Letter: US welfare system

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Sir: Polly Toynbee's interesting analysis of welfare in Wisconsin (24 November) is, as she points out, based on a state with a well-known reputation for liberal attitudes and one where there is as close to full employment as you might find anywhere in the United States.

The real problem emerges in other states, often in the South, without a history of sympathetic attitudes to "welfare mums". There, perhaps, the opportunity to cut funds, save money and demonise those on welfare will be uppermost in the minds of those who administer the service. Wisconsin will use the escape hatch, if necessary, of exemption from the five-year limit, but can we be so sure this will happen elsewhere?

Costs will rise dramatically in the short-term (through making available childcare, retraining etc) in order to "save" money later, as people develop the necessary skills to gain work and fend for themselves. However, this reform is occurring at a time of high employment across the United States. Come the economic downturn, the pressure to keep public spending under control will intensify and a different picture could emerge, with many state legislatures deciding that money could be better spent elsewhere. After all, Charles Murray, one of the Right's leading thinkers, has advocated the building of state orphanages to cater for the offspring of irresponsible mothers.

If new "responsible" attitudes cannot be inculcated into absentee fathers and errant females when times are good, I would not be confident that, in the end, a lot will have changed for the better. The possibility exists of a future of Dickensian misery for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. At the very least, the federal government should monitor, through information technology, this experiment in social engineering.


Senior Lecturer

Division of Politics

South Bank University

London SE1