What does 'welfare' mean to you?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a rally on November 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. In the budget debates on Capitol hill, 'welfare spending' is a hot topic. But welfare can actually mean a lot of different things.

In the budget debates on Capitol hill, “welfare spending" is a hot topic. But welfare can actually mean a lot of different things. Which brings us to the next installment of Marketplace’s “Safety Net Dictionary.”

Our word for the day is welfare.

Once upon a time, the word welfare simply meant, faring well. That’s how the framers of the U.S. Constitution used it in the preamble. Right after the part about "forming a more perfect union" and before the part about "securing the blessings of liberty", there's a charge to “promote the general welfare.” 

And yet, if you go out on to the street and ask people how they feel about the word welfare today, the feelings are, to put it mildly, fairly negative. 

“It’s for people who sit on their butt all day and don’t do anything and then say ‘give me your money,’” is how John Frazer, a car service driver from San Diego, put it. 

“It’s kind of associated with failure,” added Suncana Laketa, a graduate student from Arizona who said she had received welfare in the past herself. 

So, what happened?    

“It's full of paradox that a word that means well-being came to refer to one of the most stigmatized, even hated  programs,” say historian Linda Gordon of New York University.  

Gordon says the word welfare hit a major turning point during the Great Depression, when as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, Congress created the first large scale federal program to offer cash assistance to people who were poor -- specifically, to single women raising children. 

Back then, the program was called "Aid to Dependent Children". But even the designers of the program thought that was a mouthful, and the nickname  “welfare” was quickly born, because “it was a program aiming at maintaining the welfare of children,” Gordon explains. 

At first, Gordon notes, the welfare program wasn't all that controversial. But suspicions quickly set in, partly because of some pretty subjective tests used to judge which women deserved help. Gordon says social workers would do home inspections “and if they saw a bottle of beer that automatically made a woman unfit. If they saw what they considered a luxury item, like a bottle of perfume, that would be evidence” against a woman’s claim. 

Another rule that gave welfare and its recipients a bad rap was the way the program originally structured its income and asset caps, leading to Catch-22 situations that discouraged benificiaries from having above-the-board jobs, or savings -- the kinds of things that could help them get off welfare. 

And yet, while these sorts of rules affect our stereotypes about welfare today, the program has actually eliminated many of its original pitfalls in the last few decades, says Professor of Social Work Luke Shaefer at the University of Michigan. In the Congressional Welfare Reforms of the 1990s, welfare was rebranded "welfare to work.” It got a new official name -- "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families"  -- and new rules to incentivize employment. 

Since then, Shafer says the program costs less, and serves fewer families -- just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. He has calculated that “there are actually more really active postage stamp collectors in the United States than there are cash assistance recipients.”

Oh, and just to keep you on your toes, there’s one more twist to the definition of welfare. Though cash assistance is usually what’s being referred to, sometimes welfare refers to a much greater set of social programs -- things from food stamps to Medicaid to subsidized housing. 

Meaning, if you're in a debate over "welfare spending," first make sure everyone's on the same page of the dictionary.

Tell us: What does "welfare" mean to you? Post your answer in a comment below, or let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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