J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, grew up in the utterly forgettable town of Middletown OH, a blue-collar, Appalachian town with a name representing its nature. Middletown is neither extremely poor nor diverse racially. There is little opportunity and even less motivation. Vance experiences both physical and emotional abuse as a child from his single mother and rotating array of father figures. Few members of his community go to college, and if they do, it’s almost always in state. Vance was the first, and only since, Middletownian to attend an Ivy League. Despite the community’s overwhelming support for a smaller state and fewer government handouts, he notices that many members of rely entirely on welfare payments and have little motivation to become self sufficient. This is the story of much of America, rural or urban, coastal or Midwestern, this phenomenon does not discriminate. And it is not constrained to the US either; every country with a welfare system -- France, Great Britain, even beloved Sweden -- have individuals who are disempowered by the aid. Although the traditional view is that welfare provides a framework for success, does welfare have the opposite of intended effect? Does it discourage democracy? The current system of government-provided welfare in America does not empower or enable communities, instead it leads to lower motivation, civic engagement, and sense of self due to the psychological effects.
Pre-1900s, when the US was largely agricultural, the need for welfare was lower because individuals and families provided for physical needs themselves. Small social safety nets existed in communities but no federal programs existed to aid the needy or poor. At the turn of the 20th century, when the economy became more industrialized and specialized, states and the federal government realized that there were inherent risks in labor. The first ‘welfare’ law enacted federally in 1908 covered employees of the government in hazardous jobs, providing a small amount of insurance in case of an accident. Small scale pension plans for teacher and veterans were also created in the early 1900s, but most citizens did not receive any monetary support from the state. The severe economic decline in the 1930s left nearly 30% of the population unemployed and created a necessity for aid given to the families, both to alleviate suffering and strengthen the consumer economy. Under Hoover, aid beyond limited direct relief was not given, but the Roosevelt administration implemented the New Deal, which included widespread welfare in the form of works projects, more direct relief, and most notably the the Social Security Act of 1935(“Historical Development”). The SSA set up a federal retirement program for persons over 65, which was financed by a payroll tax paid jointly by employers and their workers. The act also set aside funds for children, disabled people, and the unemployed. The 1960s and 70s, called the “Great Society” were marked by high welfare spending. Medicaid, medicare, and food stamps were created, and, in the midst of the civil rights movement, spending focused on minorities. President Lyndon B Johnson had announced a “War on poverty.” Taxes were high, and inequality low. Ronald Reagan replaced LBJ on the policy stance of contempt for social spending and imprinted into the American psyche disdain for “welfare queens.” He was quoted saying, “It’s now common knowledge that our welfare itself has now become a poverty trap; A creator and reinforcer of dependency” (“Ronald Reagan”). The results of Reaganomics social policies were an increase in privatization, increase homeless population, increase in inequality and a devolution of policies to be more state-funded (“A Very Brief”). This newly sour mood towards welfare was bipartisan; Clinton launched the Welfare to Work campaign, which aimed to get single mothers jobs and off welfare. Initially, this was deemed a success. Although the new employment not always well-paying, income for single mothers did not plummet. And Reagan would have approved; the amount of welfare recipients decreased from 12 million in 1995, to 3.5 million today (“Evaluations of State”). However, the growth in the lowest level of wages experienced in the 1990s is not experienced now, so those remaining on welfare have less incentive to leave. In addition, funding for Welfare to Work itself has decreased, leaving single mothers with few qualifications with no options and frustration. As Alina Gardner, single mother of three said, “There’s no middle ground, it’s either you’re down there or you’re up here” (“The History”).
The welfare system in the US is two tiered. Tier one is associated with honor and sacrifice and includes the GI Bill and Medicare, while tier two is means tested and recipients are often considered “undeserving.” It includes SNAP (food stamps) and similar programs which are significantly less generous (Fraser, Gordon). Tier one recipients enjoy stigma-free benefits, so the majority of the negatives to welfare -- disempowerment, withdrawal from civil society, loss of motivation, even obesity -- are among tier two recipients. The adverse effects discussed pertain only to Tier 2 recipients.
Although the welfare state is generally thought to support democracy by reducing economic inequality, it may paradoxically contribute to political disempowerment of some groups. Those receiving welfare, especially tier two, vote significantly less than those who do not, and also report lower levels of self and political efficacy. For example, in the 2000 elections in Minnesota, turnout rates were 39 percent for welfare recipients versus 56 percent for the rest of the population (Swartz). This corresponds with overall trends of more cynicism and lowered faith in the democratic process -- overall turnout rates have decreased from a high of 63 percent in the 1960 presidential election to a low of 49 percent in 1996 (US Census Bureau). It’s unexpected that the welfare state lowers political participation as it does. So why? American idealizes individualism, so the negative self-image associated with label of “disabled,” “elderly,” or “unemployed” often accompanies welfare reception. This could lead to recipients feeling shame and alienation from other citizens, which would discourage political participation.
