In the context of government policy, the word “welfare” means different things to different people. For many, the word conjures up images of “the dole,” of a free source of money for people who don’t work. The implication is that if you give people money for not working then they’ll be much less likely to work.
More broadly, the word “welfare” means a state of well-being or happiness. In this sense, a “welfare state” is a government whose goal is the well-being of its people—rather than, for example, its power in relation to other states. But the term “welfare state” has negative connotations for many people: it implies a society where few people work because everyone is on the dole.
Merriam-Webster defines “welfare,” in a policy context, to mean “a government program for poor or unemployed people that helps pay for their food, housing, medical costs, etc.” This definition covers a much wider range of potential policies than the traditional image of the dole.
In the United States, the various levels of government offer a great diversity of services. In general, these services are used more by low-income Americans but are disproportionally paid for by the wealthy. Most people would not consider public schools to be a form of welfare, much less public roads or national defense. More direct forms of assistance, like food stamps or Medicaid, are more likely to be called welfare. However, in the absence of government a wealthy person would be able to provide for themselves all the services they might need, whereas the poor would do without. Governments provide schools and fire protection and roads for the same reason they provide food and cash assistance—because many people would not be able to afford such things on their own. What determines whether a given form of assistance counts as welfare?
In the United States, welfare “proper,” so to speak, refers to a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. This program is literally free money, a cash benefit for very poor families. There are restrictions on who is eligible to receive this benefit; most notably, a family can only receive TANF money for a maximum of five years in their lifetime. Because of these restrictions, TANF is a fairly small program, comprising less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
The vast majority of federal social spending goes to three programs: Social Security, which gives money to the elderly to assist in their retirement, and Medicare and Medicaid, which help people pay medical expenses. These three programs, plus the military, comprise most of the federal budget: all other programs are just a tiny sliver of the total pie. This is a somewhat different image of welfare than what people may traditionally imagine when they think of “the dole.”
Polling data shows that the majority of Americans approve of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Most people think it’s a good idea to help the elderly retire and to provide equal access to healthcare, even if these programs are very expensive.
Nowadays, just about everyone agrees that governments exist for the sake of the people. The disagreement is about what kinds of policies are best or most fair for everyone. Critics of welfare programs often argue that governments are an ineffective or inappropriate way of helping people.
For example, the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” argues that matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. In that sense, do we really need a multi-trillion dollar government to step in and help the guy living down the street? Why can’t people help their own neighbors and families?
Supporters of welfare programs would reply that many people are indeed being helped by neighbors and families, but many people aren’t being helped at all. Total charitable donations in the US have always been much less than government spending. Furthermore, the most vulnerable in society will naturally have the least access to private networks of support.
Supporters of welfare programs worry that their critics simply don’t think the needs of the vulnerable are very important. For example, a wealthy person doesn’t need Medicare (though their taxes pay for it), and so they are more likely to notice the flaws in a program like Medicare, rather than the benefits.
For as long as there has been welfare, there have been concerns about the abuse of welfare. But this is true of any kind of charity: if you’re going to sacrifice yourself to help someone else, how do you know they really need or will benefit from your effort? Some people say it’s generally bad to try to help others, because people should be able to help themselves. Most of the arguments for and against public welfare programs can also be made about private selflessness. Most people admit that it’s good to try to help people, but too much help (or the wrong kind) can be counterproductive.
The debate about welfare programs, therefore, ultimately hinges on whether these programs are effective. Does welfare help people escape poverty, even while others are unable to do so, for one reason or another? And is that benefit to society worth the cost?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
The US federal government has sometimes been called “a nursing home with a standing army.” Do you think this is what most people picture when they imagine the federal budget? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal?
Do you think that certain government programs would be better handled by private charities? Do you think people are likely to give those charities enough money to support the level of services you think is appropriate? Or do you think these charities should be funded with tax dollars as well as donations?
In general, are your feelings about welfare programs positive or negative? Do you think these programs do a lot of good, or are generally misguided? In your personal life, do your feelings about helping other people—whether monetarily or by other means—match your feelings about welfare? If not, how would you explain the difference?
What are some examples of needs that cannot be easily met by private charity, and, in your opinion, require public assistance?
In the United States, the program most often referred to as “welfare” is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, this program is a very small part of the government’s spending on social programs.
The word “welfare” has negative connotations for many people, but the majority of Americans approve of their government’s social programs.
Discussions of the value of welfare programs are complicated, involving people’s ethical opinions about the value of selflessness, the practical efficacy of centralized governments, as well as recent decisions made by those governments which may loom large in many people’s minds.