Redefining the Federal Role in Social Welfare

by John E. Hansan, Ph.D. and Dr. Robert Morris


The November 1994 congressional elections transformed the perennial debate over how much of the national income should be allocated for social welfare, how broadly or narrowly should the welfare responsibility of government be defined, what populations or institutions should receive benefits or administer them, and how to divide the costs. Today, the debate is over the nature of governance. Seriously proposed are plans to reverse the evolution in public policy which began with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the “revolution” of the 1930s in which major responsibility for individual and social or economic well being was shifted from states and localities to the national government and enactment of policies which governed the system which subsequently evolved over 50 years time. That
system placed in the national government the management of about 30% of the Gross National Product (GNP), and fixed the relationships among federal and state governments, business, and private organizations and federal responsibility for individual well being through the taxing and cycling of one and quarter trillion dollars annually into the economic life stream of the nation.

It is not clear whether this new effort to radically change our existing social welfare system is sustained by deep as well as widespread voter and interest group support, or whether the result will be return to a pre-1930 pattern or some radical reform of the existing system. Whatever the outcome, a period of uncertainty and even turmoil seems unavoidable as power relationships are changed and as the flow of tax dollars into the economy is altered.or reduced.

To anticipate our conclusions, we believe that the current review can best begin by understanding what the base was for our current system, which evolved in three stages over 60 years time:

1) The policies of the New Deal and enactment of the Social Security Act (1933-1941) established the government’s role in providing and protecting opportunities for work at a living wage for able bodied persons, and augmented by a worker/employer financed social insurance system to protect wage earners and their dependents against the total loss of income due to involuntary and temporary unemployment, death, or retirement of the wage earner.

2) The “Golden Years” of Exponential Growth (1942-1970) expanded this base (for reasons discussed later) by: (a) social benefit add-ons, including: housing subsidies for veterans and mortgage guarantees for the working and middle class; education for veterans via the G.I. Bill of Rights; student loans, grants for local public education and compensatory education for the developmentally disabled; disability insurance; Medicare; Medicaid; Supplementary Security Income, etc.; (b) increased federal funding for public goods, including: interstate highways; the construction of local hospitals, colleges and universities; urban renewal; public housing; National Institutes of Health, etc. (c) institutionalization of corporate welfare in various forms, such as: agricultural subsidies; economic development and small business loans; maintenance and support of defense industries; and federal financial aid for other industries deemed in need of funds for economic growth such as the airlines and railroads.

3) The Post Golden Era (1975-1995) is marked by confusion about how to adapt to major changes in our economy and society. During this period there has been a shift in attitudes about the scope of government responsibilities (national, state, and local) fueled by growing uncertainty about government’s ability to continue providing benefits to all who receive them and the organizational structures developed to provide public benefits to different populations.

Extreme proposals for adapting to change seem to propose re-building, almost from scratch, a social support system based mainly on local and private efforts. This would require a recasting of the foundations for community life if the basic standards of human compassion and responsibility for the helpless and needy are to be retained. This is not impossible, but will not obviously save money, the driving force for the extreme position, but only transfer how resources are mobilized. Is so radical a step unavoidable, or are there alternatives to reform the present system sufficiently to make it more effective, competent, and responsive to changing conditions? Various proposals are already circulating and more are in the pipeline. They range from suggestions about specific sectors such as public assistance to narrowing the scope of national responsibility for individual welfare. (Note: The early direction taken by these proposals is summarized near the end of the paper.)

It is of course possible that there will be very little change when the parties confront the realities of what is proposed, the enormity of the dislocation proposed. We choose to discuss “what if” the change movement is serious. It can be a time of opportunity. Welfare advocates can be at the cusp of change, not adjusting after others do all the innovating. Developing an alternative response strategy requires understanding of the underlying causes for voter dissatisfaction as well as how the current system evolved. The issue is how to preserve basic national as well as community responsibilities, while modifying how they can be re-structured to overcome the most serious flaws consistent with a changed era of public demand for effective but limited government, fairness and respect for constraints on public resources and public spending. This could produce an alternative to more radical proposals to dismantle the present, or to deny the need for change.

