Welfare basics

What is welfare?

We can likely agree that welfare represents some for of assistance. That begs a few questions, though. Assistance for what? From whom? To whom?

We generally think of welfare as assistance to people in need. Needs can vary. They may be needs for medical care (mental or physical), food (SNAP, WIC, food banks …), shelter (housing), protection (from abuse, domestic violence), income (for unemployed, whether they’ve been terminated, injured, etc., or those unable to work because of age, disability, etc.), crisis (e.g., death of household income earner), etc.

Another way to think about assistance is that it represents a transfer of income or wealth from one group, individual or organization to another. Usually we think of public assistance, funded by taxpayers.

And the amount of money being transferred is increasing over time. Emily Badger highlights Prof. Suzanne Mettler’s research, which shows that as trust in government declines, income and in-kind assistance from the government has increased. It could be a disconnect–people mistrust or despise government for all the wrong reasons, or because they have to pay taxes, but many receive likely more than they contributed back in services of various sorts. Or could it be that as people have more contact with government, the more government plays some important role in their lives, the less they trust it. But the two-sided debates in news and social media, designed more to persuade than inform, must be considered as well. So basically, explaining the trends moving in opposite directions is no sure bet.

Even less of a sure bet is the allegation, circulating in political circles, that much of the government revenue spent on ‘welfare’ is wasted and goes to people who just don’t want to work. For a sociologist, that’s sort of like a premise for a bad comedy series. There’s no way to prove it, but it’s easy to make people mad, which social media practically accelerates to velocities approaching hyperspace, because the targets of persuasion think their taxes are going to some specified population of the ‘undeserving.’ Poverty and inequality can’t be explained by individual character traits, arraying people along some continuum. Imagine. And one thing many students realize as they go through the course and think about the reflection paper is that they have received forms of public assistance that they just didn’t consider ‘public’ or ‘assistance’ at the time. Unemployment. Grants and scholarships. Workers’ compensation. So thinking welfare is a bloated government program to pay people who don’t want to work is pretty unsophisticated and unsupported by even the most crude inquiries into reality. There are patterns. That’s a lot of what this course will address.

Who provides assistance?

In general we think of welfare as publicly provided by various social services agencies. But there are welfare providers in the public (e.g., every state has a bureaucracy like Oregon’s Department of Human Services), private (e.g., churches), and non-profit sectors. To name a few locally, Oregon Rural Action, community food banks, Community Connection, Shelter from the Storm, Court-Appointed Special Advocates, Center for Human Development, etc. Most every county has some variation on these–community development, community action agency (food banks coordinated through these, as well as programs for the elderly), interpersonal/domestic violence, advocacy for children in the child protective services/permanency division of state welfare offices, services in support of mental health, public health, people with learning and developmental conditions, veterans services. We may or may not choose to include informal networks, for instance family members that may help each other out, or other informal support systems, as well as places of worship–especially important in small towns–but it should be clear that in the absence of such social capital, there would be greater stress placed on more formal and bureaucratic types of welfare.

What kinds of assistance?

If welfare is a transfer of income or wealth, we can narrow down the kinds of assistance. Generally it is either cash or in-kind service. Cash assistance programs include TANF (temporary assistance for needy families), unemployment compensation, social security, supplemental security income or SSI. In-kind programs provide services, but not direct cash benefit, and can include Medicaid (called the Oregon Health Plan here), Medicare, Food stamps (SNAP), housing subsidies, food banks, shelters, etc. Keep in mind there are various levels of government–some programs are federal, others state, others local, and in addition some may be funded and administered at different levels (e.g., food stamps is federally funded, but administered by states).

Another way to categorize assistance is means-tested versus social insurance. Means-tested programs are generally available to low-income groups, whose members have to prove their eligibility, sometimes with excruciating demands and paperwork involved. Social insurance programs include Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, workers’ compensation. There is greater stigma attached to the means-tested programs–Medicaid recipients may be treated differently in a doctor’s office, food stamp users treated differently in a grocery store, people getting housing subsidies treated differently by landlords, etc. Social insurance programs, on the other hand, are more likely perceived as having been earned.

Who receives welfare?

