Welfare in America

William Plowden

Like other beliefs and forms of behaviour to be met with in this country in the course of the present century, much of the Thatcherite approach to social policy was imported from the United States. Joe Rogaly commented recently that if under Mrs Thatcher 10 Downing Street was attached ‘by threads of steel’ to right-wing think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies, the latter were attached ‘by underwater cable’ to their counterparts in New York and Washington. If the steel threads endure under Mr Major, what messages will be coming down the underwater cables?

In the Eighties the Reagan Administration exploited the public disillusionment with government that had grown steadily throughout the previous decade and a half. By the end of the Seventies, only 25 per cent of those surveyed said they would trust the government in Washington ‘to do what is right’. A basic proposition of the Reagan years was that the Federal Government was trying to do too much. It was consuming too large a share of national resources. It should stick to ‘delivering the mail and protecting the coasts’, as the conservative slogan has it.

Linked to this were several other propositions. First, governments are inherently inefficient; they waste whatever resources they take or are given. Secondly, people make better decisions for themselves than governments can make for them. Thirdly, governments are ineffective – especially in matters of social welfare. Many, if not most, governmental attempts to deal with social problems have failed. (Social science research, unfortunately, was often unable to demonstrate the contrary.) American public confidence in many programmes became so frail that they were liable, in the words of one academic, to be ‘undermined by anecdote’. ‘In the war against poverty, poverty won.’ said Ronald Reagan.

American conservatives argued that government welfare programmes created a whole set of ‘perverse incentives’ which, directly or indirectly, actually made things worse. This thesis was popularised in the influential book Losing ground, by Charles Murray, published in 1984. Murray noted the inconclusive findings of social research. He pointed out that since 1965 generous rates of social security benefit had been available to workers and non-workers alike. He claimed that these benefits had encouraged young men to withdraw from the labour market, young women to become pregnant outside marriage and young fathers to decline to marry the mothers of their babies. In the black ghettos, young men seeking jobs were not encouraged to do so by their families, friends or neighbourhoods. Moreover, government policies actually succeeded, in the course of time, in changing social norms: ‘For the first time in American history it became socially acceptable within poor communities to be unemployed, because working families too were receiving welfare.’

Though some liberals, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, derided such sweeping assertions, Murray’s thesis appealed both to common sense and to prejudice. It justified cuts in welfare spending and reductions in taxes and in state intervention. It also presented a pragmatic, morally neutral case for penalising idleness and sexual promiscuity. In January 1985 a Federal official told a Congressional committee: ‘Today poverty has been institutionalised by the Government’s anti-poverty programs.’ In mid-1990, the Bush Administration announced that nothing more could usefully be done to fight poverty. ‘We have decided to abjure a glitzy, splashy high-profile announcement of new programs and a brand-new strategy,’ an official said. ‘We concluded that there were no obvious things we should be doing that we weren’t doing that would work.’ On this a staff member at a right-wing US think tank commented that the War on Poverty was already too glitzy and splashy: it had been ‘a disaster, ruining millions of lives’.

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