From the days of British colonial rule in North America until the 1930s, there was little disagreement about the proper role of government with regard to the welfare of the American people. Local government gave a small amount of money to the very poorest, but most people refused to accept this help unless they were desperate. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of nations in Europe were establishing and administering government – funded public welfare programs. No equivalent movement existed in the United States until the beginning of the 20th century. Millions of European immigrants had almost limitless opportunities to establish a good life for themselves, and many of them, through applied intelligence and hard work, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Such opportunities were not always available to Black Americans (most of whom were held in slavery until the end of the Civil War in 1865) and Native Americans. The majority of Americans could, if they worked hard, establish themselves in comfort, both socially and economically within a generation or two. Government aid was unnecessary for this majority.
By 1900, however, there began a public recognition that part of the population was disadvantaged and there was a need to do something for those citizens. A social movement known as “Progressivism”, which preached the reform of society through government intervention, gradually began to replace the “laissez-faire” philosophy of the preceding century.
In 1929, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs because of a severe economic decline known as the Great Depression. The President, Herbert Hoover, introduced programs to solve the problem, but changing a system takes time. Within days after Roosvelt took office in 1933, the old idea that direct federal government support was not a useful way to help people faded into history. Suddenly, Congress was establishing many public welfare programs which were radically different from any earlier activities undertaken by the American government. The government began using its money and power to provide jobs for people on public projects such as nature conversation, building dams, repairing roads, renovating public buildings and establishing new electrical systems for rural areas.
Among the programs that began during the Depression years was the Social Security program, approved in 1935.
After the Roosevelt period another set of government programs was enacted such as the Medicare program.
The majority of Americans – about 85 percent – are neither wealthy nor poor. They belong to the broad economic category considered to be “middle class”. This means that they have jobs in factories or offices, run stores, or are trained professionals such as teachers, nurses, farmers, police officers and salespeople. Middle class people ordinarily live comfortably, own cars, spend some time each year on holiday and can pay – at least in part – for a university education for their children. Economically above this middle class are some very wealthy people; below the middle class are the poor. Poverty in the United States is difficult to define. Generally, a family of four with a yearly income of $11,600 or less is considered to be poor by American standards. Many of the poor have less income than this “minimum” amount. Daily life is difficult for the very poor. Without the welfare system they would not earn enough money for food or other necessities. Many would live in inferior housing and would not be able to pay for medical treatment for their children.
Most Americans are troubled by the fact that poverty exists in their land. The United States is, after all, known for its wealth, its abundance of food and its opportunity for all to build a good life. The goal is to operate a free enterprise economy in which everyone who wants to work can find employment at which he or she can earn enough money to live comfortably. Despite that goal, there is always a percentage of the people who want to work but who cannot find employment for which they are suited. The percentage of the population unemployed varies with the national economic situation. In recent years, the official figure for unemployment has averaged between five and seven percent.
The plight of the poor and unemployed would be much worse than it is if it were not for help that they can and do receive from the federal and state governments. The public welfare system in the United States is so large that in the early and mid-1980s nearly one half of all money spent by the federal government was for “social payments” – money used to help people. The percentage has doubled since the 1960s, when only about 25 percent of the money spent by the federal government supported these welfare needs.
In addition to federal programs, there are programs in each of the 50 states which are designed to help people in need.
Among the many programs that help people who live in poverty are:
-Welfare payments- sums of money which are given by the government each month to those whose income is too low to provide necessities such as food, clothing and shelter;
-Medicaid- free medical and hospital care;
-Food stamps- books of special stamps which can be used to buy food at any store;
-School breakfast and lunch programs providing free meals to schoolchildren;
-Surplus food programs, under which food is purchased in huge quantities by the government and distributed free of charge to the poor.
In addition, the poor – and even people who are not poor – can become eligible to live in public housing. Public housing developments are groups of apartment buildings built at government expense. Federal, state and city government agencies are in charge of seeing that the apartments are made available to people with low incomes. Government agencies also take care of the buildings, providing guards, maintenance and heating.
When public housing is not available, poor people who need a place to live are sometimes placed in privately-owned apartments or in hotels for which the rent is paid by the government.