The short answer is that welfare is provided to the disadvantaged, underprivileged, the poor, those who’ve served in some capacity (like veterans). People have to qualify for assistance, and different programs have different eligibility criteria. A distinction has also been made, since at least the Elizabethan period in 17th century England, between the ‘deserving’ and the able-bodied. The deserving of welfare assistance include the elderly, disabled–those who for reasons beyond their control cannot provide for themselves (children’s inclusion here has varied over the centuries). The ‘able-bodied’ are generally those who are expected to work, presumably because they appear ‘able-bodied,’ and welfare compensation can be made so unattractive that working seems the preferable alternative. One more radical view of welfare is that it is designed to enforce low-wage work. For instance, one can look at the earned income tax credit (EITC) in two ways: one, it provides assistance to those who work at low wages by reducing their tax burdens. Two, employers could use EITC to rationalize paying their workers lower wages.

Which brings us to the other main recipients of welfare–corporations and the wealthy. Why are they recipients? This is a bit more complicated, having to do with how politicians get elected and stay in office, campaign financing, golden parachutes for those leaving public office, etc. However, often this welfare that is not based on need isn’t called welfare at all, which turns out to be convenient for its recipients, and for those who would challenge the moral basis for welfare for the so-called ‘needy’ vs the ‘deserving’ who simply earned the right to that assistance, regardless of ‘need’ (and often by virtue of political connections).

What is a welfare state?

In the ‘West,’ the industrialized countries, welfare has been bureaucratized. The notion that extended families will help each other doesn’t work universally, especially with populations in the tens or hundreds of millions. Thus, we … create … structures. We provide a wide range of programs, and attempt to keep certain segments of the population from falling into poverty, for example with Social Security. Most poor countries lack the tax base to fund a social safety net to try to take care of the poorest among them, and have to depend on their own wits or on collective or community-level mechanisms to stave off poverty and destitution (or the charity of wealthier nations’ governments).

So why have we bureaucratized welfare? Sociologist Max Weber would have said that it is a more efficient way to deliver services to many thousands, millions of people. And to standardize the ways in which they receive those services, and to determine people’s eligibility for services. Others (including Weber) might argue that it’s also a way to control distribution of power and resources, of public money, and we’ll see that as we discuss welfare reform. In other words, there are politics in there …

Perspectives, philosophies on welfare

Karen Seccombe is a sociologist, and approaches social welfare from a different disciplinary perspective than say, an economist would. Bradley Schiller is an economist. We’ll start with some of what Bradley Schiller says.

How to explain poverty and inequality? He offers two different views.

The human capital view involves investment in one’s abilities. You’re developing human capital here at the university. A carpenter’s apprentice, vo-tech student, online student, etc. We’re investing in our futures, attempting to expand or enhance our own opportunity structures, and in most cases, hopefully, earning potential. The human capital line of reasoning says that those who invest in human capital are those that gain bigger slices of the economic pie. Everyone has opportunities to go to school, get training of some sort, etc. Those who are motivated to do so will have a better chance of finding success in the economy.

Well? Does everyone choose their vocation based on its income potential? Is human capital equally rewarded in the marketplace? Can everyone go to Harvard? Does everyone have the chance to go to the best public schools? To go to day care or preschool programs? Montessori school? Who benefits most in the human capital, market-based system?

Consider women and college enrollment. More women are enrolling in college than men. Some explain this by contending that men are being discriminated against. Could it mean that college isn’t one of the opportunities available with the biggest payoff? Are there other better financial opportunities to which men are gravitating? And are men and women enrolling in the same programs, going into the same professional disciplines in equal numbers (compare teaching, nursing, and engineering). In disciplines where women predominate, men are still more likely to assume leadership roles (e.g., public schools).

Essentially, from the human capital perspective, people are responsible for the development of their own human capital. If they are unsuccessful, as measured by their socioeconomic status and circumstances, many people would say that it is an individual failure–not something that society or government should concern themselves with. We might support them through welfare, the argument goes, but we certainly don’t want to make it too attractive. They should be out working, building human capital (of course, this doesn’t account for the large % of the poor who are too old, too young, or too infirm to work, or lack the education to compete for a well-paying job).

Poverty as structural, a function of power relations

The first argument is that people are responsible for their own lots in life. The successful earned their success, the less or unsuccessful didn’t. This second, structural argument contends that the playing field isn’t level. In other words, not everyone has equal opportunity to succeed (and we haven’t really broached the topic of how to measure ‘success’). Access to good schools, jobs, etc. is not equitable (how do schools get funded, generally?). Discrimination may exist based on race, gender, class, ethnicity. Why is it that racial and ethnic minority groups are overrerpresented, relative to their numbers in the general population, in the U.S. armed forces?

