Robert Rector, “Examining the Means-tested Welfare State: 79 Programs and $927 Billion in Annual Spending,” testimony before the Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives, April 17, 2012, .
Quoted in Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State, pp. 102–104. See also Robert H. Bremner, The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (1956; reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992), chapter 2; Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, pp. 116–150.
The most destructive feature of the post-1965 approach has been its unintentional promotion of family breakdown, which is a recipe for the neglect and abuse of children, the widespread crime that such abuse fosters, the impoverishment of women and children, and the loneliness and anguish of everyone involved.
Before 1965, most Americans believed that property rights and the marriage-based family were the most effective means to get people out of poverty. After 1965, government policy and elite opinion turned against the older view.
When increasingly generous government support became widely available to women in the 1960s, illegitimacy and divorce grew dramatically. As Gilder writes, “Female jobs and welfare payments usurped the man’s role as provider, leaving fatherless families.” Welfare destroys the incipient families of the poor by making the struggling male breadwinner superfluous and thereby emasculating him emotionally. His response is predictable. He turns to the supermasculine world of the street: drinking, drugs, male companionship, and crime.
Marvin Olasky shows in detail in The Tragedy of American Compassion how 18th and 19th century Americans combined Franklin’s hardheaded realism about the ill effects of indiscriminate generosity with a warmhearted sympathy for those who fell into need through no fault of their own. Private welfare was often given by religious groups, and recipients were expected to pray, worship, and repent of the unindustrious habits and self-indulgence (such as excessive drinking) that often led them to seek assistance in the first place. Americans of that day believed that God himself set the proper example: His mercy is infinite—but only to the repentant who strive to mend their ways.
Let us step back for a moment and look at poverty from a wider perspective. If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. That is what leads historians like Michael Katz to condemn the earlier approach as a failure.
in a big way. They hijacked four US planes from some US civilian airports. While one of these planes hit against the US headquarters in Pentagon, another two planed brought down the towering World Trade Centre, killing at least 5000 innocent US citizens. The fourth, luckily, missed the target. It was, the reports say, scheduled to hit the White House, the residence of the US president.
However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before 1965 could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post-1965 poverty programs have failed.
Two centuries ago, most Americans—at least 90 percent—were desperately poor by today’s standards. Most houses were small, ill-constructed, and poorly heated and insulated. Based on federal family income estimates, 59 percent of Americans lived in poverty as late as 1929, before the Great Depression. In 1947, the government reported that 32 percent of Americans were poor. By 1969, that figure had declined to 12 percent, where it remained for 10 years. Since then, the percentage of poor Americans has fluctuated but has remained near the same level. As of 2013, the poverty rate was 14.5 percent.
From Jefferson’s standpoint, poverty programs that help people who choose not to work are unjust. Far from being compassionate, compelling workers to support shirkers makes some men masters and other men slaves: Workers are enslaved to nonworkers. That violates a fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence.
In the Middle Ages, a serf might have worked hard all his life, but much of what he produced went into the hands of a wealthy landowner. In most countries of the world, including America today, government regulation and licensing requirements often prevent the poor from entering and competing freely in the market. Besides, much of what the working poor earn through their own efforts is taxed away to support those who do not work.
Of course, the Founders had never claimed that all poverty was caused by bad character. Jefferson’s poor law had made a clear distinction between those who were able to work but preferred not to and those whose age or disability prevented them from working. The new approach tended to blame indiscriminately what later came to be called “the system” for poverty of every kind.