Commentary Magazine

The Limits of Social Policy

p>There is a general sense that we face a crisis in social policy, and in almost all its branches. Whether this crisis derives from the backwardness of the United States in social policy generally, the revolt of the blacks, the fiscal plight of the cities, the failure of national leadership, the inherent complexity of the problems, or the weakening of the national fiber, and what weight we may ascribe to these and other causes, are no easy questions to settle. I believe there is much at fault with the way we generally think of these matters, and I wish to suggest another approach.


The term “social policy” is very elastic. I use it to describe all those public policies which have developed in the past hundred years to protect families and individuals from the accidents of industrial and urban life, and which try to maintain a decent minimum of living conditions for all.1 The heart of social policy is the relief of the condition of the poor, and it is in that sense I use the term here.

There are, I believe, two prevailing and antagonistic views of social policy.

One—I will call it the “liberal” view—operates with a model of the social world in which that world is seen as having undergone progressive improvement for, roughly, the past hundred years. The unimproved world, in this view, was the world of early and high industrialism. Market forces prevailed unobstructed, or nearly so. The enormous inequalities they created in wealth, power, and status were added to the still largely unreduced inequalities of the pre-industrial world. This situation, which meant that most men lived in squalor while a few, profiting from the labor of the many, lived in great luxury, was seen by a developing social conscience as both evil and dangerous. It was evil because of the huge inequalities that characterized it and because of its failure to insure a decent minimum at the bottom levels; and it was dangerous because it encouraged the destitute to rebellion against industry and the state. Consequently, in Bismarck’s Germany, and somewhat later on in England, conservative states grew worried about rebellion and workingmen began to be protected against complete penury in old age or in times of unemployment through industrial accident and illness; small beginnings were also made in helping them cover some of the costs of medical care. Gradually, such measures of protection were extended to cover other areas like housing, and were made available to broader and broader classes of people.

In the liberal view, then, we have a sea of misery, scarcely diminished at all by voluntary charitable efforts. Government then starts moving in, setting up dikes, pushing back the sea and reclaiming the land, so to speak. In this view, while new issues may be presented for public policy, they are never really new—rather, they are only newly recognized as issues demanding public intervention. Thus the liberal point of view is paradoxically calculated to make us feel both guiltier and more arrogant. We feel guilty for not having recognized and acted on injustices and deprivations earlier, but we also feel complacently superior in comparison to our forebears, who did not recognize or act on them at all.

I have given a rather sharp and perhaps caricatured picture of the liberal view. Liberals are of course aware that new needs—and not simply new recognitions of old needs—arise. Nevertheless, the typical stance of the liberal in dealing with issues of social policy is blame—not of the unfortunates, those suffering from the ills that the social policy is meant to remove, but of society, of the political system and its leaders. The liberal stance is: for every problem there is a policy, and even if the problem is relatively new, the social system and the political system must be indicted for failing to tackle it earlier.

There is another element in the liberal view. It sees vested interests as the chief obstacle to the institution of new social policies. One such interest consists simply of those who are better off—those not in need of the social policy in question, who resist it because of the increase in taxes. But other kinds of obstructive interests are also there: real-estate people and landlords in the field of housing, employers subject to payroll taxes in the field of social security, doctors in the field of medical care, and so on.

Despite the assumption here of a conflict pitting liberals against conservatives, I would suggest that the main premises behind this general picture of social policy are today hardly less firmly held by conservatives than they are by liberals. In the American context, conservatives will differ from liberals because they want to move more slowly, give more consideration to established interests, keep taxes from going up too high. They will on occasion express a stronger concern for traditional values—work, the family, sexual restraint. But on the whole the line dividing liberals from conservatives grows steadily fainter. The Family Assistance Program, the major new reform of the welfare system proposed by the Nixon administration, will illustrate my point. Anyone who reads through the Congressional hearings on this proposal will be hard put to distinguish liberals from conservatives in terms of any naive division between those who favor the expansion of social policy and those who oppose it.

