Trapped in America's Safety Net

Trapped in America's Safety Net

One Family's Struggle

Andrea Louise Campbell

the Social Security Act also contained two social assistance programs: Old Age Assistance (cash payments for the impoverished elderly) and Aid to Dependent Children (ADC, later AFDC and then replaced by TANF—that is, cash “welfare” payments to poor families with children, the successor to mothers’ pensions). Unlike Old Age Insurance, Old Age Assistance and ADC were not purely federal programs, at the insistence of southern congressmen. Instead, the federal government would pay a portion of program costs, but states would retain operational control and set eligibility criteria and benefit levels. These representatives further insisted that a provision that ADC payments provide “a reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health” be stripped from the legislation. 7 Although Old Age Assistance was eventually federalized as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in 1972, the hybrid federal-state design of ADC persisted. The phenomena that we observe today—state discretion over social assistance, widely varying program parameters, and the failure of many social assistance programs to meet underlying needs—hark back to this founding era and the legacy of racial politics.

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