New York: Work and Walfare
A review of the development of the welfare dilemma, with particular reference to New York City, and of the experience with alterations in the assistance programs that have been initiated during the past few years should sharpen our understanding of the nexus between work and welfare and our thinking about the relationships between income transfers and general economic planning.
The social welfare system serving the nation today is rooted in the Social Security Act of 1935 and has persisted for over three decades without fundamental reform in structure, assumptions, or objectives. Under the social security legislation two distinct income-maintenance programs have evolved which differ in financing, eligibility, and administration.
Categorical assistance programs, or "welfare," are a set of income-transfer programs for unemployable groups, administered by state and local agencies and financed by general federal revenues matched with state and local tax funds. Unlike the "insurance" benefits, eligibility for these programs is established through a means test. "Welfare" was conceptualized not as an earned fight but as discretionary assistance subject to eligibility criteria which varied by administrative jurisdiction, usually the state. The categories of unemployables eligible for federally reimbursed assistance were the aged (OAA), the disabled (AD), the blind (AB), and children in one-parent families who have been deprived of normal support as the result of a working parent's death, desertion, or some other tragedy (ADC).
The changing attitude toward public assistance on the part of recipients, welfare administrators, and the general public undoubtedly has played a large part in the increasing number of applications and acceptances for public assistance. Throughout the decade more and more people, and especially the poor themselves, came to consider poverty an injustice rather than a misfortune. Accordingly, welfare was increasingly considered a right rather than a discretionary charitable function of government. The effect of the changing attitudes held by clients and administrators was a sharp increase in the number of applications and the percent accepted.
Efforts to reduce the size of the dependent population have focused upon their employment potential. Assessments of employability generally include the personal characteristics of clients, such as age, education, and previous work experience, and certain situational factors, such as the absence of child-care facilities, which may act as a barrier to employment for otherwise employable individuals. Yet even this multidimensional approach is often inadequate. Employability is a complex concept involving many variables, including subjective judgments on the part of individual clients, labor market intermediaries such as the employment service, and employers, about the suitability of a particular individual for a particular job. Each of these judgments is subject to change as labor market conditions improve or decline and is likely to vary along with the available opportunities. A mother who receives ADC might consider herself available for work as a salesgirl during the day while her children are at school, but not available for work as a nurse's aide during a hospital night shift. An older man with little education and a sporadic work history might actively seek employment, but the employment service may find none of its listings appropriate. When the economy is characterized by 6 percent unemployment, an employer might be unwilling to hire a mother on welfare who does not have a high school diploma, but when the unemployment rate is 3 percent, he might well be willing to hire her. Because employability is a function of many diverse and dynamic factors, any assessment of employment potential among welfare recipients is subject to change.
Most working women were married and, although they were working to add to family income, most were supplementing the earnings of their husbands and were not fully responsible for family support. In fact, few of the working women could have supported an average family (four persons) from their earnings alone.
The experience to date with state and federally initiated work programs indicates that few people will be removed from the public assistance rolls as a result of these efforts. Employability is hard to define and harder to maintain. Placements are difficult to achieve, even at low wages. Most important, employment often does not mean self-support, particularly if the large number of low-level jobs in the economy is taken into account. One way of meeting this dilemma is via a wage policy that is geared to the elimination of poverty, a societal decision which has not yet been widely considered. In the future it is more likely that this problem will be met by a greater intermingling of earned income and public assistance allowances in the implementation of a national policy emphasizing work efforts and the elimination of a wholly dole-supported segment of the population.
Points of Interest