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date: 29 January 2023

Welfare Rightsfree

Welfare Rightsfree

  • David StoeszDavid StoeszUniversity of Illinois, Springfield
  •  and Catherine BornCatherine BornUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore


American social and economic justice advocates, social workers included, have struggled to establish a national mindset that welfare is a right, a duty owed to the people by government, not a privilege that can be revoked at will. Industrialized nations with a universalistic, rights-based philosophy have strived to provide citizens with some measure of a basic, minimum income; the United States has not, yet. The United States has been hobbled by ideology; a two-tier system consisting of assistance and insurance; and cultural misgivings about direct, ongoing public payments (welfare) to the poor. Revitalization of a national welfare rights movement, early signals from the Biden administration, and awareness that major social policy changes most often happen at times of crisis offer reasons for a degree of optimism. The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath are a moment in time—an inflection point—when social workers, because of their training, ethical codes, skill sets, and appreciation of the lessons of social welfare history, could play a key role in charting a new course of action suited to 21st-century needs and realities.


  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Terminology, Ideology, and Implications

Welfare programs and welfare rights are of direct interest to social workers because of the profession’s commitment to achieve economic and social justice for the poor, disproportionately persons of color. In the United States, the term welfare rights is generally used narrowly, referring to the rights of people who receive or apply for benefits from a publicly funded welfare or cash assistance program—the two terms are used interchangeably. The two largest are Medical Assistance, also referred to as Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly Food Stamps. Although its funding and number of recipients have declined significantly since 1996, the third, historically sizable, always controversial, and important welfare program is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). In 1996, TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a direct descendant of the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) cash assistance program created in the original Social Security Act of 1935. Notably, the term welfare rights is not often used in discussions about income support from social insurance programs such as Medicare, unemployment insurance, or Social Security.

The basic concept undergirding welfare programs is eligibility; for social insurance programs, it is entitlement. The difference reflects that the original Social Security Act created welfare programs for those not attached to the labor force (widows, children, the aged, and the disabled) and social insurance programs for those (read: men) who had been so attached but were out of work through no fault of their own (retirement age or involuntary unemployment). In short, the United States chose to aid the impoverished through cash assistance and to assist the formerly employed through social insurance—the former a residual view of government’s role and the latter an institutional perspective. Those with a residual mindset believe government financial aid should be temporary, limited, and available only when all else has failed. Universalists believe government is obligated to assure its people basic economic protections against the shared risks of unemployment, disability, old age, and destitution. Relatedly, social insurance programs require workers and their employers to pay into the programs; cash assistance or welfare programs are financed from general tax revenues. The phrase “through no fault of their own” also has special resonance in welfare because it expresses the peculiar, entrenched American concern, if not obsession, to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor, the deserving and the undeserving. It also reflects long-standing cultural and political ambivalence about providing ongoing, taxpayer-funded cash welfare payments to the poor, especially adults of working age, unmarried mothers, and persons of color.

The practical implications of these differing conceptual foundations are reflected in welfare rules and requirements. Benefit access is complicated and may discourage low-income citizens from seeking the help they need. And, the landscape consists of multiple “silo” welfare programs, authorized at different times, with different statutory authority and regulations, and overseen by a multiplicity of federal agencies, including Health and Human Services, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Agriculture, Labor, Education, and others, usually with corresponding state and/or local agencies. One key operational difference between all assistance and insurance programs is that before the welfare benefit is authorized, the individual must prove they have little or no income and few resources—that is, they must satisfy the so-called means test. They must also accurately complete application forms, which can be complicated; provide various required documentations; and agree to behavioral requirements such as work, job search or job training, school attendance, and cooperation with child support. Periodic review of ongoing eligibility is also a condition of ongoing aid. And, while benefits are being received, noncompliance with a behavioral or other requirement may result in benefit termination. Even absent a disqualifying event, some programs place limits on the number of months aid can be received, even if the client’s circumstances have not improved. Social insurance programs also require applications, but the main approval criterion is regular labor force attachment, the emphasis being to determine if one is entitled, not if one is eligible. Family size and composition are irrelevant, as are other non-employment sources and amounts of income. Even the words used to describe program participants send clear signals; insurance participants are typically called beneficiaries or claimants, with assistance recipients customarily referred to as clients or recipients.