It’s clear from Seccombe’s extensive interview-based research that many people are trying very hard to escape poverty, but one misfortune can be their downfall. Divorce. An expensive illness for a woman or her children. An eviction. A car accident. Loss of a job. Women are more vulnerable than men. Do single mothers bring misfortune on themselves? If they don’t behave properly, have relationships with men, do they deserve cash assistance? They’re raising the next generation of workers, leaders … we don’t economically value that?? (women’s work, especially in the ‘domestic’ economic sector, is often ‘devalued,’ even though many of us know what it costs to hire people to manage a household, provide child care, etc.).

By contrast, corporate welfare (tax breaks, subsidies, various governmental actions that serve to increase companies’ or industries’ revenue streams) increases incomes of the wealthiest (who also happen to contribute to political campaigns …). Rarely do they translate into higher wages for workers. Imagine the CEO texting ‘hey! We just got a $2 billion tax break! Raises for everybody!’. The extreme view here is that society is to blame for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and that people can’t be held responsible for their social circumstances–these are practically pre-determined by the structures that shape our lives.

Now, what is structure?

Structures persist. Some are easier than others to conceptualize. For instance, buildings. They have a structure, and people come and go, furniture may come and go, but altering that structure may be difficult. As 9/11 showed us, it can happen in dramatic and tragic ways, but it takes great force and energy. Structures persist, outlive individuals, who tend to come and go. Think of organizations. Governments. The school system. The welfare system. Even greeting rituals (e.g., a handshake in U.S. culture–try eliminating it sometime). Social class–people may be able to move up in class, but not without great effort. And just try tearing them down–for instance, abolishing all luxury cars and SUVs and requiring everyone to drive energy efficient subcompact cars, or be limited in house size based on the number of children in the family. Much of our lives is structured–most of us get up in the morning, eat breakfast, prepare for a day of work or school or both, there’s lunch, our work and school lives are often very structured, we follow traffic laws when we’re driving to and from, there are expectations about our behavior in the classroom and the workplace and at home, etc. In general, humans are pretty predictable creatures, if you understand some of the societal structures within which they live and operate.

Are their structures at the university? What structures (class schedules, handbooks for conduct codes, organizational structures, status/social structures, what does the organizational hierarchy look like)? What things seem to change little from term to term, even though students, staff and faculty come and go? How about in the community (speed limits, laws, churches, government, the local economy [tied to bigger economic structures], physical structures like streets, norms of behavior, etc.)? What about the typical 40-hour work week? Social welfare programs? Are they predictable, available in many places, how long have they persisted, how difficult are they to change/alter?

Hopefully you’ll begin to see the difference between a structural and individualist view of poverty. The individualist view implies that everyone can pull themselves up from their bootstraps and rise out of poverty, and offers a road map as to how this can be done (development of human capital …). Obviously, this is possible, and the more fortunate succeed. But who’s got a better chance–Donald Trump or his offspring, or a child who grew up in inner-city housing projects? The structuralist view says that it may be possible for everyone to pull him/herself out of poverty, but some face barriers that others in society do not face, and things like ascribed statuses (race, gender, class, ethnicity) make a difference and pose barriers for those born into poverty. To use a baseball metaphor, as former Texas Governor Ann Richards said about former president George W. Bush, ‘He was born on third base, but grew up believing he’d hit a triple.’ Most in our society, and in the world, are not only not born on third base, but a significant percent of them are born at home plate with two strikes.

‘Big brother’

This perspective also looks at society for causes of poverty. But from an entirely different perspective. Its adherents (e.g., Charles Murray, George Gilder) suggests that welfare programs create dependency . The program benefits are so generous, why should people bother to go out and look for work? What people in lower income classes really need, because they may be averse to hard work (which these proponents would say accounts for their lower income status), is tough love, so goes this logic. Husbands sometimes leave because their presence complicates receiving welfare. Better to leave the money in the private sector of the economy, where people can work for a wage, and though their bosses and their bosses do much better, there is a ‘trickle down‘ of wealth to the masses. The supporting evidence is often spotty, however. As people left the welfare rolls after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, inequality increased. Now, you might ask, has Charles Murray ever had to live on a fixed budget from welfare services? The answer would be . . . no. But he is a darling of critics of the welfare state because of his cynical philosophy on the value and functions of the welfare state, and its recipients. He has taken individual traits, and used them to justify structural inequities. For instance:

  • if all of the ‘lazy’ people decided to motivate themselves tomorrow, would poverty end?
  • If divorce is a cause of poverty because of the potential loss of an income in the household, does that mean there are no households with married couples living in poverty?

