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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: August 2009

3 - The Response to Poverty and Inequality: The Welfare State



This chapter is divided into two parts. The first part provides an overview of the U.S. welfare state. In view of the nature and extent of poverty as discussed in Chapter 2, what has been the response? How has the U.S. welfare state addressed these problems? Who receives assistance and in what form? How secure is the safety net? As discussed, with very few exceptions, the basic approach of U.S. antipoverty policy is to focus on individual behavior rather than the structural conditions that cause poverty. Individual behavior, in turn, is primarily an issue of the work ethic. The work ethic has both objective (e.g., earnings) and moral components. Those who earn a living in the paid labor market fulfill social expectations – they “play by the rules.” Those who fail to earn a living through paid work and become needy are morally suspect. Why are they not working and supporting themselves and their families?

The distinction is cast in terms of the “deserving” and the “undeserving.” In general, the deserving are those who have worked in the paid labor market and are now excused from the paid labor market. The clearest example is the retired elderly who have worked a sufficient period of time in covered employment and made their contributions to Social Security. Today, most regular (“on the books”) paid employment is covered by Social Security. Cash assistance does not threaten the work ethic. Widows, widowers, and their children are included. Social Security is called a “pension.”

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