The task is important because so much of the drift in public debate has been about costs and waste whereas the real problems are the changes in the underlying economic conditions which have persisted for at least 20 years, worsening the economic and income position of at least half the population, despite an overall optimistic outlook obscured by inappropriate use of averages to report national income distribution.

Thus far, welfare advocates have tended to take for granted public and political support for ever expanding social programs . To understand why that can no longer be taken for granted is the purpose of this analysis. First, the powerful pressures for change, especially the economic foundations. Then a review of how and why we achieved the past exponential increase in social welfare and why the increase has slowed.. Finally, a look at the basic core of principles for federal responsibility plus feasible areas for re-construction without abandoning those principles.

Economic Foundations for Discontent and a Demand for Change

The dominant voter belief in America is that the private sector produces both jobs and adequate wage income as the essential foundation for opportunity to realize aspirations of all citizens. Social Welfare, originally designed to insure against deficiencies in this private function, and now vastly expanded as a social welfare system, makes it and government, easy targets thus diverting public attention, and understanding, from the root causes of economic discontent. It is essential that future social welfare strategy change its target by addressing the root causes of inequity, including the defects in functioning in the private economic sector. Some facts pointing in this direction:

• For the past 20 years, the real incomes of family wage earners have declined either in nominal terms or through erosion by inflation for between 25% and 50% of the working population. For up to half the middle class, which has either kept up with income or gained slightly (through two income families, on the job promotion, or upgraded skill improvement), the grasp on a middle class life has become increasingly threatened by feared loss of job, or unemployment, or transfer to lower paying work, as industry has gone through a major reorganization and reduction in work force at all levels – blue collar, white collar, and executive level. For at least half the population, life has become less and less rewarding, or secure, or hopeful (Krugman, the Economist, and many other sources). Downward mobility now, or for children in the future, has become a common fear. The unanticipated growth in single parent families with only one wage earner, usually a woman, has exacerbated the situation by further depressing average family and children incomes.

• The work place has become divided. Those with highest skills, as defined by a service not a goods manufacturing economy, or by the high technological value added in production (in economic terms) to compete with producers in the global market, have fairly well paid prospects; but they live with the uncertainty of frequent work place change, need to constantly upgrade skills, or change in employment. The new electronic and information age has a relatively few very good paying jobs and many, many modest or low paid jobs which are constantly changing, too.

• Industrial organization relies less on a stable core of workers and more on contingent workers, hired for short terms and with minimal benefits.

• Gross and average economic indicators conceal this trend by averaging out the incomes of the top 5% of wage earners (more than $200,000 annually) with those of the lowest earners. The resulting average looks fair, not bad. But it obscures the gross disparities between the number of income losses which greatly exceed the number of income gains. Average wages and 60% of family incomes, adjusted for inflation, have been dropping slowly for 20 years ( New York Times, April 17, 1995).

• As technology raises productivity (more output with less or the same labor force) the gains are badly distributed. Almost all productivity gains in the economy (with slower than historic GNP growth) have gone to the top one half of the income population at the same time that the lowest 25% have had real dollar decline. (Krugman; others). Plans to cut public spending focus most attention on welfare benefits, about 10% of the fiscal problem, while over $265 billion of tax benefits to corporations are usually overlooked (Economist), as are tax benefits accruing to middle class and affluent families.