This haphazard network of uncoordinated programs is unique among industrialized nations, and the United States is the only country without universal health care (Stoesz, 2021). This non-system places sizable burdens on the poor, and it can result in discretionary decision-making and service rationing, low take-up rates among potentially eligible persons, and high administrative costs (Government Accountability Office, 2017; Sunstein, 2019). In the 1960s, frustration with the welfare system reached a tipping point because of unsettling and rapid social change, the civil rights movement, heightened minority unemployment and low wages, along with restrictive, punitive, and arbitrary state welfare policies, despite President Johnson’s (1964) declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” These factors, combined with accumulated grievances against the welfare system, specifically AFDC, led to the emergence of welfare rights groups across the country during the late 1960s, as chronicled by Piven & Cloward (1978). Eventually, the struggle moved onto the national stage.

Welfare Rights, Welfare, and Social Work

The term welfare rights crashed into national consciousness in the 1960s, during the War on Poverty, in the form of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Created in 1966 by legal scholars and activists, including social workers, NWRO was led by George Wiley and Johnnie Tillmon, had 25,000 members at its apogee, and included hundreds of independent local welfare rights organizations. Recipient leaders dominated, but organizers, including social workers, acted as staff, providing technical information and training on topics such as negotiating and organizing demonstrations (Piven & Cloward, 1978). NWRO’s overarching goal was to replace means-tested, residual public assistance programs with a guaranteed annual income for all people, consistent with the idea that “welfare” is a right to which all should be entitled, not a state-granted, revocable privilege. The NWRO believed that a strong poor people’s organization “would be able to wield sufficient influence to compel a national income concession from Congress” (Piven & Cloward, 1978, p. 287). In practice, NWRO activists focused heavily on redressing street-level welfare rights issues often associated with the largest and most controversial welfare program, at that time AFDC. AFDC’s roots lay in the original Social Security Act of 1935, which enacted the cash assistance program, ADC, as well as old-age assistance and aid to the blind. ADC itself was essentially a federalization of state Mothers’ Aid Pension programs, the first public cash assistance programs targeted to single mothers. Prominent social workers such as Edith Abbott advocated for these programs, and they existed in more than 30 states by the mid-1930s (Moehling, 2002). Like those programs, ADC mainly served White widows with children initially, and it was expected to “wither away” once prosperity returned and more breadwinners—that is, men—earned coverage under the social insurance programs included in the Act. The prime mover behind the 1935 Social Security Act was also a social worker, Harry Hopkins.

The tales are typically told separately, but the evolution of welfare rights is bound up with the saga of U.S. welfare programs, particularly AFDC, as is the expansion of social work education, and their intertwined tale is richer and more reciprocal than their freestanding histories convey. Thus, we highlight some of the most important moments in the tripartite story of the country’s most controversial welfare program, AFDC, the welfare rights movement, and social work, leaving discussion of other welfare programs to other encyclopedia entries. In the third decade of the 21st century, there are many new challenges and important unfinished business. The latter includes pressing forward on a national credo which reflects that welfare is something people in the United States are universally and unconditionally guaranteed by virtue of citizenship and that social work is centrally involved in that work. An appreciation of the intertwined history of welfare rights, welfare, and social work can assist in pursuit of both goals.

The first major challenge was securing passage of the Social Security Act, and because the support of Southern Democrats was needed, the new federal ADC funds were made contingent on state appropriations. Jim Crow still reigned, so this concession gave Southern elected officials leverage to control the poor, disproportionately African Americans, which they did (Quadagno, 1994; Katznelson, 2013). Their view on welfare payments was clear: “Unlike white mothers who could not be expected to leave their children, black mothers were needed as domestics or field hands” (Stoesz, 2005). Social Security Act amendments in 1962 and 1967 were consequential for welfare and social work expansion. ADC became AFDC because, at state option, two-parent families could receive benefits if one parent were unemployed or incapacitated. Staff training, which would have a salutary effect on enrollment and budgets in many social work education programs, was emphasized to “produce more skilled public welfare staff” (Cohen & Ball, 1962, p. 10). More open-ended federal funding was made available, and grants or contracts with public or nonprofit colleges and universities for training, short courses, fellowships, and traineeships were authorized (Cohen & Ball, 1962). Numerous AFDC staff received MSWs as work–study students through these provisions, which are a foundational brick of many continuing education programs in social work today. Significant child welfare changes and expansions were also made, such as grants to higher education institutions for child welfare training, including traineeships with student stipends—another foundational brick in social work programs’ current child welfare staff training contracts and in tailored MSW programs for students interested in child welfare careers.

