Few topics in American politics generate more controversy than the issue of social welfare programs. These programs benefit the poor, elderly, disabled, unemployed and others. Proponents contend that programs ranging from Social Security and Medicare to unemployment compensation and public housing provide assistance to those facing temporary hardship or who are unable to provide for themselves. Opponents counter that public assistance programs undermine the work ethic and foster dependency among recipients.
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Government social welfare programs consist of two major types. The first group consists of social insurance programs to which workers contribution through deductions from their paychecks. The main examples of these programs include Social Security and Medicare, although they are generally not labelled as welfare. These programs, two of the largest in the federal government, provide retirement income and medical care coverage for the elderly. Other programs receive funding from general tax revenues rather than worker contributions. These include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); Medicaid, the medical care program for low-income Americans; Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the poor and disabled; and the Food Stamp program, among others. These programs are more likely to receive the label of "welfare."
Pro: Programs Funded by Contributions
Political scientist Thomas R. Dye, author of "Politics in America," writes that most Americans believe that government should aid those who are unable to take care of themselves. He further writes that some social welfare programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, are social insurance programs to which the recipients have contributed over time. Contributions to these federal programs for the elderly are deducted from workers' paychecks. If people make required contributions to a program, they are entitled to its benefits.
Con: Culture of Dependency
While Americans generally favour government aid to society's most vulnerable populations, Dye writes, they also worry that welfare programs foster dependency and a sense of entitlement among the people who receive them. They may stereotype recipients of public assistance as lazy and immoral. Social scientist Charles Murray, in the book "Losing Ground," examined American social welfare policy and concluded that the programs encourage out-of-wedlock births, remove incentives for people to find jobs and create a population dependent on government assistance.
Pro: Social Safety Net
Advocates of public welfare programs argue that they do not create dependency, but provide a social safety net for people facing temporary hardships. The Urban Institute argues that social welfare programs provide assistance for people before they fall into poverty and provide a system of support for people to get back on their feet. With the economic problems resulting from the housing collapse and financial crunch of 2007 and 2008, including rising unemployment and foreclosure rates, these programs may be more necessary than ever to keep more families out of poverty, the institute states.
Con: Programs too Expensive
A major criticism of social welfare programs points to their cost. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., and a major critic of welfare programs, contends that welfare spending is growing at a rate that could drive the U.S. into bankruptcy. Heritage analysts write in 2010 that the U.S. government has spent more than £10 trillion since 1964, when then-President Lyndon Johnson launched his "war on poverty" initiative and that the programs have failed to end poverty. Heritage advocates rolling back welfare spending and requiring recipients to work as a condition of receiving assistance.
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