Social Welfare



Traditionally in America, helping the poor was a matter for private charity or local government. Arriving immigrants depended mainly on predecessors from their homeland to help them start a new life. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several European nations instituted public-welfare programs. But such a movement was slow to take hold in the United States because the rapid pace of industrialization and the ready availability of farmland seemed to confirm the belief that anyone who was willing to work could find a job.

The Great Depression, which began in 1929, shattered that belief. For the first time in history, substantial numbers of Americans were out of work because of the widespread failures of banks and businesses. President Herbert Hoover believed that business, if left alone to operate without government interference, would correct the economic conditions. In the meantime, he relied on state and local governments to provide relief to the needy, but those governments did not have enough money to do so. Most Americans believed that Hoover did not do enough to fight the Depression, and they elected Franklin D. Roosevelt president in 1932.

Within days after taking office, Roosevelt proposed recovery and reform legislation to the U.S. Congress. Congress approved almost all the measures the president requested, and soon the government was creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. They were employed in huge public works projects such as dam construction, road repair, renovation of public buildings, building electrical systems for rural communities, and conservation of natural areas.

Most of the programs started during the Depression era were temporary relief measures, but one of the programs -- Social Security -- has become an American institution. Paid for by deductions from the paychecks of working people, Social Security ensures that retired persons receive a modest monthly income and also provides unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and other assistance to those who need it. Social Security payments to retired persons can start at age 62, but many wait until age 65, when the payments are slightly higher. Recently, there has been concern that the Social Security fund may not have enough money to fulfill its obligations in the 21st century, when the population of elderly Americans is expected to increase dramatically. Policy-makers have proposed various ways to make up the anticipated deficit, but a long-term solution is still being debated.

In the years since Roosevelt, other American presidents, particularly Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, have established assistance programs. These include Medicaid and Medicare, which are discussed later; food stamps, certificates that people can use to purchase food; and public housing, which is built at federal expense and made available to persons with low incomes.

Needy Americans can also turn to sources other than government for help. A broad spectrum of private charities and voluntary organizations is available. Volunteerism is on the rise in the United States, especially among retired persons. It is estimated that almost 50 percent of Americans over age 18 do volunteer work, and nearly 75 percent of U.S. households contribute money to charity.

- Abridged from State Dept. Publications and other U.S. government materials

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[Last Updated: 12/9/2010]
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