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Cancel Submit. How was your experience with this page? And the programs certainly failed to reverse such worrisome trends as the rise in out-of-wedlock births and mother-only family units. Antipoverty warriors can argue that nowhere near enough was ever done or spent to make either services or transfers sufficient to end poverty or to reduce pathologies among the severely disadvantaged. But that rejoinder only brings us to the more fundamental difficulty. The antipoverty services and increased expenditures on the non-elderly poor of the s and early s very soon generated a political backlash that blocked their further extension.

The Community Action Program helped to mobilize poor people, especially blacks, but these efforts were quickly de-emphasized by President Johnson in response to angry local Democratic leaders. President Nixon had no interest in enlarging the flow of federal money to groups and local governments hostile to his administration. Surviving social service programs were also highly vulnerable to charges of corruption in unfavorable political climates.

Even the broader income transfers emphasized during the later Johnson and Nixon years ended up backfiring politically against lower-income Americans, blacks, and the Democratic Party. In due course they fell victim to Jimmy Carter's retrenchments, intense conservative intellectual and political attacks, and the cuts of the Reagan era. During the s public opinion polls recorded decreasing levels of support for government efforts to aid minorities and for public social spending.

Support declined especially for stigmatized service programs popularly identified with poor blacks. Electorally, blacks in general remained staunchly Democratic and in favor of strengthened governmental social programs. But union members, white urban ethnics, and white Southerners moved away from the Democratic Party, especially in presidential elections. The perceived Democratic Party position on racial and welfare issues contributed to these defections. This political situation was rooted in a split between people who benefited most from policy changes and people who saw themselves as burdened with higher taxes.


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Surely many working- and middleclass families have elderly parents or grandparents who gained from Medicare and increases in Social Security, but higher "welfare" transfers to the poor produced no gain for them. Meanwhile, these working- and middle-class families faced rising tax burdens from government at all levels. Little wonder, then, that many found appealing Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and his generalized attacks on government's social role.

Although Reagan's efforts were not as successful as often supposed, the political and intellectual discourse of the s has scarcely reversed the wide hostility toward "big government" and "throwing money" at poor people. Redistributive benefits or targeted services for the poor alone are highly unlikely to regain favor at this point.


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We still live amidst the political backlash against the War on Poverty and the Great Society. Universal Programs that Reach the Poor While targeted programs generate forces that undo their aims, social policies that deliver benefits across classes and races generate broad, cross-class political coalitions that sustain and protect the policies. What is more, universalistic programs have sustained moral imageries that allow the programs to redistribute income and deliver special services to disadvantaged Americans without risking public disaffection and political backlash.

For much of American history, universal, locally supported public education has helped poor as well as more privileged children. Here I focus on federal social policies. Benefits to Civil War veterans are not often considered in histories of public social provision in the United States. But between the s and early s, veterans' pensions, disability, and survivors' benefits evolved into a massive, de facto system of public support for an aging generation of Northern men who could demonstrate even minimal service in the Union armies.

Unrestricted by any means test, Civil War pensions absorbed from one-fifth to one-third of the federal budget between the s and the s. By approximately 29 percent of American men over age 65 along with approximately 8 percent of elderly women and various other younger women, children, and other dependents of deceased men were receiving benefits that were remarkably generous by contemporary international standards. While German old-age pensions were averaging only about 18 percent of annual earnings, U.

To be sure, ethnic and class differences showed up in the distribution of benefits. Civil War pensions went to native-born Northerners and to northern and central Europeans who had come to the North prior to the s. By the late nineteenth century, the Union veterans were disproportionately likely to include farmers, skilled workers, and members of the middle class.

Left out of the pension system were Southern whites and most Southern blacks as well as most immigrants from southern and central Europe, who came to America after the Civil War and were then disproportionately low-skilled urban workers. Nevertheless, black veterans and their survivors did qualify for full benefits, and the number eligible was significant because more than , blacks had served in the Union armies.

