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US Welfare State According to Lieberman

In his book, Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective, Robert Lieberman examines the rise of Social Security and Aid to Dependent Children in the US (comparing it to the same establishments in the United Kingdom and France...Read More

~Posted on Mar 2018

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In his book, Shaping Race Policy: The United State...

US Welfare State According to Lieberman

In his book, Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective, Robert Lieberman examines the rise of Social Security and Aid to Dependent Children in the US (comparing it to the same establishments in the United Kingdom and France) and how it evolved over time, particularly its implications on race relations in the country. By focusing on welfare and employment, two key policy areas, Lieberman interrogates America on the inconsistent incorporation of other races (particularly African Americans) into the full benefits of citizenship. As far as Lieberman (7) is concerned, the welfare system in the US, far from the mainstream assumptions, is not an effort to address the racial gaps in the US but the evidence of it. To him, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main scheme through which African Americans were included in the country’s welfare state was not the best answer or even the easiest to deal with- he says Social Security would have been the easiest to expand- but was picked because it helped America’s racist establishment. In examining this question, Lieberman starts by examining how the welfare started and evolved to what it has come to be today.

To Liebeman (5), from the very start, the welfare system was discriminatory, driven by reasons other than a true will to gap the racist bridge between white (majority) America and the minority (i.e. the black community) America. For example, before 1945, widows of deceased working men, who were at first recipients of public assistance, were removed from the public assistance rolls in 1939 with the Social Security amendment, and by it America revealed its true intent as far as the welfare of African Americans go. Essentially, this shifted the focus of public assistance from those in need to those who qualified based on certain rules in regards to how children were brought up, the nature of one’s work, and one’s sex. This behavioral justification was not only discriminatory, but was politically motivated as well, used by political leaders to garner loyalty from welfare recipients (Lieberman 119).

This discriminatory situation, among other factors (including market forces- helped further by government policies), had more adverse impact on African Americans, this evident in the fact that more African Americans were getting into the welfare system. Towards the end of the 1940s, for instance, a large percentage of the welfare recipients in the US were African Americans. As already pointed out, Lieberman (63) holds that this increased number of African Americans on welfare does not reflect the government’s effort to better the lives of the African Americans. If that were the case, then the African Americans would not have had reason to seek out welfare in the first place. The 1940s, for example, saw more African Americans move to the Northern urban areas (what came to be known as the Great Migration), and finding themselves in need of welfare, thereby increasing the number of African Americans on the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) rolls (Lieberman 126).

Given that welfare qualification and distribution had been politicized, ADC rolls were hardly used by state governments to address racial issues (Lieberman 83). In the 1960’s, however, poverty got national political attention with the agenda being to expand the welfare state. Race and welfare politics came to its peak during the Civil Rights movement, seeing explosive growth of the welfare state during this time. The justification for the growth of the welfare state was now civil-rights based (Pierson 72). This growth was marked by increase in the number of families receiving benefits, more and more ADC recipients residing in the Northern cities, and the number of African Americans receiving welfare increased far more than other groups (Pierson 73).

This is part of what fanned the civil rights movement that drew attention to the economic status of the African Americans and called for the end of racism and discrimination, as well as increased opportunities for African Americans in the economic and political realms of the country.

Lieberman (101) then looks at what would have been the most effective welfare system if the US government had had real intentions to uplift the minority groups from their comparatively (relative to the white Americans) worse status. Lieberman (101) the mainstream Social Security (including its accompanying insurance programs) and the more under-the-surface Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), later amended to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and what implications they may have had on the target groups.

The Social Security, alongside its accompanying social insurance programs, saw the white population successfully integrated into America’s national welfare state. The Social Security contained financial incentives, such as welfare-to-work. Welfare-to-work was meant to encourage welfare recipients to find employment, which is observed to be the best alternative to welfare (Lieberman 113). Welfare-to-work programs concentrate on the recipient’s financial incentive to find employment, their training and education, and the job requirements of prospective work. Insistent on employment is another means through which welfare programs discourage recipients from welfare longer than is necessary. Requiring parents to work, however, may leave children, who are the most numerous, quite vulnerable. This is especially true of children belonging to single mothers who are also required to work. The impact of welfare-to-work requirements on children’s access to medical care, shelter and food, as well as the time spent with parents may indeed be negative. Additionally, children may be exposed to harmful child-care all in an effort to get their parents back to work. Financial incentives, on their part, encouraged recipients to go to work by letting them retain more of the welfare check once they go to work ((Tannahill 216).

Indeed, such financial incentives do not address the issue of size and cost of welfare on the government. This is because this initiative raises the income cutoff point, thereby increasing the number of people that are eligible for welfare, and in-turn increasing, rather than reducing, the welfare cost (Pierson 113). Perhaps the most favorable initiative in the welfare-to-work qualification is that of provision of education and job training to help recipients find employment. While this approach may not be as cost effective as requiring parents to find employment, it does produce the desired results. It moves recipients to self-sufficiency while ensuring that children are not negatively affected (Lieberman 117).

The ADC (i.e. AFDC), on the other hand, did not offer the same advantages. It received lesser attention, largely ignored by the government and other key institutions. ADC was more of a public assistance scheme. In other words, it provided short-term solutions, such as basic food items. Indeed, these assistances were only temporary, which means that, ultimately, ADC did not include the African Americans in the national welfare state. Instead, it created a sense of making a difference, but in truth, only kept the recipients in the very same economic and social status they were in. Smith (145), for instance, notes that majority of the US public are of the opinion that this state of welfare does not help lift families out of poverty, rather enables and facilitates the very poverty it was designed to alleviate.

Although the ADC later received attention and was changed to AFDC, Lieberman (121) argues that such a change was unnecessary and that the government should have focused more on the Social Security. If anything, the apparent separation of the AFDC from the general Social Security framework was discriminatory in the first place. In other words, Lieberman (122) argues, it would have been easier to expand Social Security rather than establishing and implementing AFDC separately. This has to do with the expanded scope of the two. The very scope of Social Security and, therefore, the weight of implementing it means the attention paid to AFDC- which the government considered to be of less importance if anything- was largely bound to be minimal. Indeed, simple common sense would dictate that focusing on one system- however big- is easier to handle than focusing on two or more- even if smaller- systems.

That said, it is worth noting that the US government has increasingly focused on changing this state of affairs. This is evident in the increased shift from AFDC to Social Security. The implication is that America is moving towards a completely unified Welfare State in which the whites and blacks are governed by the same frameworks. This is good news, because it means the government aims to level the field for everyone regardless of race. Now whether that can be realized remains to be seen. Still, despite a few limitations, the US government has done its share of good towards addressing the plight of African Americans. It is not enough just yet, but it implies intent; that the government is increasingly taking a more central role in the welfare state (Alcock, et al. 202), and that is a good promise. 

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