In addition to the vulnerability and seemed admission to failure that accompanies receiving welfare, the bureaucracy, the administration of services, and wider cultural messages regularly remind recipients they are not full members of society unless working (Edin, Lein). Along with the sprawling system’s inefficient use of capital, welfare bureaucrats are notorious for their disrespect of recipients. This is acute in child services. The common rhetoric that drug addiction or the continuation of physical abuse is the main catalyst for failure to reunite child with parent is incorrect (Sankaran). Parents --often from already marginalized populations-- are not included in the decisionmaking process by the state for their children, which causes them to feel alienated and silenced, leading them to eventually give up. Similarly, the simple act of applying for a welfare program is arduous. Hopeful recipients will find themselves wading through paperwork in disorganized offices with prohibitively long wait times. Since recipients of social services equate experiences with bureaucracy as representative of the government overall, welfare recipients often become disillusioned with politics altogether.
The larger cultural perception of welfare is overwhelmingly negative. 70% believe people who receive welfare abuse the system and are lazy (Hays), and media portrayals associate women who receive welfare with teenage pregnancy and broken families (Misra). Women are the primary recipients of welfare. 45 percent of food stamps and 90 percent of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients are single mothers, despite representing only 25 percent of families (“Single Mother”). This is due to the higher weight of responsibilities women must bear regarding childcare. The adversities faced that forced these women into the position of needing governmental aid should be recognized. To shame single mothers for using welfare is to ignore the domestic violence, mass incarceration of black men, and other circumstances that put these women in this position. It is essentially victim blaming. And this society-created caricature creates shame in recipients, who may begin to identify with it. The ensuing resentment towards American society will not just be imbued on them, but also their children and community. According to a study published in the Journal of Social Sciences, high levels civil engagement from a young age leads to productive and engaged citizens when older, and consequently, engagement in households with resentment towards welfare stigmatization is lower (Flanagan, Bowes, Britta).
As inequality grows in the country, following the current trend, more people will require welfare as the majority of wages stagnate. That will significantly drain on public funds, and considering our current tax code which is corporation-friendly, there will not be adequate funds to address this growing group of people. In response, fewer benefits will be provided or it will become more difficult to qualify for benefits, depriving the neediest demographics further. The US has already commenced this transition, which started with Reaganism era policies and accelerated with Clinton’s Welfare-to-Work program, and despite ideological support from liberals for more welfare spending, under most recent Democratic presidents Obama and Clinton, welfare spending has stagnated or decreased (“Budget”). While this predicted stagnation in welfare spending per capita may seem to benefit the dependent by forcing them to enter the workforce, decreasing welfare spending will likely not increase the productivity of this group, instead leading to higher levels of adversity for this demographic. The former “welfare queen,” to quote Reagan and J.D. Vance, will struggle to find employment, because she likely lacks the qualifications necessary due to her years of subsisting on governmental aid, and if she succeeds in being hired, it will likely be in a minimum-wage job. Perhaps the current minimum wage stagnation is as much of a catalyst of welfare dependence as psychology, so if the American government seeks to decrease dependence and increase quality of life, it should consider federally raising the minimum wage. Or adopting the model of Alaska, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota and tying minimum wage to automatically raise with cost of living (Brainard). Having a population so dependent on state welfare will also cause highly welfare-dependent communities, like JD Vance’s hometown Middletown OH, to fall behind in development. Due to the low level of information capital available in these communities, less investment will be attracted to the areas, and consequently less opportunity will be afforded to working members of the population. This will catalyze an even greater divide between rural and urban America and create greater wealth inequality. Divisions like these are already occurring, and consequential anger and resentment toward the “elite” has fueled politics, leading to both increasingly ideologically diametrical political parties,and isolationist policies, and the increased popularity of populists.
Welfare is complex, because although it is necessary to balance the intrinsic inequality of capitalism and alleviates extreme suffering, it is not purely positive. The highly bureaucratic system in the US leads many individuals feeling disenfranchised, or even worse useless, “resource-sucking” members of their communities. The effect is recipients of stigmatized, “Tier 2” welfare often become less civically engaged and view self and political efficacy as lower than the general population. The system also prioritizes direct aid over programs such as education or job-training which would empower the vulnerable and disenfranchised Americans to move away from government subsidization. However, instead of working to destigmatize welfare or create empowering programs, the government is slashing the budget to necessary programs. The result is the highest level of inequality since 1929 (“Inequality Data”), highest levels of cynicism and perceived political inefficacy (Smith), and the rise of isolationist populists like Donald Trump. Governments eliminate the tier system-- welfare recipients should be treated with the same level of respect and services despite their living conditions. Effective welfare policy does not eliminate the welfare state. Instead, focus should be on cutting red tape, which is costing taxpayers exorbitantly and leaves welfare recipients frustrated and disempowered. These politicians would find a streamlining of the welfare system would hold rare bipartisan appeal, because spending and welfare inefficacy and disempowerment would simultaneously decrease. In addition, welfare efficacy and abuse would be easier to track, which would lead to identification and elimination of the most problematic welfare practices and programs. Any new programs should focus on encouraging employment, as opposed to subsidizing unemployment. Welfare recipients who get jobs could be initially incentivized with additional benefits. Dollars should focus on job training and education, especially for marginalized groups including ex-cons, minorities, and single mothers. And the media, which has increasingly become cautious of its depictions of people of color, should shy away from easy welfare stereotypes. There are no instant fixes. This is an issue that is deeply psychological and internalized, and welfare recipients tend to start from tough backgrounds. But if we showed the marginalized their potential rather than their failures, perhaps welfare would fulfill its original promise -- to increase democracy and empower Americans.