Poor Support/Rich Support: (Re)Viewing the American Social Welfare State
55 Pages Posted: 18 May 2017 Last revised: 21 Jun 2017
Date Written: May 17, 2017
Since at least the 1970s a variety of scholars have redefined the U.S. social welfare state to include not only traditional benefit programs (for example Food Stamps and social security) but also a variety of tax benefits that are “hidden” or “submerged” forms of “welfare for the wealthy.” Including these benefits in the overall picture of U.S. social welfare provision reveals a system that is both larger in size than popularly believed and that, in addition to providing some support for the poor, distributes significant benefits regressively, to households with substantial wealth. Although a variety of scholars and policy analysts have described these outcomes, scholars have yet to focus on the ways in which structural inequality is written directly into the means of administration of U.S. social welfare programs. This article is the first to turn to those questions and to systematically demonstrate that those who are economically (and disproportionately racially) disadvantaged are offered a social welfare state that is meager, punitive and tremendously risky for those who receive its benefits. But for those with economic privilege, the story is quite different. Families and individuals with significant economic privilege benefit disproportionately from a whole host of cash and near-cash benefits that are neither meager nor punitive. In fact, in contrast to benefits for the poor, benefits for the rich function as nearly invisible entitlements. As one moves from benefits for the poor towards benefits for the rich the administrative structures shift along this progression, becoming less and less punitive and risky and more and more like invisible entitlements. Although as a formal matter the rich, like the poor, have no right to economic support in the Constitutional sense, American social welfare policy moves the rich remarkably close to a right to economic support, leaving the poor far behind. This article reveals these vast structural inequalities and concludes by calling not only, as others have, for an increase and more progressive distribution of social welfare dollars but also, for the first time, for reforms that would address the structural inequalities at the heart of the U.S. social welfare state and that would render it more successful at supporting the autonomy and resilience of all of its beneficiaries.
Keywords: social welfare law, tax law, poverty law
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