• The loss of jobs with adequate wages, the shift to lower paid work, the risk of repeated disemployment, and long-term unemployment threaten what has historically been the prime means for ensuring personal dignity and self respect and creating a personal identity in a market economy. Adequate earned income is a prime means with which to maintain the optimism upon which growth of the last decades has been based. Likewise, the perceived loss or decline in opportunity is threatening. Perhaps 20% of the adult population is redundant in the market economy, including unemployed youth and early retirees. The putative base for individual and family security and for citizenship lies in jobs produced by the private economy. The growing loss of economic security is one factor, not the only one, for families under stress, for disorganization, for alienation and quite likely for minority youth resort to withdrawal or to violence (unemployment for this sub-population is at nearly 40%). Compounding this situation is the fact that current economic tendencies have also eroded the consumption capacity of a large part of the population, simultaneous with a general rise in social and consumer expectations. Reduced opportunities in an age of rising expectations and competition constitute a volatile mixture.

• Both political parties accept the private marketplace as the main engine to produce jobs. The reported increase in new jobs has occurred mainly in low paying service jobs, or in highly competitive small enterprises where the failure rate is very high and work is either short term, part time, or contingent on temporary contracts between primary and secondary employers.

• The failure of policy makers to hold the private sector responsible for this eroding economic base, or for taking action to reverse recent trends, presents the most serious dilemma. In all fairness, the growth in tax financed employment (e.g., defense industries, larger numbers of police and fire fighters, growth in public education and health care), an expanded social welfare system, and public goods construction, have obscured the weakening of the market economy during this period, and its declining ability to produce sufficient good paying jobs. This failure to lay the responsibility where it belongs leads to the charge that government is to blame followed by the urge to reduce government efforts and to privatize. Neither political party has found ways to see to it that adequate jobs are produced by the private sector. Vigorous efforts to this end appear to threaten other aspects of the network of interlocking interest groups on which each depends.

Evolution of the Current System

The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Social Security Act of 1935 Signify A Revolution in the Role of the Federal Government. How did the present complex system, under so much scrutiny today, evolve? Was that evolution appropriate for its time but the times have so changed that fundamental rethinking is called for? It helps social welfare advocates to recall how radical was the turnabout in government responsibility that took place in the 1930s, during the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That turnabout was a complete reversal, shifting traditional responsibilities from the locality or state to Washington and the national government.

In the 1930s, the depression resulted not only in the financial insolvency of individuals and families but also state and local governments as they tried to give economic relief to those who had lost jobs and were without any income. In addition, six thousand banks failed wiping out the savings and other sources of funds families and the elderly had set aside for emergencies and old age. Between 25% and 30% of the population was forced to subsist on public relief.

When President Roosevelt took office in 1933 his primary goal was to restore the economy and put people back to work. The strategy guiding his administration’s policies and programs can be described as one of “relief, restoration, and reform;” however, at the core of all the New Deal programs was the desire to improve the economic conditions of the nation via employment-based policies. Toward that end, the federal government distributed a billion dollars to states to help with costs of emergency relief; created a host of economic stimulation programs and farm subsidies; and funded numerous public works and building projects to give employment to the able bodied for whom there was no other work choice. For the longer term, the Roosevelt administration designed a contributory social insurance system designed to give basic protection to workers and their families against loss of income due to known hazards: involuntary but temporary unemployment, death of the wage earner, or retirement.

The primary goal of the programs authorized by the Social Security Act of 1935 — Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Old Age/Survivors Insurance (OASI) — was to protect wage earners (then mainly men) and their families. However, New Deal planners also recognized there needed to be a continuing role for the federal government helping states to manage the costs of public relief programs for those individuals and families not eligible for, nor ever likely to become vested in, the social security programs. As a result, the Social Security Act of 1935 authorized federal financial participation in a system of state administered public welfare programs (i.e., Aid for the Aged, Aid for the Blind, and Aid for Dependent Children). Much of the rationale behind this structure was a conviction that, as the social insurance programs matured, public assistance programs for able bodied workers and their dependents would become unnecessary. There was no provision for federal financial assistance for poor relief, nor for social services (except for a modest crippled children’s program).The basic principles of the changes signified by the Social Security Act of 1935 could serve as a starting point for both the defenders of the present and proponents of welfare change, were it not for the fact that in the ensuing years to 1970 the scope of federal responsibility was expanded by rising expectations and a belief that the quality of life for every one could both be raised and protected from economic risk