The 1960s has been the high-water mark so far in social work’s involvement with and influence in federal AFDC policy. Social workers from welfare and nonprofit agencies, social work schools, and the National Association of Social Workers were very influential in shaping the decade’s amendments through their participation on an Ad Hoc Committee on Public Welfare and various work groups. Social work’s influence in the 1962 amendments, dubbed the “social services amendments,” was obvious from President Kennedy’s remarks (as cited in Cohen & Ball, 1962) that

this measure embodies a new approach—stressing services in addition to support, rehabilitation instead of relief, training for useful work instead of prolonged dependency . . . our objective is to prevent or reduce dependency and to encourage self-care and self-support—to maintain family life where it is adequate and to restore it when it is deficient.

Still, AFDC was run by the states, many programs remained discriminatory and punitive, and benefits were almost always inadequate to provide a minimally decent standard of living. Instead of fewer families on AFDC, however, the “services” years saw unprecedented increases, with recipients more than doubling from 3.8 million in 1962 to 8.4 million in 1970 (Stern, 2013), leading to the first work program for adult AFDC recipients, the WIN (Work Incentive) program, in 1967. But social work interests were still addressed; the 1967 amendments explicitly provided that federal funds could be used for grants “to graduate schools of social work to meet part or all of the cost of developing, expanding, or improving undergraduate programs in social work and programs for the graduate training of social work personnel” (Cohen & Ball, 1968, p. 18).

Quietly, activists in several places had begun to independently organize to protest how welfare changes were being implemented. One was Johnnie Tillmon, who, as early as 1963, had organized welfare recipients in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and later co-founded and led the NWRO. She was one of the first to argue that welfare was a women’s issue (VCU Libraries, n.d.). WIN was ineffectual as a work program but a powerful catalyst for welfare rights. A first major NWRO effort was anti-WIN lobbying and demonstrations; the effort failed but brought national attention to the organization. NWRO also tackled welfare rights issues such as state restrictions on benefits and indignities such as unannounced, late-night “man in the house” raids by welfare caseworkers. Many social workers served as advocates, supporters, or staff. Unfortunately, NWRO had to declare bankruptcy and closed in 1975. However, many local groups, some led by social workers, continued state and local welfare rights work, and they were often successful; this work continues. Many social workers were also working in War on Poverty programs to promote community organization, engage poor neighborhoods, promote “maximum feasible participation and foster or promote equality of opportunity” (Marr et al., 2015; Stern, 2013).

Through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an outgrowth of the War on Poverty, legal aid attorneys also contributed mightily to the fight for welfare rights. Goldberg v. Kelly (1970) was a key win, for instance, ruling that welfare recipients had the right to a “fair hearing” if the state withdrew benefits and that they could be represented by counsel. It is noteworthy that clients won most cases when they had legal representation. Residency requirements, man-in-the-house rules, and various other regulations and statutes meant to prevent accessions to AFDC were struck down through these lawyers’ efforts. Then came President Ronald Reagan, who had great enmity toward LSC from his time as California governor, when LSC lawyers worked to help Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers. Administration officials claimed “legal aid attorneys used clients as tools to pursue their own idiosyncratic views of the public interest [and] brought too many lawsuits seeking to increase transfer payments” (Gordon, 2019; see also Taylor, 1981). Reagan’s efforts to abolish LSC failed, but funding was cut, and attorneys were restricted from lobbying and pursuing class action lawsuits that could have benefitted recipients as a group. LSC’s existence was again threatened in the 1990s, resulting in a do-or-die 1996 compromise that drastically cut funding and permissible activities, including no “engaging in any sort of public advocacy,” no challenges to welfare policies broadly, and no work to address systemic injustices to bring about structural change (Aaron, 2011; Gordon, 2019). Challenges to LSC’s existence continue, including a Trump administration attempt to defund it completely. Yet, LSC soldiers on as “the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans . . . serving households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines” (Sandman, 2019, p. 113).

Shortly before his death, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. founded The Poor People’s Campaign, expanding his battle for civil rights to encompass welfare rights. He and other leaders realized that civil rights progress had not been accompanied by equivalent progress in economic welfare for was many African-Americans. Thus, they began to focus on the alleviation of poverty, demanding a guaranteed annual income and a commitment to full employment, among other things, in a Poor People’s Bill of Rights. The bill never passed, and for myriad reasons, the Poor People’s Campaign remained a national force for only a few years after King’s murder. Unfortunately for poor people, advocates, and the nation, welfare philosophy was about to retreat from the expansive, universalistic ideology of the Kennedy–Johnson era to a residual, anti-government, anti-welfare philosophy that still dominates today.

