The Problem of Poverty: Welfare in America Essays

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The Problem of Poverty: Welfare in America

For centuries, nations, cities, and individual families have dealt with the problem of poverty; how to remedy current situations and how to prevent future ones. For most of history, there have been no government controlled poverty assistance programs. The poor simply relied on the goodness of their families or, if they did not have a family, on the generosity of the public at large. In the United States, this situation changed in 1935 with the passage of the Social Security Act. The Social Security Act has seen many successes, but it also faces many critiques of its structure and function. In the past, most governments did little to actively aid their poor population. This duty was understood to fall on the families of the poor individuals, charity groups, and generous individuals. Some governments aided their needy in indirect ways. One of the first government-mediated assistance programs was passed by the English Parliament in 1601 as the Act for the Relief of the Poor. This act set up local 'parishes' that were responsible for taking care of the poor in their own district. However, the government provided no funds to facilitate this program?the parishes were responsible for levying and collecting taxes to finance their programs. Though it would be considered a very primitive form of welfare by today?s standards, it was a large step toward government-mediated welfare compared to the English system 250 years before that. In 1349, Parliament forbade charity on the grounds that it might encourage laziness. Since then, public attitudes have changed about the responsibility of the citizens and the government to provide for the assistance of the needy. Limited federal assistance was given to war veterans and their families beginning during the Civil War, but large scale assistance to the general needy community was not available for almost 75 more years (Komisar 48). A large contribution toward the assistance of the poor in the United States came during the Progressive movement around the turn of the century. Activist groups championed not only workers rights in the form of unions, but also the right of every citizen to have access to decent living conditions (Komisar 67).

The Progressive movement slackened during the prosperous ?20s, but the social welfare issue was forcefully placed back into the public con...

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...banks could meet the needs of the increased number of people who seek their services. Although it is probably impossible to achieve complete freedom from poverty, society need not sit idly by in the face of such a monumental challenge. Indeed, it is the public duty of each individual to aid in the improvement of the lives of poor persons around the nation and around the world. Large-scale, complex systems such as the one now in place in America, only serve to create an inefficient, costly effort that could be achieved with less manpower and fewer dollars. Government oversight and subsidizing of private contributions toward the elimination of poverty is a far more efficient, adaptive, and economical way of working toward the eradication of the problem of poverty.


Garfinkel, Irwin. ?Welfare?, World Book Encyclopedia, World Book Inc., New York, Vol 21, pp. 191-193, ©1988.

Komisar, Lucy. Down and Out in the USA: A History of Public Welfare. Rev. ed. Watts, Chicago, ©1977.

Patterson, James. America?s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1980., Harvard Press, Boston, ©1981.

Segalman, Ralph. Poverty in America: The Welfare Dilemma, Greenwood, Los Angeles, ©1981

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