The history of U.S. social welfare policy is one of creating, expanding, and reforming the country’s welfare programs to meet new needs as well as changing attitudes toward assistance as a right of citizenship. The roots of modern U.S. welfare policies can be traced back over 200 years, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that federal assistance began to take shape.
The New Deal legislation that followed set the stage for what would become a decade of reform in America’s social welfare system — a period known as the Second Great Awakening (1933-1955). This article examines 10 key reforms that shaped American social welfare policy between 1938 and 2018.
New Deal and the Second Great Awakening
The New Deal, beginning in the 1930s, was a huge turning point for social welfare policy in the United States. It’s often called the “First Great Awakening” because of the changes in social welfare made during this time.
The New Deal was a series of domestic policies enacted in response to the Great Depression. Its goals were to help pull the country out of financial ruin and to ensure the well-being of the average American. Some of the New Deal’s greatest successes were Social Security and Medicaid.
The New Deal also helped to establish several key principles for modern welfare policy. For example, the government should help the most vulnerable in society, and the programs should be efficient and targeted to help those who need it.
The Social Security Act of 1935 created the United States’ first national social insurance program. It helped millions of American workers receive retirement benefits, benefit payments during retirement, and disability benefits.
Social Security is funded by a combination of payroll taxes and interest payments. By the end of 2018, the Social Security Administration expected to pay out $868.9 billion in benefits. Most importantly, Social Security has helped to provide millions of Americans with financial security in their later years.
The War on Poverty
In the 1960s and ‘70s, a group of politicians and activists called the “war on poverty” emerged as a rallying cry for fighting poverty in America. This war aimed to significantly increase federal assistance to low-income families. The War on Poverty did make some great strides, like the introduction of food stamps in 1976.
But it also sparked a debate over what was actually “warp Poverty.” Some people argued that the war on Poverty was a war on the poor — because they felt like they had become targets of law enforcement, media, and policymakers.
The Food Stamp Program
In the late 1960s, Congress passed the Food Stamp Act, which provided federal assistance to low-income Americans. The law initially allowed people to receive benefits for only three months, but it was extended many times through the years.
In 2016, the federal government assisted over 61 million people under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP benefits can be used to buy a wide range of foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, legumes, and protein foods like bread, peanut butter, eggs, and beans.
While millions of Americans rely on SNAP for their food, they also get put into serious debt. In 2016, the average person who received assistance under SNAP owed over $680. Despite its limitations and problems, the federal government continues to fund SNAP to help low-income families put food on the table.
Medicaid and Medicare
Medicare and Medicaid — the government health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor — have been around since the 1960s. And while they’ve helped millions of people, they’ve also come under fire for being too costly and failing to provide everyone with adequate care.
As federal budgets tighten, both programs are being put on the chopping block. The Trump Administration has proposed ending the Medicaid expansion and capping federal funding for the health insurance program for low-income Americans.
Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and the TANF Extension Act of 2007
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the “welfare reform” bill into law. Clinton’s bill ended federal assistance to able-bodied adults without dependents and replaced it with a series of block grants to states. The welfare reform legislation included several controversial provisions.
It required recipients to work, imposed a five-year lifetime cap on government assistance, and required recipients to pay back any benefits they received in the past. In 2005, Congress passed the TANF Extension Act. The Act reinstated federal funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which assisted low-income families, and it extended the life of the program until 2023.
Prescription drug benefits for the elderly
In late 2016, President Obama signed into law the Drug Price Competition and Transparency Act of 2016 or the OPEN Act. The law created the government’s first-ever national program to encourage competition in the prescription drug market.
The law also created a new benefit for seniors: a prescription drug benefit for Medicare patients. The law allowed Medicare to work with insurance companies to provide a “prescription drug benefit” that would pay for eligible drugs.