Of the major Western industrial nations, the United States has always been the most conservative about social welfare policy (Patterson, 1986; Skocpol et al., 1993; Rosenblatt, 1982). America’s welfare programs are the most recent in origin and the most restrictive in eligibility, coverage, and cost among the major Western powers (OECD, 1976; Smeeding, 1992a, 1992b; Wilensky, 1975, 11). The reason is that American philosophy about the role of government in providing support to low income citizens differs from the philosophy that prevails in the major industrial nations of Western Europe (see Figure 1.1). The American public philosophy stresses freedom and opportunity over equality (Bobo and Smith, 1994; Feagin, 1975; Shapiro et al., 1987). Americans believe that everyone should be given an opportunity to succeed, that opportunity may not be truly equal but that it is bountiful, and that economic failure generally reflects personal failings. Although public surveys show that Americans are generally sympathetic toward the poor, they are not comfortable with policies that financially support healthy unemployed adults unless the support is transitional. The public believes that anyone can suffer a financial setback, but that with a little help there are ample opportunities for people to recover if they work hard. The public fears that welfare that is too generous, or poorly designed, may undermine core American values by rewarding, supporting, and encouraging indolence and even immoral behavior (Mead, 1986, 1992; Bobo and Smith, 1994). Thus, the public supports long-term aid only for those who cannot care for themselves, and temporary aid to help the able-bodied become settled in the workforce. The American philosophy can be thought
of as a belief in “rugged individualism” and personal responsibility, and faith in the power of the economic market. Emphasis is placed on keeping the economy healthy, vigorous, and competitive to create opportunity, while insisting that all who can support themselves through the market do so. This philosophy has shaped the establishment and evolution of the American welfare system. At any point in which welfare seemed to evolve into a system that conflicted with this philosophy, public officials have struggled to reform the system.