The “Golden Years” of Exponential Growth – 1942-1980. By the common measure of growth by dollars expended, the growth experienced during this period was impressive. Between 1950 and 1980 total public (and especially federal) expenditures for all forms of social welfare increased from $23 billion to $493 billion in constant dollars, or nearly 21-fold (2,100%). Per capita spending in constant dollars increased 340% (update and tables). Public spending for social welfare as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), i.e., all goods and services produced, grew from 8.9% in 1950 to 18.7% in 1980 (update). The federal share nearly tripled from 4% to 11.5% and local tax spending share increased from 4.9% to 7.2%. Such percentage increases were influenced by other shifts in public budgets such as the relative decline in military spending after the Korean and Vietnam wars, but the dollar increases remain impressive. Between 1965 and 1974 the annual rate of increase in federal only spending on welfare ranged from a high of 18% in 1965 to 15% in 1970, a low of 5% in 1973 and 8% in 1 974–all higher than the increase in GNP or cost of living indices for the period.

During the Cold War, and at least until the Vietnam War, it was feasible for government to pay for both “guns and butter” without adding new federal taxes. This was possible because, since 1913, the federal government has relied on revenues from a progressive income tax. (Hansan). Under this progressive revenue structure, tax payments rise faster the taxpayer’s income, and a rapidly growing economy produced more than sufficient revenues with which to underwrite an exponential increase in the social welfare system, with many constantly proliferating branches. These actions reinforced our national sense that America’s resources were boundless: that progress to improve conditions of life for all had few limits due to our science and vigor, and an abundance of natural resources.

Following World War II, a GI Bill of Rights brought thousands of working poor and minorities into the higher education system and laid the basis for a greatly expanded middle class. Federal funds supported the building of a system of interstate highways; expansion of defense industries, often located in the hitherto impoverished south and west; new construction of hospitals in all parts of the nation to improve health care; and a national system for health research and technological research in the Pentagon. Collectively these initiatives injected billions of construction dollars for jobs and science dollars for technological change. During the 1960s, federal funds were also allocated to provide health care for retired and disabled workers and to help states finance the costs of better health care for the poor. Tax expenditures were allocated too for agricultural subsidies, the military and defense industries, higher education programs for students of all income classes, along with a variety of housing subsidies and building programs. National tax dollars pumped a trillion and more dollars into the economy. And federal funds also contributed to job creation, if not goods production, by expanding the number of public employees, e.g., police, fire, road and water supply, prisons, etc.

All the population benefitted directly or indirectly from this infusion of federal funds for corporate welfare, expanded social benefits, and assorted public goods. The period has come to be seen as a kind of “Golden Age” during which a middle class welfare state of sort resulted. Levels of well being increased for the majority of the population. Growing productivity and GNP growth combined with limited increases in taxes and, later, more borrowing, tempered any pain from the costs. The situation was not unique to America. Eric Hobsbaums new history of the era, the Age of Extremes uses the same term to describe conditions in most of the industrial world.

The Culmination of the Golden Age: A Middle Class Welfare State. Continuing for almost four decades, this environment imperceptibly led advocates to believe that the nation was committed to an almost unlimited reservoir of both public backing and financial resources to support continuous increase in social welfare programming — increasing benefits, the number and type of benefits, and the entitled populations. Not incidentally, this confidence extended to a belief in the necessity of higher credentialling for workers and more jobs through employment in the public sector. Periodic efforts to limit spending were usually seen as temporary aberrations from the long term growth trend. Confidence in the growth in social welfare was part of the broader national conviction that the nation’s survival, its well being and its strength, lay in continuous growth which could be assured by continuous innovation from science and technology – the social investment concept and in wider inclusion of all citizens in the benefits of this growth. Such growth and expansion became the expected norm of life.

