apprehension about the detrimental impact of welfare persisted. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the `father of the American welfare system', asserted in his 1935 budget address:

   Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral
   disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out
   relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the
   human spirit. … 
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