It is not only in America that one sees the merging of liberal and conservative views on social policy, and not only today. Bismarck after all stands at the beginning of the history of modern social policy. In the countries of northwest Europe, the differences over social policy between liberals and conservatives are even narrower than they are in this country. In England, very often the issue seems to turn on such questions as what kind of charges should be imposed by the National Health Service for eyeglasses or prescriptions. It was this kind of reduction in the conflicts over basic values in advanced industrial societies that in the 1950’s led Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell to formulate their ideas about “the end of ideology.” And while in the 1960’s all the old ideologies returned to these countries in force, it remains true that ideological battles between major political parties have been startlingly reduced in intensity since World War II.



Having incorporated the conservative point of view on social policy into the liberal, I will go on to the only other major perspective that means much today, the radical. The radical perspective on social policy comes in many variants, but they can all be summed up quite simply. If the liberal, and increasingly the conservative, believes that for every problem there must be a specific solution, the radical believes that there can be no particular solutions to particular problems but only a general solution, which is a transformation in the nature of society itself.

This point of view has consequences, just as the liberal point of view does. If, for example, the conservative proposes a guaranteed annual income of $1,600 for a family of four, and the liberal proposes that the figure be doubled or tripled, the radical will feel quite free to demand an even higher minimum. He knows that his figure is unlikely to be adopted, but he also knows that he can cite this failure as proof of his contention that the system cannot accommodate decent social demands. If, on the other hand, his policy or something like it is taken seriously, he can hope for a greater degree of class conflict as demands that are very difficult to implement are publicized and considered. And even if his policy is implemented, the radical remains firm in his faith that nothing has changed: the new policy is after all only a palliative; it does not get to the heart of the matter; or if it does get to the heart of the matter, it gets there only to prevent the people from getting to the heart of the largest matters of all. Indeed, one of the important tenets of radicalism is that nothing ever changes short of the final apocalyptic revolutionary moment when everything changes.

As against these two perspectives—the one that believes in a solution to every problem, and the other that believes in no solution to any problem save revolutionary change—I want to present a somewhat different view of social policy. This view is based on two propositions:

  1. Social policy is an effort to deal with the breakdown of traditional ways of handling distress. These traditional mechanisms are located primarily in the family, but also in the ethnic group, the neighborhood, and in such organizations as the church and the landsmanschaft.
  2. In its effort to deal with the breakdown of these traditional structures, however, social policy tends to encourage their further weakening. There is, then, no sea of misery against which we are making steady headway. Our efforts to deal with distress themselves increase distress.

I do not mean to suggest any automatic law. I do suggest processes.

One is the well-known revolution of rising expectations. This revolution is itself fed by social policies. Their promise, inadequately realized, leaves behind a higher level of expectation, which a new round of social policy must attempt to meet, and with the same consequences. In any case, by the nature of democratic (and perhaps not only democratic) politics, again and again more must be promised than can be delivered. These promises are, I believe, the chief mechanisms in educating people to higher expectations. But they are, of course, reinforced by the enormous impact of mass literacy, the mass media, and expanding levels of education. Rising expectations continually enlarge the sea of felt and perceived misery, whatever may happen to it in actuality.

Paralleling the revolution of rising expectations, and adding similarly to the increasing difficulties of social policy, is the revolution of equality. This is the most powerful social force in the modern world. Perhaps only Tocqueville saw its awesome potency. For it not only expresses a demand for equality in political rights and in political power; it also represents a demand for equality in economic power, in social status, in authority in every sphere. And just as there is no point at which the sea of misery is finally drained, so, too, is there no point at which the equality revolution can come to an end, if only because as it proceeds we become ever more sensitive to smaller and smaller degrees of inequality. More important, different types and forms of equality inevitably emerge to contradict each other as we move away from a society of fixed social orders. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need”; so goes one of the greatest of the slogans invoked as a test of equality. But the very slogan itself already incorporates two terms—“abilities” and “needs”—that open the way for a justification of inequality. We live daily with the consequences of the fact that equal treatment of individuals does not necessarily lead to “equality” for groups. And we can point to a host of other contradictions as well which virtually guarantee that the slogan of “equality” in any society at all will continue to arouse passions and lead to discontent.

But in addition to the revolution in rising expectations and the revolution of equality, social policy itself, in almost every field, creates new and, I would argue, unmanageable demands. It is illusory to see social policy only as making an inroad on a problem; there are dynamic aspects to any policy, such that it also expands the problem, changes the problem, generates further problems. And for a number of reasons, social policy finds it impossible to deal adequately with these new demands that follow the implementation of the original measures.

