Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Key Issues in America

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Key Issues in America

Article excerpt

Where America Stands Michael Golay John Wiley, 1997

Where America Stands summarizes the results of recent Gallup polls of a wide range of different issues, and offers a background commentary on each. It provides many fascinating facts, both about the issues discussed and what Americans think of the issues. Large print is used. Charts, marginal quotations, and boxed discussions of special topics are spaced throughout the text. The result is a very readable book.

Let us look at some of the issues discussed, and what Americans think of them. Welfare Reform

The U.S. Congress has recently revised the U.S. welfare system. Continuous welfare will be limited to two years for most people (women with children under six are protected from losing benefits if suitable child care is not available). This reform followed a gradual public loss of confidence in the welfare system. In 1972 three quarters favored increasing or maintaining existing levels of welfare spending. By 1994, only 48% thought spending should remain constant or increase. By 1994, 90% of the American public believed the welfare system to be in crisis. In 1996, nearly three quarters of the sample (71%) favored a cut-off of benefits after two years, and a majority favored denying welfare benefits to new immigrants. However, three quarters of the public said the children of recipients dropped from the rolls should continue receiving benefits. (Of course, it is very hard to give benefits to children without the parents also benefiting).

There was overwhelming public support for job training with over 90% in a 1994 survey supporting "job training programs that teach welfare recipients new skills, and for child-care subsidies for working welfare parents or for welfare parents who are looking for work."

Congress responded to the public concerns with a new program that limited welfare over recipient's lifetime to five years (with hardship exemptions for up to 20% of the case load), and required able bodied adults to work after two years. It replaced the old federally mandated system by one of block grants to states, with the states having freedom to craft their own programs within broad limits. The program changes were projected to greatly reduce Federal expenditures.

A cynic could note that many of the savings depended on sticking to the five year lifetime benefit limit (and the two year limit on benefits without work). These limits might be hard politically to hold to once many individuals had come up against them. In the absence of suitable jobs many of these recipients will be without income, and possibly on the street (most likely, though, getting help and a place to stay from relatives and friends).

The book mentions calculations that show welfare to be more attractive than working for those single parents who could not earn more than twice the then minimum wage of $4.25 per hour (now higher). I suspect the underlying theory behind the new plan seemed to be that most welfare recipients could do useful work if they were only forced to take it, or to train for it. At the individual level this may be true, since there are minimum wage jobs in the economy. However, at the economy wide level it is not clear there are that many low level jobs available.

Typical of this thinking is an estimate by Senator Roth that over a five year period the typical recipient receives benefits equal in value to $50,000, enough "to finish a high school degree or to learn a skill through vocational training". Roth fails to consider the possibility that many welfare recipients' low intelligence may prevent them from either finishing high school or learning a marketable skill. Interestingly, the welfare reform program appears in many ways to accept a critique of welfare made by conservative scholar Charles Murray (Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1984, Basic Books, 1994) which emphasized its perverse incentives. Meanwhile however, Murray went on to complete, with the late Harvard psychologist Herrnstein (1994), another book, The Bell Curve (Herrnstein, R. …

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