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Federal Social Security Programs, A Brief History Of Welfare Reform, Food And Food Stamps, Public Housing

Government benefits distributed to impoverished persons to enable them to maintain a minimum standard of well-being.

Providing welfare benefits has been controversial throughout U.S. history. Since the colonial period, government welfare policy has reflected the belief that the indigent are responsible for their poverty, leading to the principle that governmental benefits are a privilege and not a right. Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, state and local governments bore some responsibility for providing assistance to the poor. Generally, such assistance was minimal at best, with church and volunteer agencies providing the bulk of any aid.

The NEW DEAL policies of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT included new federal initiatives to help those in poverty. With millions of people unemployed during the 1930s economic depression, welfare assistance was beyond the financial resources of the states. Therefore, the federal government provided funds either directly to recipients or to the states for maintaining a minimum standard of living.

Following the 1930s, federal programs were established that provided additional welfare benefits, including medical care (MEDICAID), public housing, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). By the 1960s, however, criticism began to grow that these programs had created a "culture of dependency," which discouraged people from leaving the welfare rolls and finding employment. Defenders of public welfare benefits acknowledged that the system was imperfect, noting the financial disincentives associated with taking a low-paying job and losing the array of benefits, especially medical care. They also pointed out that millions of children are the prime beneficiaries of welfare assistance, and that removing adults from welfare affects these children.

During the 1980s and 1990s, criticism of public welfare escalated dramatically. Some states began to experiment with programs that required welfare recipients to find work within a specified period of time, after which welfare benefits would cease. Since job training and CHILD CARE are important components of such programs, proponents acknowledged that "workfare" programs save little money in the short term. They contended, however, that workfare would reduce welfare costs and move people away from government dependency over the long term.

These state efforts paved the way for radical changes in federal welfare law. On August 22, 1996, President BILL CLINTON, a Democrat, signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (popularly known as the Welfare Reform Act), a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. The act eliminated some federal welfare programs, placed permanent ceilings on the amount of federal funding for welfare, and gave each state a block grant of money to help run its own welfare programs. The law also directs each state legislature to come up with a new welfare plan that meets new federal criteria. Under the 1996 law, federal funds can be used to provide a total of only five years of aid in a lifetime to a family.

In the early 2000s, Congress continued to debate the reauthorization of the 1996 law. Proponents of the law pronounced the reform effort a great success. States had met the requirement of halving their welfare rolls by 2002. In addition, many former welfare recipients had entered the workforce and child poverty had been reduced for the first time since the early 1970s. However, some commentators attributed much of the success to the strong economy of the late 1990s that produced jobs for those coming off welfare. They also noted that welfare recipients were employed in mostly low-wage jobs. Moreover, as the economy took a nosedive in 2001 and 2002, unemployment rose. By the end of 2002, welfare caseloads had increased in 26 states.

In 2003, President GEORGE W. BUSH proposed major changes to the reauthorized welfare reform law. Under his proposals, welfare recipients would have to work 40 hours per week at a job or in a program designed to help the recipient achieve independence. This initiative, coupled with a Medicaid proposal that would give block grants to the states for managing HEALTH CARE services for indigent persons, faced an uncertain fate in Congress.

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