The first and most obvious of these reasons is the limitation of resources. We in this country suffer from the illusion that there is enough tied up in the arms budget to satisfy all our social needs. Yet if we look at a country like Sweden, which spends realtively little for arms—and which, owing to its small size, its low rate of population growth, and its ethnic homogeneity, presents a much more moderate range of social problems than does the United States—we will see how even the most enlightened, most scientific, least conflict-ridden effort to deal with social problems leads to a tax budget which takes more than 40 per cent of the Gross National Product. And new items are already emerging on Sweden’s agenda of social demands that should raise that percentage even higher. For example, at present only a small proportion of Swedes go on to higher education. Housing is still in short supply and does not satisfy a good part of the population. And presumably Swedish radicals, growing in number, are capable of formulating additional demands, not so pressing, that would require further increases in taxation—if, that is, any society can go much beyond a taxation rate of 40 per cent of its Gross National Product.

In this country, of course, we still have a long way to go. By comparison with Sweden and with other developed nations (France, West Germany, and England) our taxes are still relatively low, and there is that huge 8 per cent of the GNP now devoted to arms and war that might be diverted, at least in part, to the claims of social policy. But social demands could easily keep up with the new resources. We now spend between 6 and 7 per cent of the GNP on education, and about as much on health. It would be no trick at all to double our expenditures on education, or on health, simply by taking account of proposals already made by leading experts in these fields. We could with no difficulty find enormous expenditures to make in the field of housing. And quite serious proposals (I believe they are serious) are now put forward for a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for a family of four, with no restrictions.

My point is not that we either could not or should not raise taxes and use the arms budget for better things. It is that, when we look at projected needs, and at the experience of other countries, we know that even with a much smaller arms budget and much higher taxes, social demands will continue to press on public resources. And we may suspect that needs will be felt then as urgently as they are now.



A second limitation on the effectiveness of social policy is presented by the inevitable professionalization of services. Professionalization means that a certain point of view is developed about the nature of needs and how they are to be met. It tends to handle a problem by increasing the number of people trained to deal with that problem. First, we run out of people who are defined as “qualified” (social workers, counselors, teachers, etc.). Second, this naturally creates dissatisfaction over the fact that many services are being handled by the “unqualified.” Third, questions arise from outside the profession about the ability of the “qualified” themselves to perform a particular service properly. We no longer—and often with good reason—trust social workers to handle welfare, teachers and principals to handle education, doctors and hospital administrators to handle health care, managers to handle housing projects, and so on. And yet there is no one else into whose hands we can entrust these services. Experience tells us that if we set up new agencies it will be only a very few years before a new professionalism emerges which will be found limited and untrustworthy in its own turn. So, in the poverty program, we encouraged the rise of community-action agencies as a way of overcoming the bad effects of professionalism, and we already find that the community organizers have become another professional group, another interest group, with claims of their own which have no necessary relation to the needs of the clients they serve.

The third limitation on the effectiveness of social policy is simply lack of knowledge. We are in the surprising position of knowing much more than we did at earlier stages in the development of social policy—more about income distribution, employment patterns, family structure, health and medical care, housing and its impact, etc.—and simultaneously becoming more uncertain about what measures will be most effective, if effective at all, in ameliorating pressing problems in each of these areas. In the past, there was a clear field for action. The situation demanded that something be done; whatever was done was clear gain; little as yet was expected; little was known, and administrators approached their tasks with anticipation and self-confidence. Good administrators could be chosen, because the task was new and exciting. At later stages, however, we began dealing with problems which were in some absolute sense less serious, but which were nevertheless irksome and productive of conflict. We had already become committed to old lines of policy; agencies with their special interests had been created; and new courses of action had to be taken in a situation in which there was already more conflict at the start, less assurance of success, and less attention from the leaders and the best minds of the country.

