26 April 2007

Welfare And The Underclass

I'm always reluctant to speak harshly of the welfare system, not least because Social Security helped me immeasurably at a critical time in my own life. It also risks coming across as callous, insensitive and ungrateful when someone who's relatively well off starts fulminating about the meager handouts which keep the underclass from starving but afford little opportunity beyond that.

But it's worth listening to Melanie Phillips' argument that the welfare state not only does little to alleviate real poverty - particularly the poverty of values and aspirations that can prove more poisonous than material shortages - but that it actually helps create and perpetuate an underclass. She's writing primarily about Britain, which despite long-entrenched poverty, has never had an American-style underclass. Until recently, that is, and the fact that the underclass has emerged and multiplied during precisely the same period that the British welfare state was at its strongest and most encompassing provides telling evidence for Phillips' claims.

She also makes a useful comparison with America, where the introduction of Bill Clinton's much-maligned welfare "reforms" has, contrary to predictions, reduced rather than increased poverty. But she may have overlooked the fact that many welfare recipients were simply shifted into new programs, most notably Social Security and Supplemental Security Income for the physically or mentally disabled. A similar shift has occurred in Britain; approximately a million workers formerly classed as "unemployed" are now semi-permanently on "the sick."

Keeping two million Americans locked in prison also cuts down on welfare bills, though of course prison is far more expensive. I'm guessing, too, that Phillips would argue that America's vast prison population is at least in part a result of the massive expansion of Aid To Families With Dependent Children grants in the 1970s, which despite their obviously humane trappings, subsidized a vast increase in America's underclass.

No comments: