LUCY A. WILLIAMS
WELFARE AND LEGAL ENTITLEMENTS: THE SOCIAL ROOTS OF POVERTY
PUBLIC policy and political rhetoric in the United States always have been ambivalent about assisting the poor, unsure about whether the poor are good people facing difficult times or bad people who refuse to fit into society. Public welfare programs in the United States originated as discretionary programs for the "worthy" poor. Local asylums or poorhouses, with wide variation and broad local administrative discretion, separated the "deserving" poor, such as the blind, deaf, insane, and eventually the orphaned, from the "undeserving"--all other paupers, including children in families.
The dominant political discourse in the United States, reinforced by our legal culture, teaches that poverty arises naturally. Either it is a twist of fate, such as victimization by a flood, drought, or other act of God (this is the case of the deserving poor, such as the blind and deaf, who deserve some sympathy because of their misfortune) or it results from an individual's willful refusal to conform to minimal social norms and obligations (the undeserving poor). In either case, the basic message is that neither the political system nor the legal system bears any responsibility for causing poverty, nor can public policy do much about poverty except to alleviate the suffering of the most abject among the deserving.
This tenet--that poverty is a natural result of cruel fate or individual failing--is deeply entrenched and broadly diffused in our politics and culture, and it is also false. To be sure, biological accident and antisocial behavior play some part. However, the persistence of poverty on a massive scale in an extremely wealthy and technologically advanced country such as the United States is largely a product of political decisions and institutions that generate and sustain a sharply unequal distribution of