Thus, if we look at the history of housing policy, for example, we will see that in the earlier stages—the 20’s and 30’s—there was a good deal of enthusiasm for this subject, with the housing issue attracting some of the best and most vigorous minds in the country. Since little or nothing had been done, there was a wide choice of alternatives and a supply of good men to act as administrators. In time, as housing programs expanded, the issue tended to fade from the agenda of top government. (Indeed, it has been difficult to get much White House attention for housing for two decades.) Earlier programs precluded the possibilities for new departures, and as we learned more about housing and its effects on people, we grew more uncertain as to what policies—even theoretically—would be best. Housing, like so many other areas of social policy, became, after an initial surge of interest, a field for experts, with the incursions of general public opinion becoming less and less informed, and less and less useful. This process is almost inevitable—there is always so much to know

Perhaps my explanation of the paradox of knowledge leading to less confident action is defective. Perhaps, as the liberal perspective would have it, more knowledge will permit us to take more confident and effective action. Certainly we do need more knowledge about social policy. But it also appears that whatever great actions we undertake today involve such an increase in complexity that we act generally with less knowledge than we would like to have, even if with more than we once had. This is true for example of the great reform in welfare policy—which I shall discuss below—that is now making its way through Congress.

But aside from these problems of cost, of professionalization, and of knowledge, there is the simple reality that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association. In doing so, social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents, and further encourages needy people to depend on the government, rather than on the traditional structures, for help. Perhaps this is the basic force behind the ever growing demand for social policy, and its frequent failure to satisfy the demand.



To sum up: Whereas the liberal believes that to every problem there is a solution, and the radical believes that to any problem there is only the general answer of wholesale social transformation, I believe that we can have only partial and less than wholly satisfying answers to the social problems in question. Whereas the liberal believes that social policies make steady progress in nibbling away at the agenda of problems set by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, and whereas the radical believes that social policy has made only insignificant inroads into these problems, I believe that social policy has ameliorated the problems we have inherited but that it has also given rise to other problems no less grave in their effect on human happiness than those which have been successfully modified.

The liberal has a solution, and the radical has a solution. Do I have a solution? I began this discussion by saying that the breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems. That, of course, is another way of saying industrialism and urbanization, but I put it in the terms I did because I am increasingly convinced that some important part of the solution to our social problems lies in traditional practices and traditional restraints. Since the past is not recoverable, what guidance could this possibly give? It gives two forms of guidance: first, it counsels hesitation in the development of social policies that sanction the abandonment of traditional practices, and second, and perhaps more helpful, it suggests that the creation and building of new traditions must be taken more seriously as a requirement of social policy itself.




A nation’s welfare system provides perhaps the clearest and severest test of the adequacy of its system of social policy in general. Welfare, which exists in all advanced nations, is the attempt to deal with the distress that is left over after all the more specific forms of social policy have done their work. After we have instituted what in America is called social security (and what may generally be called old-age pensions); after we have expanded it to cover widows, dependent children, and the disabled; after we have instituted a system to handle the costs of medical care, and to maintain income in times of illness; after we have set up a system of unemployment insurance; after we have enabled people to manage the exceptional costs of housing—after all this there will remain, in any industrial system, people who still require special supports, either temporarily or for longer periods of time.

In thus describing the place of welfare, or “public assistance,” in a system of social policy, I am of course describing its place in an ideal system of social policy. I do not suggest for a moment that our programs of social security, health insurance, unemployment insurance, housing, are as yet fully adequate (though as I understand these matters, even if they were better, they would still not be seen as fully adequate). The strange thing, however, is that even if we go to countries whose systems of social insurance could well serve as models of comprehensiveness and adequacy, we find that the need for welfare or public assistance still remains, and on a scale roughly comparable to our own. In Sweden, the number of persons receiving public assistance was 4.4 per cent of the population in 1959, and it was in the same year less than 4 per cent in America. In England, despite the broad range of social policy there, the number of those on Supplementary Benefits—the English welfare, formerly known as National Assistance—is of the same order of magnitude. In Sweden and England, too, we find concern, though much less than here, over the stigma of welfare, over the effects of a degrading means test, over the problem of second- and third-generation welfare families.

Why, then, do we have, or consider that we have, a greater problem than they do? One reason is that, whereas in Sweden the proportion of those on welfare declines as other forms of social insurance broaden their coverage and become more effective, quite the opposite has happened here. In this country, there has been a rise in the number of people on welfare during the past decade. The rise is not phenomenal—from 4 to 6 per cent of the population. Nor, interestingly enough, despite the increased cost of welfare, does it form a really heavy burden on the budget. The cost of welfare, though rising, still accounts for only a bit more than one per cent of the Gross National Product, and 6 per cent of the federal budget. However, it forms a greater share of state and local revenues, and in some larger cities up to 15 per cent of the population is on welfare. That is one reason it has become a serious problem.