And yet. Here are the four goals of TANF, as specified on the HHS.gov site, accessed Sept 30, 2020:

  • Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives
  • End the dependence of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage
  • Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families

What about rational choice? Is it possible people are actually making rational choices to stay on welfare because the job opportunities are so poor, and welfare programs, access to which they are entitled, provide more services for members of the household? Is that immoral or shameful? Did investment banks refuse bailout money in 2008 because they acknowledged they’d made risky loans and deserved bankruptcy for gambling with investors’ money (hint: no)? What happens if WalMart’s shareholders have a good year, partly because WalMart’s employees have not-so-good years and are encouraged by their employer to seek public assistance??

Politics of welfare

Because welfare deals so much with who gets what, when, and how, its discussion inevitably involves politics. The ruling classes are generally in a position to impose their philosophies upon the electorate, and in the case of welfare, this means people pretty far removed from poverty making decisions about what people in need should be doing. There may also be a tendency to pander to certain electorates (i.e., certain voting blocks seen as crucial for certain politicians’ election, if you know what I mean–republicans go conservative and toward business interests, democrats toward liberal and workers’ issues and viewpoints).

If economic systems address the production and distribution of goods and services, a discussion of politics addresses how those systems of production and distribution, and the distribution of benefits, reflect which groups in society have power. So, there’s no getting around it–welfare and politics go together like, well . . . sheep and lions? Homelessness and law enforcement? Poverty and war? Oh, forget it–you get the drift . . . So when you read about a specific policy, think about who is likely to benefit from it–welfare agencies, welfare recipients, low-wage employers, large corporations, religious groups with various political leanings, politicians themselves, middle/lower/upper class, etc. Then think about how they’d like the public to think about the problem, and what resources they might have some control over to influence that public debate. Why is it that welfare populations are often stigmatized?

Functions of welfare

You might be thinking about this one . . . How is welfare ‘socially constructed?’ That is, we’re not all likely to agree on what welfare is, or what it means. Some groups’ views on welfare are accepted, or at least known, much better than others. For instance, how many of you had heard of the thesis that welfare was designed to regulate labor markets and quell civil unrest? What are some of the more ‘popular’ or ‘mainstream’ constructions of social welfare? Who is doing the constructing? That is, who has the power (and what kind of power does it take) to make their ideas and viewpoints heard, and to influence how social welfare is constructed as a problem in the public arena? Is what we might think of as the natural order of things simply a social construction by groups with privileged access to shape public debates and media messages?

The ‘functions’ of welfare are contested by various groups in society. But the general idea of assistance for the disadvantaged is pretty well universally recognized, so don’t feel totally anchorless.

Human and social capital

These are a couple of concepts that will stay with us throughout the course. Human capital involves those skills that people acquire that, for our purposes, make them more attractive to employers. More formal education, trade skills, other job-related training. It is an individual attribute, and the assumption of much of the philosophy underlying welfare is that people are all free to develop their human capital, the marketplace rewards those who do and punishes those who don’t, and those who choose not to develop their human capital have only themselves to blame.

Social capital can refer to social organizations, existing networks of mutual aid, reciprocity, or to stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. It is one way to think about the strength of social ties and networks, like a bank of resources, and the kinds of benefits that social groups expect to get from these networks.

Can you think of examples of social capital that might operate in a community? Capital already built up by segments of a community that may be useful for development purposes. Remember how we discussed how women who had some social support systems seemed to be demonstrably better off, with respect to their need for welfare and their ability to get off of welfare, than those without? They’ve got social capital. A mother whose mother can care for grandchildren while her daughter works has social capital. Welfare agencies often reward those with social capital, or another way of looking at it, those without social capital are punished. Chamber of Commerce, various church groups, food banks, non-profit organizations, etc.

According to sociologist James Coleman (1988), social capital fills a need within a society/social group, and is an economic adaptation (it’s functional). French sociologist Pierre Bordieu (1995) contends that social capital is a function of economic organization, and thus that most social capital is a response–it may benefit those already in privileged positions, or it may be designed to address perceived inequities of some groups, but to understand it requires an examination of economic structures and capitalism (the next topic, by the way).

