The Public Interest

Welfare's fatal attraction

James L. Payne

Winter 1998

WHEN President Clinton signed legislation ending “welfare as we know it,” neither he nor the nation seemed to realize that this was business as usual. For nearly two centuries, policy makers have tried to reform unsound welfare systems. In 1834, the English undertook a sweeping reform of the old Elizabethan Poor Law System, an arrangement that taxed working people to give generous welfare benefits to the idle. The 1834 reform cut the welfare rolls, but not permanently. By the 1850s, benefits were re-liberalized, and dependency climbed back to previous levels. Reformers tightened requirements again; by 1890, caseloads were down, only to be followed by a new wave of welfare programs.

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