But there are more important reasons. In Sweden and England a high proportion of those requesting public assistance are the aged; in America the aged constitute a smaller proportion of the welfare population, and families a much larger share. Indeed, our increase over the past ten years has been almost entirely concentrated in the family population, those assisted under the federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC). Here the situation is quite startling. In 1955, 30 out of every thousand American children received welfare; by 1969 this had doubled to more than 60 out of every thousand. In New York City, where eligibility has always been broad, and where the city and the state provide welfare to families not covered by the federal statute, the increase has been even more dramatic. In 1960, there were 328,000 persons on welfare in New York City, of whom 250,000 were in the family categories (children and their parents). In 1969, there were 1,012,000—about 12 or 13 per cent of the population—of whom 792,000, or four-fifths, were in the family categories. Yet during the same period, there seems to have been a drop in the number of families in poverty—from 13 to 10 per cent of all families—and the rate of unemployment was halved, from 6 per cent to 3 per cent.

A second reason why welfare is a more serious matter in America than in Sweden or England is that in those countries it is a problem of the backward areas, whereas here it is a problem of the most advanced. A third and final reason is that welfare has come to be seen in America as a regular means of family support. In England and Sweden welfare is thought of as emergency aid, provided in response to a special crisis, and meant to put a destitute family back on its feet. In America the situation of the destitute family is increasingly considered a more or less permanent condition for which provision over a very long period of time must be made.



Why should all this be so? One of the most popular explanations to be advanced is that no jobs are available for the men—mainly unskilled—who would ordinarily support these families. In fact, however, unskilled jobs were widely available in the latter part of the 60’s, just when the number of families on welfare increased so impressively. It is true that these jobs did not generally pay enough to support a family, but it is also true that large numbers of the urban unemployed were young and unmarried men and women who were not as yet required to support families on their own, though they might well have been capable of contributing to the support of the parental house-hold in which they presumably lived. (The majority of American families, as it happens, are supported by two earners, or more.)

There is a modified form of the argument that no jobs are available, which is that since the actually available jobs do not pay enough to support a family, and since there is no way for working husbands to get supplementary assistance, they are encouraged to defect in order to make their families eligible for help. But let us consider the advanced jurisdictions, like New York State, where complete families are eligible for support and have been for a long time, and where a working husband can have his income supplemented to bring it up to some necessary minimum for the support of his family. It is just in these jurisdictions that we have had the most remarkable increase in the number of families broken up by abandonment. In 1961 there were about 12,000 deserted families on welfare in New York City. In 1968, there were 80,000, a more than sixfold increase during a period when the population of the city, in overall numbers, remained stable. During the same period, there was a more moderate increase in the number of welfare families that consisted of mothers and illegitimate children, from 20,000 to 46,000. In other words, the family welfare population shifted to one overwhelmingly consisting of abandoned women and their children.

Another effort to account for the situation argues that high welfare payments in New York and other Northern cities encouraged migration from the South and from the rural areas. This probably played some role. But there is no evidence that abandoned families in these areas moved to New York in larger numbers in the 60’s than in the 50’s. And if the abandonment took place in New York, in a brisk job market, we would want to know why it took place, and migration would not be the explanation.

Then there is the view which holds that in the 1960’s—with the spread of concern about poverty, with the development of community organizations, and with the rise of such groups as the National Welfare Rights Organization—more and more of the poor discovered their entitlement to welfare, more and more became willing to apply for it, and higher and higher proportions of those applying were accepted. According to this explanation, then, it was not the poor who increased in numbers, but only the poor on welfare. This is undoubtedly part of the story. But think once again of that huge increase in the number of abandoned families on welfare. If there were just as many, or almost as many, before, what did they do to stay alive?

Still another interpretation emphasizes the fact that the levels of welfare aid in New York became higher during the 60’s. This would certainly mean that more and more workers could apply for income supplements. But why would it mean a six-and-a-half times increase in the number of abandoned families?



