OT: The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State

“The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State,” by Fred Block, Richard A. Cloward, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Frances Fox Piven, Pantheon Books, NY, 1987. This 205-page hardback collects four articles that review what is known about poverty and especially Aid for Dependent Children and households without fathers. This is a liberal response to the Reagan administration’s plan to trim welfare spending.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s article is perhaps most relevant to today. She is best known for her popular books such as Nickeled and Dimed. Here she has an academic article with references. She examines the transition from old conservatives like Barry Goldwater to the populist New Right that led to the election of Donald Trump. The New Right clusters around issues like abortion, school prayer, and pornography. It emerged when lower middle class and blue collar constituencies mobilized to protest school busing, liberal textbooks, and civil rights.

In contrast, the Goldwater focus was strong defense, anti-communism, limited government, and market economics. The old conservatives were elitist. The New Right has used social, moral issues to attract southern religious voters who usually vote Democratic. Deficit reduction is less concerning. Intelligentsia, ie liberal elites, are rejected and not to be trusted. Capitalism is moral but big government is out. They are liberal on economic issues but conservative on social issues. The single parent problem comes from the disruptive effects of welfare.

Welfare reform is under discussion in the Reagan administration. The idea that welfare harms the poor is ancient. In 1985, the US Census found that 31% of the population and 47% of households received government benefits. (That included Social Security.) Programs that support the disadvantaged keep them out of the labor market where they help drive down wages. Companies oppose work programs that compete with their business. Hence, “work” often becomes breaking rocks. Indoor relief as in poorhouses or workhouses is more costly than outdoor relief. Plus the conditions in the institutions are often terrible. Quality of living there makes the poor avoid them.

Better payments attract participation. Expansion of disability programs increased recipients from 687K in 1960 to 4352K in 1975. For men the percentage out of work grew from 4% to 9%; for blacks the numbers grew from 7% to 16%. Studies concluded disability programs allowed poorer, older, and less skilled workers to retire early.

In 1834, the Poor Law Commission concluded that relief generated loss of self respect, responsibility, prudence, temperance, hard work and other virtues. Tocqueville, 1835: any program to address the needs of the poor will breed more miseries than it can cure. A study found poor house inmates became long term paupers destroyed by idleness and dependency. Work relief programs spur people to work by making pariahs of those who cannot support themselves.

Early studies concluded that poverty was caused by the inability to defer gratification. Welfare programs cause conditions to deteriorate: family breakdown, out of wedlock birth, weaker labor force, crime, delinquency, poor school performance, and deeper poverty. Social programs relieve the responsibility to care for aging parents.

The majority of women and children on AFDC are blacks and Hispanics. In the 1970s, corporations and conservatives began to fund institutes to establish that social spending is destructive to the poor. Among those are the American Enterprise Institute (1970), the Heritage Foundation (1973) and Manhattan Institute (1977).

Single parent families are examined. In 1983, 12% of white families, 23% of Hispanic families, and 42% of black families were single parent. In 1980, one third of births in white teenagers were outside of marriage; among blacks the figure was 85%.

Disruptions caused by the great migration of blacks from the south contributed to the increase in single parent households. Families were disrupted. AFDC also contributed. Women who previously would have lived with parents or relatives had the resources to form family units and are now recorded differently in census records. Highway construction and urban renewal also destroyed neighborhoods and forced people to move to even worse housing. Gentrification is also a factor impacting the traditional community.

Later studies found that lack of suitable marriage partners also led to single parent households. Unemployment, crime, drugs, gangs, and time in prison impacted marriage potential. Youths from families where work is not valued tend not to enter the work force. They are unable to take advantage of improving employment opportunities.

Birth of a child out of marriage led to one third of AFDC applications. Divorce and lack of child care contribute. The average woman’s standard of living drops 73% the first year of divorce. Studies show 48% of women are on AFDC for two years or less; 17% for 8 years are move.

Families eligible for food stamps fail to apply. Many were not aware they were eligible or thought they were not eligible. Some want to avoid the stigma of “being on welfare.”

The book does not address other aspects of poverty. The potential for education and job training to improve the life of the poor is not described. Charities sponsor coaching programs to encourage students to stay in school and graduate. That gives them access to job training programs. Also over looked is Head Start and similar early education programs.

This is an overview of poverty and what is known of poverty relief programs. Index. References.