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Poverty and treating the poor have always been a matter of concern starting from biblical times and up to today. They are the contributing sources of a broader challenge – building up a welfare society. Helping the poor has always been an obligation of the wealthiest – those who had real power in their hands enough to make other members of a community pay taxes that would be redirected to solving the problem of poverty.
As time passes, the problem becomes even more significant. Current changes in the global economic environment led to the deterioration of socio-economic stability thus adding to the challenge of overcoming the issue of poorness. That is why it is vital to provide insight into the history of this social welfare problem to find a solution to the headache the United States is facing today.
Back to the Roots
The New World, especially if compared to the Old, at the dawn of its history has not experienced the lack of natural resources. Together with a sparse population settling new lands and liberal policies for land management, the problem of widespread destitution of the European countries was not familiar to this part of the world. That said, unemployment has never been a real challenge here.
Nevertheless, unemployment is not the only source of poverty, and the New World was hardly the land of wealth and prosperity. Thinking of the people who were sent to settle these territories answer all questions that might arise in one’s head. Those who arrived to settle the colonies were primarily vagrants, convicts, political prisoners, orphans, and other undesirable social groups and unemployed people, and they were poor. A couple of wealthy land proprietors and tax-dodgers could not weigh down the balance in the situation towards the nation’s prosperity, as it was their wealth that bothered them (Trattner, 1999).
At this point in history, poverty and hardships were imported from the Old World to New and raised the necessity to design and adopt permanent poor relief policies similar to those established by the 1601 English Poor Law. Most colonies were self-governed by colonial assemblies that quickly decreed that those who cannot take care of themselves are the responsibility of local taxpayers. This practice was adopted in the Plymouth Colony in 1642. Virginia followed this tendency in 1646, Connecticut in 1673, Massachusetts in 1692. Other colonies were in keeping with the tendency and adopted similar policies later.
That said, the seventeenth century has become the point in American history at which poverty was determined as a social welfare problem. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, those who held authority in their hands were obliged to conduct regular surveys aimed at determining those who needed a local community and the ways to help them. Among the fighters against poverty, one could mention Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Bond, Stephen Girard, and some others.
Societal Values and Beliefs Affecting Welfare Eligibility
Some several societal values and beliefs affected welfare eligibility and fighting poverty in the early history of the New World. First of all, having rich resources, sparse population, and thin labor, human life was celebrated. Local communities believed that helping the poor and the needy had a direct impact on their welfare. That is why it was a moral and legal responsibility of local people to build the welfare state.
However, the accent was made on motivating them to work with the focus on prevention and rehabilitation. Moreover, policies were soaked with white supremacy because black people were believed to be the children of Satan, who could not have the right to social aid but were the responsibility of their masters. Finally, value was seen in education as a tool for preventing poverty. It can be proved by the widespread practice of apprenticeship – educating illegitimate, pauper or orphaned white children (Trattner, 1999).
The Scope of the Problem and the Population Groups Affected
In the United States, the scope of the problem is assessed by the Census Bureau, which determines the official poverty rate and defines the groups of the population affected. According to the latest information from the Bureau, the official poverty rate was 14.8 percent (46.7 million people) in 2014. Even though 2014 was the fourth consecutive year that has not demonstrated changes in the statistical estimates of poverty if compared to the previous years, this figure was still 2.3 percent higher than in 2007 (United States Census Bureau, 2015). It means that the U.S. authorities cannot cope with the problem since the latest economic recession.
This problem affects different groups of the population. In general, in 2014, the poverty rate for people under 18 years old was 21.1 percent (15.5 million), for those aged 18 to 64 – 13.5 percent (26.5 million), and for people above 65 years old – 10.0 percent (4.6 million). The poverty rate for different population groups is as follows: 42.1 percent of people in poverty were non-Hispanic Whites, 26.2 percent were Blacks, 12.0 percent were Asians, and 23,6 percent were Hispanics.
