More than 35 million Americans have incomes that fall below the poverty line,and more than one in five American children are poor. In 1994, nearly half of all poor children under the age of six lived in families with incomes falling below half of the poverty line. That figure doubled over the 20 years preceding 1994. The number of people who work full time and are still poor has risen sharply as well. In 1975, 6% of young children who lived in families withone full-time worker were poor. By 1994, that figure had gone up to 15%. Despite these trends, there has been a decline in recent years in the number ofrecipients needing welfare assistance. In January 1993, for example, 5.5% ofthe total population was on welfare, but in January 1997, only 3.9% of the total population was receiving welfare payments.
Contrary to popular opinion, welfare payments are not overly generous: a U.S.Department of Labor report published in 1998 showed that the average monthlyincome for a household of three on welfare was $499, compared with the federal poverty level of $1,043.
The roots of modern American compassion for the poor can be traced back to colonial times when it was not uncommon for one family to care for another, andto the establishment of local poorhouses. The role of government in the public sector dates back to the founding of public schools in the nineteenth century, and has included the expansion of Civil War pensions, programs to aid mothers, and the creation of social security. The federal government, through New Deal legislation in the 1930s, put in place a program that provided subsidies to state and local governments to provide economic support to the very poor. This program, colloquially referred to as welfare, was known until recently as the Aid to Dependent Families (AFDC) program.
The AFDC, which actually dated to the 1910s, was originally intended to be aprogram to help widowed mothers and mothers whose husbands had left them. Inits early years, the program was very small, however fairly successful. The AFDC program was replaced in 1996 by the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program, which is run by the states, following federal guidelines. The various welfare programs that were put into place by the federal government in the 1930s never entirely eliminated the role that the private sector played in helping the poor. There are still many examples of partnerships between government sectors and private charities like the Salvation Army or the Catholic Charities, or other various religious groups.
Critics of public welfare programs have long claimed that welfare is degrading to the recipient, discourages work, discourages family formation, and encourages family disintegration. Although it is true that most welfare mothers are single parents, recent government statistics show that over one-third of welfare families stay on welfare for one year or less. This is not to say thatthere are not binds for many welfare recipients; for example, if they stay home and apply for welfare, they can get a Medicaid card that allows them to take their children to the doctor, but if they are working long hours at minimum wage, their employer will probably not provide them with health insurance.
Over the past 30 years, there have been changes in family structures, and inwhat the economy has been doing for unskilled workers. At the time that the New Deal legislators designed the welfare system, it was felt that mothers should be encouraged to stay home, because what they did at home constituted work. Current thinking is that mothers need to be in the workforce. In addition,the racial composition of the people being helped has changed. Originally the majority of welfare recipients were white, now less than 36% are. Controversies about welfare tend to have more to do with major social changes and notsimply the amount spent on welfare programs. These social changes have almostoverwhelmed a welfare program that was based on different premises when it was started.