The Kennedy–Johnson era saw a wave of civil and welfare rights activism and intended to create the Great Society through a slew of social programs that, except for Medicare, focused on non-cash benefits for the poor. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became law; there was major expansion in the number of social work programs, the number of students, and budgets; and there was significant involvement by social workers in community organization and anti-poverty programs.

Attempting to rein in the War on Poverty, President Richard Nixon wanted to do something bold and unprecedented in welfare, and the time seemed right. No fewer than five blue-ribbon commissions had called for a “new program which would respond to the needs of all those who are poor for any reason” (Lampman, 1969, p. 6), and in 1968 more than 1,200 economists signed a letter stating, “The country will not have met its responsibility until everyone in the nation is assured an income no less than the officially recognized definition of poverty” (Bregman, 2016). Building on lessons learned from negative income tax experiments, Nixon proposed replacing categorical programs such as AFDC with a universal Family Assistance Plan (FAP) to put an income floor under every American household. FAP was the closest the country has come to a universal basic income for all Americans, but it did not pass. Among the reasons why was strenuous opposition from the NWRO, liberals, and social workers who believed benefit levels were too low (Williams, 1975). This was probably a crucial strategic error. Playing a long game would suggest taking the structural change when it was presented, advocating later for benefit increases. Nixon was able to federalize cash assistance programs for the aged, blind, and disabled, however, replacing them with Supplemental Security Income (SSI), administered nationally by the Social Security Act and providing a standardized, nationwide minimum benefit that states may supplement but not decrease. Social workers and social work education programs were proactive in mounting campaigns to inform and educate individuals and community associations about SSI. Nixon’s unprecedented SSI achievement went largely unnoticed, however, because of fierce public battles over FAP. Unfortunately, the dark side of Nixon’s legacy has obscured the diverse array of other new and progressive welfare policies and expansions of existing programs, such as Food Stamps, that his administration enacted.

One welfare achievement stands out above all others and still resonates: the earned income tax credit (EITC) enacted in 1975. Nixon is responsible for “one of the most successful labor market innovations [EITC] in U.S. history” (Hoynes, 2014). EITC was the first use of the tax system as a mechanism to increase the economic welfare of the poor. Essentially an income supplement for the working poor, EITC was designed to encourage and reward work. It has achieved those goals and lifted more Americans from poverty than any other welfare program, including TANF, which it now dwarfs in terms of the dollar value of benefits provided—$60 billion in 2018 versus $16.5 billion—partly because EITC is indexed, whereas TANF appropriation remains frozen at its 1996 level (Crandall-Hollick, 2018). It is difficult to overstate the powerful, positive welfare effect of EITC; it is second only to Social Security in reducing poverty (Ben-Shalom et al., 2011; Crandall-Hollick & Hughes, 2018; Marr et al., 2015).

Not all presidential administrations contributed significantly to the tripartite welfare rights–AFDC–social work evolutionary story (e.g., Carter and both Bush administrations), even if some major new programs such as “Obamacare” were introduced, budgets of existing welfare programs increased (Bush II), or, alternatively, efforts to change cash assistance (Carter) failed. Other administrations have had an outsized effect, and chief among this group is the Reagan administration. Reagan had no use for welfare programs; spoke derisively about recipients renewing old tropes about the worthy and unworthy poor; and gave vociferous voice to the residual belief that people should be self-reliant, with government help available only as a matter of last resort. He generally concurred with the views of Mead (1986) and others that providing the (minority) poor with unconditional cash welfare merely subsidized their counterproductive and aberrant behaviors. It is ironic that Reagan’s foray into welfare policy, the Family Support Act, failed—largely because of exemptions granted to mothers who were mandated to work—but his effect on welfare philosophy has been huge.

The liberal, universal, expansive narrative dominated social welfare and welfare thinking for eight decades, but the conservatism and residual mindset of the Reagan administration not only stopped that narrative in the 1980s but also reversed it. Social program budgets were cut, government was viewed as a problem and not a solution, and previously public services were privatized. These actions reflected a concomitant belief that the private sector (and wealthy citizens), if liberated from burdensome taxes and government regulation, would grow the economy and generate wealth that would “trickle down” to other citizens. Since that time, welfare policy has had a decidedly conservative tilt, exemplified by the Republican Contract with America, Reagan’s “welfare queens,” and Clinton’s so-called “Third Way.” The latter, having vowed to “end welfare as we know it,” was compelled to do so to secure re-election, and it was signed the Republicans’ Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), emblematic of the dominance of conservative ideology. Touted as “welfare reform,” PRWORA was in fact “welfare repeal,” a structural change that repealed the open-ended entitlement to aid which dated back to 1935. AFDC was replaced with a time-limited, static funded, block grant program—TANF. PRWORA moved welfare a great distance backwards from the idea of welfare as a right by imposing benefit time limits and excluding many immigrants (Stoesz, 2000). In fact, as a block grant with wide latitude for states to design programs to their liking, and divert funds to other uses, it can be argued that we have come full circle, once again having a form of state-crafted Mothers’ Pension programs, albeit this time with federal funding. For the most part, the welfare rights movement has quietly continued in the TANF era but until quite recently has been localized because the block grant nature of the program devolved crucial decision-making to the states on fundamental questions regarding who would be eligible, benefit amounts, and time limits.