Sociologist Robert Putnam (1995), in discussing social capital, refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. He focuses the idea of social capital on communities. His book, entitled ‘Bowling Alone (2000),’ discusses in depth the loss of social capital in communities across America (‘bowling alone’ is a metaphor for this, because of the social role that bowling leagues once played in many communities). It must be kept in mind, however, that some social groups and some social capital are exclusive and work to the benefit of certain groups, at the expense of others. For instance, private golf clubs often discriminate against women and minorities, even if important networking and deal-making might be going on that affects the public). It’s important to remember that social capital, like inequality, poverty or almost anything, likely benefits some more than others, and likely some benefit at the expense of others (for instance, hate groups may be able to draw on substantial social capital in the pursuit of their agendas. The Boy Scouts do many things for communities, but they also discriminated against gays and non-Christians and, by definition, girls–they’re not there for everybody)

Some basic concepts

What is welfare? Some related concepts include

  • Assistance
  • Public
  • Temporary
  • Poverty
  • Transfer of income/wealth
  • Public/private/non-profit (can come from, be funded by, administered and managed by, different sources)

In essence, welfare is a multi-dimensional concept.

Who should get it?

Two (abbreviated) life histories (from Kerbo):

  1. Michael in Watts (South Los Angeles) born to mother in jail; first murder witnessed at 7; mother gang-raped when he was a teenager; constantly on the move; unsafe housing; gangs; mother eventually shot to death)
  2. David (super rich; houses all over the hemisphere; 3500 acre estate with 250 acre private park; best private schools; worked at ‘the bank’–Chase Manhattan; had every material privilege known to humankind, and his family name was Rockefeller)

One is motivated and driven, the other lazy and lacking ambition?

Can we explain the differences in terms of individual traits?

Class; race; ethnicity; gender, geography (when Michael’s mother got married, things improved for a time …)-questions:

  1. Have you seen ‘Trading Places‘ (with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd)?
  2. Would Bill Gates, had he been born in poverty, have been upwardly mobile? Would Ivanka Trump have made it to the ‘top?’
  3. What if Bill or Ivanka had been black, or Native American? How many wealthy black families have created business dynasties in the US?

Are there structural reasons that explain the differences in their achievements, life opportunities?

  • Social inequality: unequal access to valued resources, services and positions (could be the local country club, the exclusive gated community, local business association, better-funded schools, public vs private transportation, health care, etc.)
  • Economic inequality: unequal access to income, wealth (often influences social inequalities–for instance, living in the inner city, with low income, will likely mean going to inferior, poorly-funded schools)

Is inequality bad? There are at least two arguments here:

  1. ‘Dirty work’ needs to be done by someone, and investments in work and training and education need to be rewarded–otherwise who’d take the time and effort to become doctors, engineers, scientists?
  2. Inequality leads to hardening of social positions (social stratification), and limited social mobility (the ability to move from one social class to another)

Social stratification: We speak of stratification when these inequalities that have been institutionalized–they’ve become structural. Stratification addresses the questions of who gets what, when and how?
Of course there are exceptions, people who through sheer force of will pull themselves out of poverty. But usually, they’ve had a break here or there as well, or at least less bad breaks than their contemporaries. The Williams sisters–Venus and Serena (the tennis players) and their father come to mind.


There are two kinds of status that can affect inequalities:

  • Ascriptive status (race, ethnicity, gender, class)–your social positions you get at birth that stay with you, for the most part
  • Achieved status–for instance, a college degree, assistant manager, president–these things are not preordained at the time of birth (although it’s difficult for non-white non-males to achieve certain positions, obviously).

Social mobility: Can people move around-do they have social mobility? Yes, but their degree of mobility depends in many cases on their ascribed status, and on structural forces. It is not easy to be born into lower income classes and rise to the upper class.

  • Harold Kerbo. 2003. Social stratification and inequality. Boston: McGraw-Hill (chapter 1, ‘Perspectives and concepts in the study of social stratification,’ pp 4-17.
  • Bradley Schiller. 2001. The economics of poverty and discrimination. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Karen Seccombe. 1999. So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?” Welfare Recipients’ Perspectives on the System and its Reform. Boston: Allyn and Bacon