Speaking of sex, the poverty rate was 16.1 percent for females and 13.4 percent for males. As of both age and gender, 12.1 percent of women and 7.4 percent of men above 65 years old, 15.4 percent of women and 18.6 percent of men aged 18 to 64, and 21.1 percent of girls and 21.2 percent of boys under 18 years old were in poverty. Of all people in poverty, 13.4 percent were foreign-born and 86.6 percent were native-born. 14.5 percent of poor people dwelled inside metropolitans and 16.5 percent lived outside. As of work experience, the poverty rate was 6.9 percent for workers in general, 3.0 percent for those employed full-time, 15.9 percent for people working less than full-time, and 24.9 percent for unemployed.
There were 28.5 percent of people with disabilities and 12.3 percent without disability in poverty. Speaking of educational achievements, the poverty rate for those above 25 years old with a high school diploma was 28.9 percent, with college but no degree – 10.0 percent, and with a degree (at least bachelor’s) – 5.0 percent. Finally, 11.6 percent of families lived in poverty: 6.2 percent for married couples, 30.6 percent for female householder families, and 15.7 percent for male householder families (DeNavas-White & Proctor, 2015).
There is a wide range of factors that influence poverty in the United States. Race, sex, the level of education, age, ethnicity, access to power, societal values, etc. all contribute to poverty. In general, it is the culture that is the main factor that impacts the social welfare. It was historically determined that some people are more exposed to the risk of poverty than the others, and the statistics provided above prove it. For example, even though slavery was abolished long ago, the black population is still more susceptible to poverty. It is usually aggravated by the existence of white supremacy, the foundation of racial discrimination, in the United States (Vaught, 2011).
Gender is usually an issue because of the relatively recent granting of equal rights to women and the fact that females are still searching for their place in life. Moreover, many families still have traditional worldview believing that woman should be a housewife and mother, not working. It leads to higher unemployment rates among females and entails higher poverty rates if compared to males (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).
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The most significant factor is access to power and freedom in decision-making. It can be viewed from two perspectives – decision-making at the local or national levels and that at a personal level. The overall rule is the following – the poorer the person, the less access to authority and freedom, especially economic, he or she has. At the higher levels, more access to authority implies the ability to make wealthy even wealthier through adopting conforming legislation. At the personal level, it relates to the level of income and financial capabilities of an individual (Carwalho, Meier & Wang, 2016).
Moreover, poor people usually become a part of the so-called culture of poverty. Poor people are financially vulnerable, illiterate, have little or no access to healthcare, marginalized, and fall victim to discrimination (Ahmed, 2013). All together these features lead to the change of personality, so even when they receive the permanent source of income and become wealthy, it is impossible to eradicate poverty from their mentality.
Response to Poverty Throughout History
Throughout the history of the American state, there have been numerous official attempts to remedy the problem of poverty. For example, in 1764, The Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor was created in Boston, later in South Carolina, and Philadelphia. Another step was adopting the Declaration of Independence and slavery abolition. Furthermore, there were other official initiatives such as the founding of the Committee on Superintendence of the Poor (Trattner, 1999).
One of the modern strategies for eradicating poverty was the decentralization of policies under the governance of Ronald Reagan. It means that the responsibility for handling the problem and designing welfare programs was granted to local and states authorities believing that local authorities would be more effective in overcoming local challenges. The focus was made on motivating people to work through adopting punitive measures to those unemployed. Later, in the 1980-1990s specific attention was paid to the workers’ good behavior, i.e. perseverance and hard-working as the foundation for poverty eradication (Barany, 2016). The impact of these steps was rather negative than positive because of the sense of entitlement established in the American society.
Nowadays, the policy is based on the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act including initiatives for eradicating poverty such as enhancing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, prevent the increase of the homelessness rate, maximizing support to job training funds, and providing tax breaks to working families (Poverty, n.d.).
The findings of the paper demonstrate that poverty has been a real challenge throughout the history of the American State. The policies mentioned above might have a positive impact on the poverty rate dynamics, but what should be done in the first place is unveiling the myths about the United States such as believing that America is the land of opportunities and poverty is the natural consequence of laziness and unemployment (Poverty statistics: USA poverty, 2016). That said, the change in mentality together with relevant policies is the key to handling the problem.
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