By the 1990s, the economic position of almost everyone, and every major economic institution and voluntary organization, was improved as a result of the receipt of some public funds via contracts, grants, subsidies, loans, benefits, employment, or direct tax benefits. The evidence is clear, but does not add neatly, that at least half the adult population (excluding dependents) receive some or all of their income from these public sources. There are three million federal employees, over two million military personnel (despite real reductions in their numbers in recent years). There are over two million police and related employees, plus other state and local uniformed employees and teachers (increased about 30% in the past 10 years). About 700,000 postal employees. There are six to seven million persons employed in education, not all in a public system.

In industry, 123 billion tax dollars annually almost completely support military procurement and research. Other industries depend in part on this procurement. About 9 billion dollars subsidize farm production. There are countless smaller subsidizes and purchases from tax funds which flow into large and small business and manufacturing for various good and less good economic reasons.

In 1994, over 42 million Social Security beneficiaries collected an estimated $300 billion in benefits, averaging $600 a month. Three million temporarily unemployed workers received benefits averaging $174 a month. Four million state and local civil employees depend in part on their state tax benefits. Three million retired federal civil servants have their own publicly financed social security system which yields an average pension of $1,500 a month. Elected public official, legislators, and retired military personnel have more generous than average pensions, often enhanced by additional pensions (i.e., double and triple dipping). None of this is income is perceived as welfare, although it is entirely based on taxes.

Health care is a major American industry which receives overall, about 40 percent of its revenue from taxes via Medicare and Medicaid. Some portion of this revenue ends up in the paychecks of the 13 million health care employees. Tax benefits in the form of deductions for home purchase or mortgage guarantees amount to at least $5 billion a year to private home owners. Finally, means-tested public assistance or “relief”: ten to 11 million beneficiaries of Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI: formerly Aid to the Blind, Disabled, and Aged) receive benefits averaging between $358 and $381 a month. In addition $1,378,000,000 in food stamps went to some 27 million recipients in 1992 as supplement to inadequate or unavailable relief from other sources. In sum, the system of ” social welfare” has become an important component in the economic well being of perhaps 80% of the population. and for significant private economic organizations via cash or credits from tax sources. Compare this with the about 10% of the population receiving means- tested public assistance or relief.

The Post Golden Age Era Circa 1980-1995: Disillusion with a Middle Class Welfare State? The so called golden era is both of recent origin and resting on fragile foundations. Basic American beliefs about welfare, limited role of government, and maximum individual responsibility were built into the founding of the nation. About 150 years elapsed before the growth took off, during which there was painfully slow development of any federal responsibility for welfare. Welfare before 1935 was built on the English Poor Law system, and usually administered by local governments. From the Civil War to 1935 the federal government’s welfare role was limited to health care for veterans and seamen, to distributing public lands to open up the west (as a kind of income distribution), and operating the U.S. Children’s Bureau.

Beginning in about 1972 underlying economic difficulties began to take hold. The economy slowed down as did GNP growth. Old social problems of poverty. increased, despite anti-poverty efforts. A score of new social concerns were added: anxiety about jobs and security in the future in the newly enlarged middle class – at least among those living in newly achieved but tenuous comfort. Taxes at all levels of government began to be more visible as a share of take home pay. Inflation made the services which higher expectations called for more costly: medical care and health insurance, child care, education, home ownership or rental. Two earner incomes became a necessity while changed social mores produced more single parent, one wage earner, families with marginal incomes. Those who felt secure indulged in many more luxuries — a vacation home, cars for each family member, etc. Racial tensions and discrimination did not subside rapidly enough and street crime and household crime increased as did substance abuse. A scary epidemic of AIDS and all its human and economic costs went along with growing moral discomfort with sexual freedoms and teen agers becoming unwed mothers. At the same time, concepts of individual freedom and choice continued to expand and led to demands for public action to defend them. The gap between current national income and spending grew, increasing public and private debt, the interest on which further increased the strain on national and personal budgeting. And the gap between the worse and better off populations began to widen until it became the largest in the industrial world.