An Alternative Approach?

In many ways, we are right back where we started in terms of providing economic support for poor children and their families—a federally funded program, PRORWA, which is designed and operated by individual states that have broad discretionary power over virtually all program parameters. This embodies the residual view that welfare is a revocable privilege, not a right of citizenship, and it ill-serves U.S. children and the country in comparison to other nations. Children younger than age 18 years are the most impoverished age cohort in the nation, and African American children are almost four times as likely as White children to be poor (Carten, 2016). Benefit access has also been adversely affected. In 1996, 68 of every 100 poor households received TANF; by 2010, only 27 of 100 families did so (Trisi & Pavetti, 2012). For 2019, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2019) ranked the United States 22nd among developed nations in government assistance. The current situation is untenable; it risks the futures of an entire generation and does not bode well for the ability of the United States to compete successfully in the increasingly globalized, knowledge-driven economy. The disproportionate health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the low-income population and minorities heighten the need for radical rethinking.

International Contributions

Important contributions to new ways of thinking about and working toward economic and social justice come from the international development field, extensions of the work of Amartya Sen, a development economist and Nobel Prize laureate who has sought to introduce a broader understanding of welfare in developing nations. Not satisfied with the convention of assessing development only through economic variables, Sen added longevity and education to per capita gross national product, and contributed to enhancement of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which generates rankings of national development. With additional data, other indices were constructed on multidimensional poverty and gender inequality. For 2019, the United States ranked 16th on the HDI and 15th on the Gender Inequality Index, but the U.S. rankings were affected by the variables included and their weightings. A women’s empowerment index, consisting of economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being, ranked America 15th (United Nations Development Program, 2019).

Sen and his former student, Martha Nussbaum, also expanded the idea of welfare, proposing “capability” as a more relevant basis for developing nations, specifically expanding beyond cash assistance to a more relevant objective, “the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value—and have reason to value” (Sen, 1999, p. 18). This importantly introduces individual choice into the welfare calculation: “Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development” (Sen, 1999, pp. 48–49). Nussbaum has oriented the capabilities concept to focus on women, the largest and most disadvantaged population in the developing world but also treated as second-class citizens in developed nations (Stoesz, 2018). She asserted that “the core idea is that [of] a human being as a dignified free being who shapes his or her own life in cooperation and reciprocity with others, rather than being passively shaped or pushed around by the world” (Nussbaum, 2000, p.78). Implicit in the capability approach is the crucial concept of self-determination and this promising orientation embodies a more inclusive, fluid, optimistic and comprehensive way of thinking about welfare and well-being (Stoesz, 2018, pp. 52–54).


International insights and our documented need to move away from a cash assistance system based on an obsolete, industrial era model and to cease ideological arguments about it should remind us of something of fundamental importance now obscured from view: At root, we are talking about people’s lives and the future economic and other prospects of the nation’s children. Poor people do not live one-dimensional lives any more than non-poor people do, and cash assistance receipt does not define who they are or might become. Thus, adopting the premise that welfare is multidimensional seems sensible in the 21st century. Conceptually, this enables us to move past thinking about welfare eligibility to thinking about human capability, which can be assessed by aggregating data on variables related to well-being. It changes the idea of “welfare” from something codified in statute to a constellation of variables relating to income, education, health, employment, and life satisfaction that can be measured. The deployment of instruments measuring well-being offers social workers and other social and economic justice advocates the added advantage of being able to assess how different populations fare across jurisdictions and across time. It will not be easy to do away with old ideologies and ways of doing things. Fractured and uncertain as we may be, we are still a nation of can-do Americans, so let us get on with the work! The revitalized Poor People’s Campaign has been resolutely forging ahead for the past few years, moving far beyond a call for welfare rights to laying out “a moral agenda based on fundamental rights” (Poor People’s Campaign, n.d.). Perhaps we should begin by joining the campaign and embracing the rallying cry of the United Farmworkers in the 1970s: “Si se puede”—Yes, we can!


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