America has the most illogical welfare system of any modern nation on earth. It is a huge, complex, inefficient, ineffective failure —and a dreadfully expensive failure to boot.
America now spends at least $100 billion a year on its poor. Yet in 1982 the government counted more poor Americans than it did in 1968. Some would dismiss this finding as simple error in measurement on the part of the government, and one chapter in this book shows that in fact there are many flaws in the government's official standard of poverty. But endless quibbles about how to measure poverty should not distract attention from two critical facts: (1) Year in and year out America has some fifty to sixty million citizens who must survive on extremely low incomes. Most of them are in financial distress, and many find themselves in severe financial straits, whether we choose to call them poor or not. (2) In any given year enough of these people are in such a calamitous condition that we feel compelled as a civilized society to provide them with some type of aid. The welfare programs we have set up have increasingly become a very large burden for all taxpayers and a drag on the economy; yet America's pool of financially distressed citizens refuses to shrink.
How could America spend so much and accomplish so little? The answer is that the American welfare system does about what it is meant to do. It provides a select group of America's poorest citizens (the ones we define as the "legitimate" poor) with benefits that are so modest and so misdirected that most recipients are left in a state of dependent poverty. No one even pretends that the American welfare system is designed to prevent people from becoming poor or to move those who are poor out of poverty. It is not meant to do