Over the course of 20 years, public dissatisfaction grew with what political parties and government programs were producing for the sums spent on them. It is now no longer just too much spending, but spending seen as supporting improper, or undesirable, or anti-social, or immoral behaviors. Many factors contributed to the expansion of the public sector and to the growing gap between better and worse of. But the public has not focussed on the complex web of causes but opted to blame perceived failures on ill defined government policies. Thus we come to the Post Golden Age when disillusion and discontent foster a powerful civic demand for change – but with little idea of change to what.

What Is to Be Done?

The underlying social and economic changes of the past 50 years (only a few of which have been touched) raise the prospect that the complex partnership principles and aims which have characterized the social welfare programs of the United States since 1935 are in need of review. After 50 years of development in one direction it is not unreasonable, although very painful, to re-examine doctrines long accepted as immutable. In 1995 the most discussed solution is that of cutting social programs and taxes and tax spending, and devolving many responsibilities (with or without federal fiscal backing) to either private enterprise or to state and local governments. Implicitly this would involve a dismantling of some the nationally founded safeguards against disruptions sometimes caused by social and economic conditions.

Supporters of the current system have thus far responded by documenting who will be injured by any proposed dismantling or devolution while arguing for more federal funding, without as yet proposing any structural changes in the way currently appropriated funds are being used. The real issue is that the proposals for radical change do not make it clear that, if carried out, a wholly new system will have to created to replace the national/local safety net programs now in place — one presumably to be based in whole or large part on either private enterprise or on local government . There is no logical reason why such a change should not be tried, except for the evidence that the present set of arrangements grew out of dissatisfactions in the 1930s with just such a private enterprise cum local community base. The difficulty is that almost all interest groups already are significant beneficiaries of the status quo. How much will they want to give up for an uncertain new regime. If it is undertaken in recognition that rebuilding a new support structure of any publicly acceptable shape will take time and may not save money (it may be more costly) it can be done. On the other hand, if it is assumed that economic dependency should be treated more harshly or that somehow the private economy will magically reverse itself and boom again, and continue to boom (in the unbalanced form it has taken in the past 20 years ?) then the nature of the transition will be more divisive. and contentious than ever.

Modifying, Not Dissolving, Government Responsibilities for Social Welfare

The first step for believers in national responsibility for any form of a social welfare system is to confront rather than deny that changed conditions require some change in the ideas which have governed its evolution over the past 60 years. Advocates can accept that all is not well but that many elements of the past have value for society too great to jettison without careful thought about alternatives. We suggest a few large but practical tasks which advocates can undertake now to create their own agenda for the next era, one which lies between denial (or defense of the past) and hasty dismantling:

(l) a re-assessment of those core functions which should be retained as part of a national responsibility in both administration and funding and which others might be devolved in whole or in part to states or the private sector;

(2) for functions fully retained as a core, do they need to be improved by restructuring and how? As a base, the initial premises of the 1935 Social Security Act might be used as a starting point, along with the national government’s obligation to protect its citizens, not only in war, but as an employer of last resort. For the present, the last suggestion assumes that the primary, preferred source of income for individual and national well being continues to be based upon employment at an adequate wage in the private sector. A first function is thus not providing income but seeing to it that jobs with adequate pay are available and accessible for all who are able to work.

(3) which of the add on functions which accrued over the past five decades might be drastically modified or devolved to others within the historic and current triad of national, state/local, and private sectors. For example, even if some social welfare functions are assumed by others, the national government retains a responsibility for last resort monitoring and potential emergency action. The national government’s ability to act to protect citizens when groups are grossly neglected or abused, or in cases of disasters beyond the capacity of other levels of government, is an essential part of nationhood. How will advocates choose to define this national ability and structure it in an altered paradigm of modified national authority devolution which political and especially economic circumstances seem to require?

