Hating Welfare

Hating Welfare

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.

Challenges Today

In Cory Booker’s United, the U.S. Senator relives moments from his past that shaped him and his politics. In his book he shares the story of a night when he and his father were out for drinks, and heard gunfire on their walk back home. Booker rushed toward the sound of the gunfire, arrived as one of the first people at the scene, and attempted to stabilize a man who had been shot. He explains the almost shock-like state that he was in following the incident, and examines a thought that he and his father wrestled with after the shooting.

Booker’s father was born in 1936 to a poor family. He was bright and hard working and rose to be a regional sales leader for a large company. Booker’s mother was also a trail blazer, running up the ranks in another company, and together Booker’s parents moved from poverty to wealth and to a suburb in New Jersey that had been almost exclusively white. Booker’s parents pushed to give their children new opportunities and pushed to make the United States better for black people, but the thought which challenged Booker’s father was this: “All this work, advancement, and progress, yet a kid like I was faces more challenges today than ever before. How could it come to this?”

It is very popular to write about the death of the American Dream and many people feel as though current generations do not have the same opportunity today to live better lives than their parents. Throughout American history my sense is that people believed their lives would be better than the lives of their parents, but this seems to no longer be the case, and seems to contribute to the sense that the American Dream is dead or dying. My personal sense is that this is especially true among black and minority families. The pressure we put on minority youth and the social decisions we have made regarding our responses to crime, education, and support have created a system where the American Dream is not equally encouraged and provided to everyone, but instead limited and offered to only a few.

I don’t want to say that any single factor has contributed to the sense that American across the country share regarding the death of the American Dream, and I don’t want to say that minority populations have a greater claim to the feeling of despair than others. I think we must take a more nuanced approach to the way we think about the opportunities we provide to children today, and recognize areas where we can make a difference. There is indication that we live in neighborhoods today that may be less racially segregated in the past, but are far more financially segregated, and research supports the idea that economic segregation leads to a stagnation in social mobility. There is also research suggesting that there are fewer social groups and community groups proving services, help, and support to people in local communities today, and this may further the isolation that so many people (especially young people) feel.

What is important to do in regards to our nations racial challenges, our sense of the decline in the American Dream, and the thought that Booker’s father wrestled with is to recognize that we are united, that we share a common future, and that we will be in that future with other people from our community. We must recognize and try to understand how people are thinking and feeling, even if we think their thoughts are misplaced. By learning to listen and understand others, by pushing past the urge to tell someone that their feelings and interpretations of the world are wrong, we can connect and begin to help and aid people in personal ways, even if that is just by listening and acknowledging the challenges they face.