Time magazine cover: “One Nation on Welfare. Living Your Life on the Dole”

This is an interesting cover story amidst the current election cycle and arguments about how much the government should be involved in day to day life: much of our current lives are already subsidized by the government.

Three things to note:

1. This story plays with what we mean by “welfare.” While there is a particular set of policies this typically refers to, the definition is expanded here.

2. While the two parties try to cast the other side as being on extreme, both parties want some government involvement. Democrats don’t want all of life run by the government just as Republicans don’t want no government involvement whatsoever. We’re talking about differences in degrees though this often gets cast as two different ideological poles.

3. I’m not sure Grunwald plays enough with the idea that while Americans may be okay with government funding certain things, they also tend to like local control over certain matters. In this sense, it is not just government vs. no government; it is “big government” in Washington versus “local government” represented by a local school board, park district, or municipality. The levels of government are important in this discussion as residents who pay taxes often want to feel like they still have some control over their tax dollars.

Still issues regarding welfare and poverty to be solved

Even though the welfare debate in America has been limited recently (or perhaps people think it was a relic of the Clinton presidency), several new books have been published challenging the idea that there are not problems still to be solved. One of the books found that those who were once on welfare but then took jobs did not come out ahead:

But Stretched Thin challenges this supposed success story. Even in the prosperous economy of the late 1990s, it shows, finding a job was not usually a ticket out of poverty. Co-authors Sandra Morgen, an anthropologist, and Joan Acker, a sociologist, both at the University of Oregon, and Jill Weigt, a sociologist at California State University, San Marcos, surveyed more than 900 people, most of them white single mothers, who were taken off the rolls in Oregon or denied welfare benefits in early 1998. They found that more than half — 55 percent — wound up taking jobs that paid wages at or below the poverty line. Two years later, the authors found, nearly half still had family incomes below the poverty line.

If the goal of the welfare reform was to help people move permanently out of poverty, these books suggest there is a lot more work to do. And now with more Americans living in poverty, this could be the time to start working on the complex set of challenges.

Different definitions for welfare

Apparently the gubernatorial race in Maine has included discussions about how welfare provided by the government might be defined differently:

“Essentially, we all get welfare in some fundamental form or another,” said Luisa Deprez, a sociology professor at the University of Maine.

Unemployment, Social Security, school lunches, subsidized college loans and even federal tax refunds can be considered forms of public assistance, according to those who favor a broader definition.

In the context of the gubernatorial campaign, however, welfare has been discussed in its more common, narrow definition: public anti-poverty programs that help provide basic needs, such as food and shelter.

I’ve other studies that suggest the public favors government intervention more when it is called something like “government assistance” as opposed to “welfare.”

This is a reminder that there are very few people who really want no government involvement in the lives of individuals. In reality, people who are supposedly at different ends of the political spectrum are debating how much government should be involved. How many people, of any political persuasion, are willing to completely give up unemployment benefits, Social Security, or Medicare?