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Combating Poverty in Local Welfare Systems - Lund University

Even among whites, veterans' pensions helped many who were economically disadvantaged as well as those who had done well during their working lives but then became impoverished in old age. Within the overall system of Civil War benefits, moreover, special aid beyond the federal pensions was available to the neediest veterans and their dependents.

Some states, such as Massachusetts, offered generous public assistance to needy veterans in their own homes. Starting in , the federal government offered subsidies for state-run veterans' homes. By ,31, Union veterans, or about five percent of those still living, were being housed in veterans' old-age homes across the country. These men had typically been skilled workers; few were middle-class.

Conceived as a repayment for service to the nation and in explicit opposition to poor relief, these veterans' benefits were unequivocally honorable. Broad political coalitions agitated for benefit increases. Though the Republican Party generally led these campaigns, they also gained support from many Northern Democrats, who could not afford to let Republicans outbid them for votes. And since Civil War benefits were a badge of honor rather than disgrace, it was easy for individual recipients to accept public assistance, or a place in an old-age home, during what was supposedly the preeminent era of "rugged individualism.

Raum explained in , "can receive a pension as a recognition of honorable service with a feeling of pride, while he would turn his back with shame upon an offer of charity.

Combating Poverty in Local Welfare Systems

Despite vociferous elite attacks against the "political corruption" that pension expenditures supposedly expressed, the benefits did not recede until the generation of men who received them died out. Health Education Services for Mothers and Babies. During the early twentieth century, many programs to help mothers and children were enacted in America. While mothers' pensions were targeted on the poor alone, others were universal efforts, including the federal Children's Bureau established in and the Sheppard-Towner program enacted in to provide health education to pregnant women and new mothers throughout the United States.

With a mandate to look into "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people," the chief of the Children's Bureau, Julia Lathrop, astutely mobilized women's associations and reformers on behalf of improved maternal and child health. Even though her aim was to reach out to underprivileged mothers, especially in remote, rural areas, Lathrop deliberately decided against a narrowly targeted program and insisted her efforts had nothing to do with charity.

If the services were not open to all, Lathrop felt, they would degenerate into stigmatized poor relief. After the passage of Sheppard-Towner, the Children's Bureau was able to reach a broad cross-section of American mothers, just as it had in its earlier programs. By , according to a study by Molly Ladd-Taylor, the bureau could claim that its childrearing information had benefited half of the babies born in the United States. The bureau had coordinated efforts that distributed "over twenty-two million pieces of literature, conducted , health conferences, established 2, prenatal centers, and visited over three million homes.

While allowing great state-to-state variation in program design, the bureau prodded all states to improve official birth statistics and to channel resources toward places where infant and maternal mortality rates were highest. Politically, however, the Sheppard-Towner program was not an unequivocal success. As the s ended, Congress refused to make the program permanent. Sheppard -Towner's chief opponents, private physicians, wanted to take over pre- and post-natal health counseling themselves, and their local associations affiliated with the American Medical Association were able to kill the program through congressional maneuvers.

Sheppard-Towner, however, never experienced a democratic political backlash.

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It remained broadly popular with American women, and most of the elite and middle-class women's associations that had backed the original law in continued to lobby Congress on behalf of its extension throughout the decade. Many states continued Sheppard-Towner programs after the federal matching funds disappeared, and a few years later the federal program itself was revived in a new form under the Social Security Act of Sheppard-Towner itself was politically vulnerable because the legislation had not established any entitlement to benefits; as a discretionary program, it was subject to the annual appropriations process.

The broad political support that follows from a universalistic program structure is clearly not the only factor affecting the survival of social policies. Entitlement status has also been important in ensuring the longevity of social policies. The most successful measures, such as Civil War pensions and Social Security, have, in fact, been those that ensured entitlements to cross-class categories of beneficiaries.

Economic Security for the Elderly. Over the past half century, the national, contributory social insurance programs chartered by the Social Security Act of have evolved into a broad and, by international standards, generous set of income supports and medical services for retired American workers and their dependents.


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  • How Social Security particularly aids poorer elderly people within the framework of its universal benefits offers us a powerful lesson about the wisdom of targeting within universalism.