One must take developments in New York seriously because in many respects they can be considered a test run of the Family Assistance Program, the reform in the welfare system proposed by the Nixon administration and still working its way, after various revisions, through Congress. Without going into detail, and leaving aside the fact that welfare would acquire a national floor and a national administration, there are, I believe, four major features that distinguish the Family Assistance Program from the system we have at present.

The most important is that the working poor would be included in the same system as the non-working poor. The reasoning behind this feature is as follows. Welfare levels cannot be raised if people on welfare get as much as, or more than, people who are working. This would first of all lead to political resistance and resentment on the part of the working poor. Further, they would try to redefine themselves as incapable of work in order to get the higher benefits of the non-working poor. If, however, the working poor are also included, their resistance to higher levels of welfare will decline, and they will have less incentive to become non-working.

A second major difference is that a substantial incentive to work is built into the program. Thus, working leads not to the loss of welfare benefits but to an overall increase in the family income. Family Assistance payments are reduced when there is more earned income, but only as a proportion of the increased earnings.

Third, the grant would in part be divorced from services and from the stigma of investigation. It cannot be fully divorced from investigation—it is after all a grant based on need—but the hope is that in its administration it will become more of an impersonal income-maintenance program and less involved in the provision of help through services rather than through money.

A fourth feature of the new law is that, in addition to building in an incentive to work, it contains a requirement that everyone capable of work register for job training or for employment. If there is a father, he must register; if there is no father, the mother must register unless she has children still below school age. (This feature has been the target of much criticism, because of the element of compulsion.)

What are we to conclude about the prospects of the new system? Since all four of its features are in large measure already in existence in New York State, whose condition is not exactly of the happiest, we can be sure that Family Assistance will not succeed in “solving” the problems of welfare. What it will do is redistribute more income, and put more money into the pockets of the poor. It will raise the abysmally low welfare payments in large areas of the South. It may, by moving some part of the way toward national standards, reduce immigration to the big cities of the North. It will provide some relief—but relatively little—to the states and local jurisdictions that now are heavily burdened with welfare costs. All this is to the good. But what the new system will not do, I believe, is strengthen the family or substantially increase the number of those on welfare willing to enter the labor force. If it does, the accomplishment will be a mystery because similar arrangements have not done so in New York, nor in any of the other states in which families with unemployed males are eligible for welfare, or where a work requirement exists. The forces leading to the breakdown of male responsibility for the family among some of the poor seem greater than those the new program calls into play to counteract them.

This brings us back to my original point, and to a possible answer to the question I posed earlier as to how we can account for the dramatic increase in recent years of abandoned families on welfare. The constraints that traditionally kept families together have weakened. In some groups they may not have been strong to begin with. Our efforts to soften the harsh consequences of family breakup speak well of our compassion and concern, but these efforts also make it easier for fathers to abandon their families or mothers to disengage from their husbands. Our welfare legislation has often been harsh, and its administration harsher. But the steps we take in the direction of diminished harshness must also enhance the attractions of either abandonment or disengagement and encourage the recourse to welfare.



And yet, what alternatives do we have? This Family Assistance Program is after all the most enlightened and thoughtful legislation to have been introduced in the field of welfare in some decades.

My own tendency, following from the basic considerations I have suggested, would be to ask how we might prevent further erosion of the traditional constraints that still play the largest role in maintaining a civil society. What keeps society going, after all, is that most people still feel they should work—however well they might do without working—and most feel that they should take care of their families—however attractive it might on occasion appear to be to desert them. Consequently we might try to strengthen the incentive to work. The work-incentive provision is the best thing about Family Assistance, but we need to make it even stronger. Our dilemma is that we can never make this incentive as strong as it was when the alternative to work was starvation, or the uncertain charity of private organizations. Nor is it politically feasible to increase the incentive by reducing the levels at which we maintain the poor—if anything, the whole tendency of our thinking and feeling is to raise them, as indeed FAP does. The only alternative, then, is to increase the incentive to work by increasing the attractiveness of work. I do not suggest that this is at all simple (we know the ambiguous results, for example, of raising the minimum wage). Could we, however, begin to attach to low-income jobs the same kind of fringe benefits—health insurance, social security, vacations with pay—that now make higher-paying jobs attractive, and that paradoxically in some form are also available to those on welfare?