(4) review those major federal programs which are agreed do not perform well enough but could be reformed in order to regain public approval. What structural changes can be proposed within present constraints?

(5) there is need for fresh thinking about how devolved responsibilities (if that happens) can best be carried out in states or in the private sector. Is there a middle road template for guidance as responsibilities are shifted to new organizations? Or will advocates recast their next efforts, emphasizing working in a decentralized manner with numerous state entities, and with newly formed citizen groups, currently outside the national advocacy constituency, all of which may be working at rebuilding a new social support system.

Groping to Redefine the Scope of Federal Government Responsibilities

Redefining proposals begin to cluster as follows, representing priority preferences of various analysts but none clearly preclude any of the others.

1. The federal government has a core obligation to secure and enhance the economy of the nation. Since most economic activity is in the private sector, the clearest function for the national government is assurance that work is available for the able bodied at adequate wages. GNP growth can yield increased income for social needs of those agreed upon as properly dependent due to illness, age, or other incapacity without too onerous taxation or inflation, if effectively managed. This function is central for any others which may be added. It conforms to historic values of personal independence which is only possible, in an industrial society, with adequate earned income to sustain a family. If all able bodied citizens are at work they can maintain a consumer demand necessary for the GNP to reflect healthy growth. Working adults can pay for some or all needed social or health services giving them more choice, independence, and less dependence on others or public taxes. Where income is insufficient to cover essential needs, they can still act as full partners in deciding where public action or provision is necessary, for whom, and with what sharing.This, if achieved, lays a solid foundation for public policy in many other contentious areas.

2. More technically, the federal government is essential for developing and maintaining national data and information bases on which the daily functioning of most private sector activities and those of state and local governments depend. No single state can develop the national data essential for insurance, for economic development, investment, and public health as well as use by industry and commerce. Essential data bases have been developed by government, and require continuous upgrading as conditions change. Some of these are threatened by less thoughtful efforts to reduce public spending simply to cut costs without measuring the damage. In a related area, some scientific research can only be conducted by funding and collaboration across state boundaries which requires some central decision mechanism for efficient choice taking. The national data bases are also essential for research centers in industry, universities, and independent research organizations as well as for independent researchers.
All the above is necessary nationally regardless of the scope of devolved power or management from national government to state or private sectors.

3. Federal monitoring of the nation’s well being may remain a core function.The expansion of federal responsibilities has been accompanied by complex data reporting and regulation to secure equity, or uniformity, or accountability in the use of public funds. With extensive devolution, the function of data may change from control to monitoring. If there is to be a recognizable nation then some supra-ordinate authority needs to be available for help in cases of great unpredictable catastrophes. In a vast continent where resources are unevenly distributed, state capacities vary and this can lead to extreme neglect or abuse of some populations, to the neglect of basic public health, to malnutrition, any of which can threaten national economy, or security, or stability. A change in responsibility can mean that a national authority needs either a basis or mandate to intervene when necessary. Information about serious flaws and defects is a basis for responsibly citizen decision making to authorize action..

From the very beginning of the nation, as seen in the Federalist Papers , the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, a distinction was made between the powers of each state, and the needs of all the people. The national government is the primary mechanism, built into the founding, to safeguard the well being of all citizens, without having to depend solely on what separate states chose or fail to do for their state citizens. There may lie ahead a major shift from the extensive reliance on Washington that has evolved in recent decades, but the shift must retain a national safety net mechanism for when crises overwhelm local or private capacities. A monitoring mechanism is essential for such a reserve or fall back function.The major difference would be abandoning the conviction that some kind of national minimum uniformity should be imposed or developed everywhere.

We believe the minimum core for national responsibility consists of: (a) the economy, especially work and adequate wages for all able bodied; (b) monitoring and its attendant mechanisms of building and maintaining national data bases.

