Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about David Ellwood, a Harvard Professor who studied welfare during the 1980’s and 90’s. Ellwood studied welfare and found that most welfare recipients used the program as temporary assistance, not as permanent support. His findings contrasted with the popular narrative that welfare made people lazy, dependent, and degenerate, leaving them stuck in the system with no possibility of ever escaping. Ellwood had trouble getting traction with the lessons he learned from his studies and as the authors write, “Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare.”
Welfare represents the opposite of the American Dream. We believe that anyone can improve their situation in life as long as they are willing to work hard enough, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and apply ingenuity and grit in pursuit of their goals. Welfare says that individuals have no chance of improving their situation on their own, and thus require assistance from the government for basic functioning and survival. The American Dream is individualistic, creative, nimble, and innovative. Welfare is slow, bureaucratic, and lazy. It threatens the American Dream, and is hated by those who pursue the American Dream and by those for whom the American Dream has slipped away.
Edin and Shaefer note that at the time that Ellwood was presenting his research, a time when Ronald Reagan was pursuing a war against poverty and welfare, American opinions captured in surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who thought the country was spending too little on help for the poor rose from 63% to 70%. People wanted to do more to support the poor, but they hated the systems and institutions that existed to provide aid.
This reveals a challenging paradox that our country still has not solved. We all want to pursue the American Dream, but we also still want to be generous and good people. Our highly consumeristic and capitalistic culture tells us that we should constantly be pushing for economic success, that having a big house, numerous cars, and nice things is a reward for our hard work, and that these purchases are socially beneficial because they power the economy to keep everyone advancing along the American Dream. At the same time, we still manage to feel compassion for those who fall on hard times, and we want to have a social system, especially one backed by the government, that helps people when in need. However, we hate the system we have developed for that purpose.
We have developed highly individualistic institutions to support our American Dream and our consumer culture. We strive to live in the best neighborhood possible, economically segregating ourselves from lower socioeconomic status individuals and families. We push ourselves to constantly work harder, maintaining longer work weeks and hours than most other western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. We spend our time as part of professional organizations more than as part of social missions. Nevertheless, we still want to help the poor who we run away from. We still want government (someone else) to solve the problems of people who fail in our capitalistic society. We want to be generous, but we only invest in the institutions which have furthered our own individualistic paths toward the American Dream, leaving others behind. We don’t have the institutions which would truly help those in need, and we chide the welfare institutions that do help them. This is the paradox we face, and the only way to get out is to find new institutions that allow us to continue to work toward a version of the American Dream while simultaneously being more socially active.