The dilemma of income maintenance is that, on the one hand, it permits the poor to live better, but on the other, it reduces their incentive to set up and maintain those close units of self-support—family in the first case, but also larger units—that have always, both in the past and still in large measure today, formed the fabric of society. The administration proposal is a heroic effort to improve the condition of the poor without further damage to those social motivations and structures which are the essential basis for individual security everywhere. But does not the history of our efforts to expand policies of income support suggest that inevitably improvement and damage go together?

In other critical areas of social policy, too, the breakdown of traditional measures, traditional restraints, traditional organization, represents, if not the major factor in the crisis, a significant contribution to it. Even in an area apparently so far removed from tradition as health and medical care, the weakening of traditional forms of organization can be found upon examination to be playing a substantial role, as when we discover that drug addiction is now the chief cause of death—and who knows what other frightful consequences—among young men in New York.

Ultimately, we are not kept healthy, I believe, by new scientific knowledge or more effective cures or even better-organized medical-care services. We are kept healthy by certain patterns of life. These, it is true, are modified for the better by increased scientific knowledge, but this knowledge is itself communicated through such functioning traditional organizations as the school, the voluntary organization, the family. We are kept healthy by having access to traditional means of support in distress and illness, through the family, the neighborhood, the informal social organization. We are kept healthy by decent care in institutions where certain traditionally-oriented occupations (like nursing and the maintenance of cleanliness) still manage to perform their functions. I will not argue the case for the significance of traditional patterns in maintaining health at length here; but I believe it is a persuasive one.



One major objection, among many, that can be raised against the emphasis I have placed on tradition has to do with the greater success of social policy in a country like Sweden which shows a greater departure from traditionalism than America does. And it is indeed true that social services in Sweden, and England as well, can be organized without as much interference from tradition-minded interest groups of various kinds (including the churches) as we have to contend with in this country. Certainly this is an important consideration. But I would insist that behind the modern organization of the social services in the advanced European countries are at least two elements that can legitimately and without distortion be called traditional.

One is authority. Authority exists when social workers can direct clients, when doctors can direct nurses, when headmasters can direct teachers, when teachers can discipline students and can expect acquiescence from parents. Admittedly this feature of traditionalism itself serves the movement away from tradition in other social respects. The authority will be used, as in Sweden, to institute sex education in the schools, to insure that unmarried girls have access to contraceptives, to secure a position of equality for illegitimate children.

But then another feature that can legitimately be called traditional—ethnic and religious homogeneity—sets limits in these countries on how far the movement away from the traditional—toward indeed a new tradition—may be carried. In America, by contrast, it is the very diversity of traditions—ethnic, religious, and social—that makes it so hard to establish new forms of behavior that are universally accepted and approved. and that also makes it impossible to give the social worker, the teacher, the policeman, the judge, the nurse, even the doctor, the same authority they possess in more homogeneous countries.

But there is a more basic sense in which tradition is stronger in the countries of Western Europe than here. Whatever the situation with sex education and with the laws governing illegitimacy, divorce is less frequent in Sweden and England, responsibility for the rearing of children is still consistently placed within the family, and the acceptance of work as a normal pattern of life is more widespread and less challenged. In England and Sweden it is still taken for granted that the aim of welfare is to restore a man to a position in which he can work, earn his living, support his family. And indeed the psychological damage that renders a man unfit for work, and the ideology arguing against the desirability of work, are so little known in England and Sweden that the restoration of family independence is a fair and reasonable objective of welfare. But this is no longer a reasonable view of welfare for substantial parts of the American population. It is in this core sense that America has gone further in the destruction of tradition than other countries. In doing so, America comes face to face, more sharply than any other country yet has, with the limits of social policy.




1 This definition excludes measures aimed at influencing the entire economic or physical environment, even though such measures certainly have some claim to be considered as falling within the realm of social policy and may well be evaluated in terms of their effect on those vulnerable elements of the population who are the special target of social policy. Education, too, falls increasingly into the sphere of social policy, particularly when it is seen as a means of protecting people from poverty and destitution. The same is true of the control of crime, particularly if we see it as a response to poverty and destitution. I shall, however, exclude both these areas from my discussion.

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