Other core functions may be added and have been advanced by others. Scocpol for example notes, in urging the well being of families and children as a national responsibility, that national policy is strongest when it reaches across many class, population, economic, and ethnic groupings to meet needs perceived by most citizens The protection of public health, as distinct from financing access to doctors and hospitals, is another core responsibility often mentioned as is personal physical security for all citizens. The latter ranges from a military force to protect the physical integrity of the nation to reduction of crimes against persons or property. There are differences about the scale of and form of national involvement but sovereignty requires some such functional responsibility. What may develop ( vide Scocpol) are national policies and programs to address the needs of broad populations – large majorities which represent shared interests of differing economic, social and ethnic groups.

The foregoing is not yet a platform. The following lists various other program areas also being debated. Out of these areas a middle path might be crafted to redefine the scope and roles of the federal government in an era of political and fiscal constraints in what is a period of fundamental challenge to change.

• The maze of national programs which address, piecemeal, work needs, mainly of the poor, the disabled, the aged, and various minorities. Alongside these are numerous subsidies and programs targeted to industry and agriculture which often are intended to produce employment or research in technologies designed to improve productivity. This complex of programs and subsidies does not constitute a policy to encourage the development of work opportunities and pay levels so much as it responds to diverse special interest concerns, and with diverse motives such as disincentives to public dependency and incentives to retire early from the labor force via pensions. Can these be rationalized to constitute a policy or national approach to job creation in the private sector?

• Income provision for those in need, ranging from AFDC, SSI, and Food Stamps, to those receiving Unemployment Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Workmen’s Compensation.

• Social Security, mainly the retirement program, which, although exempted from current debate, will soon be debated. It faces dramatically changed conditions since first initiated: demography, longevity, changed nature of family structures, the new place of women in the work force, etc.

• Health insurance, recently debated intensively and still in search of an acceptable consensus on the related issues of: coverage of the uninsured, the escalating costs of health provision, and the extent of personal responsibility.

• Education, although not a major national responsibility, is in serious trouble in major cities at least; and, more broadly, in the equipment of a work force suitable for global competition, or for worker’s entry into better paying jobs that become available.

• Numerous small social service programs, often staffed by social and mental health workers, to address serious social problems such as child neglect and abuse, juvenile delinquency, crime, personal care of the chronically disabled and handicapped. These often are folded into larger programs such as health where they perform case management functions to link numerous overlapping programs. To date, their results have been disappointing.


This excursion into the complexity of the current temper of the voting public and of well organized political forces has considered proposals to sharply reduce the role of the national government in social welfare and to sharply reduce the cost of all public services, but beginning with public welfare. Discussion has concentrated on the challenge to, or opportunity for, advocates of social welfare to design a middle path between dismantling our national system and/or defending it as is. The challenge comes from the belief that the current dismantling effort is a crude way to respond to public wishes for change in the way national and local communities handle serious social problems. The effort has thus far avoided the probable base for much of the distress. Work and the responsibility of the private sector are major tasks for welfare advocates to confront, which have not been at the center of their activity so far. Beyond that, there is an opportunity to, after 50 years on one path of national growth, to re-define the essential core of national responsibilities which cannot be devolved or abandoned in order to better meet current conditions in the nation..

A middle road between extremes of dismantling too much and of defending the status quo could be developed. This may involve attention to what it would take to re-build a less centralized system of social supports fit for the unpredictable changes flooding into society, acceptable to voters, reasonably matching rising expectations and limited means. Welfare advocates may not yet be ready for this but something like it would have to be tackled if the current national social support system, on which so much of the population and so many private economic institutions now depend, is to be altered or dismantled in part either to make it more effective or to change controls in the allocation and distribution of national resources.


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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. & Morris, R. (2011). Redefining the federal role in social welfare. Retrieved [date accessed] from /recollections/redefining-the-federal-role-in-social-welfare-1995/.


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