The stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression of 1929 brought with it an uproar that American society had never been seen before. That Depression lasted a decade, hitting its low in 1933, leaving more than 15 million Americans unemployed. America’s economic state during the Depression not only brought about great financial concerns, but concerns about the responsibility of government.
Franklin D. Roosevelt took office towards the middle of the Great Depression, in 1933, and proposed a series of programs referred to as the New Deal. The programs were a direct response to American society’s outcry for help. They provided assistance to the youth, the elderly, farmers, people of color, and the unemployed. The New Deal truly changed the role of the government, and established a sense of community even in times of absolute disaster.
Fast forward to 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA)—a welfare reform plan. The PRWOA changed the welfare program by mandating work in exchange for temporary government assistance. The purpose of PRWOA was to transition welfare recipients into workers contributing to the American economy. Though there are some valuable propositions in the reform, such as increased funding for childcare and guaranteed medical coverage—what has really come about from PRWOA is the exploitation of the unemployed. It has created harsher realities for individuals seeking government assistance. Former welfare recipients are not working full-time or full-year and are therefore not able to receive substantial benefits from employers. Most were earning between $6.00 and $8.00 per hour in 2001. Definitive conclusions about the relationship of welfare reform to family and child well-being are problematic for at least three reasons. First, welfare programs vary across states and communities in their programmatic emphases and in the types of support available. Second, these programs target adult behaviors and measure success in terms of economic indicators, rather than employing a multidimensional assessment of family and child well-being. Third, much of the existing research is based on samples drawn from experimental welfare programs that predate the 1996 law. Instead of gradually helping welfare recipients back into the workforce, it has created a system for their desperation to be up for sale.
The success of PRWOA can be argued by both sides of the spectrum and I will tackle that debate another day. What is up for discussion now is the question: “What do we owe to each other?” If your neighbor’s house burns down do you give them a place in your home, or do you bring them items of necessity (toilet paper, food, etc.)? Both are acceptable means of aid, and helpful in their own way. The correct answer is: you do what you can. That’s what I think being in a community entails. Our contributions to each other cannot be quantified because they differ from person to person. The PRWOA has brought us a delusion that we are each our own, erasing the sense of community based on the merit that people are not worthy of our aid. To a degree, I agree that it is one’s own responsibility to have food on the table, to work hard, to provide for a family. However, if there are external factors that prevent individuals from fulfilling their duties, such as their race, gender, class, or ethnicity, then it changes the whole game, and personal responsibility includes our responsibility to each other.
E Pluribus Unum—Latin for “Out of many, one”—is the 13-letter traditional motto of the United States, appearing on the Great Seal. It refers to the Union formed by the separate states, adopted as a national motto in 1776, and also appears on our currency. It took the population of thirteen colonies to unite in order to stand against British rule, and became a nation. It is also the phrase that should be dictating America’s social, economic and political agenda. If we begin to construct our lives solely on personal gain, then what is the purpose of civilization, community, and families? If we cannot lift each other as we climb, being on the mountaintop will get pretty lonely. Since the 2016 elections we have been divided in two parties—Democrats and Republicans. Every issue has become an argument over which party you support rather than how to support each other and prosper, together. America is made of many different faces, different shades, different values, but we are one nation and its important that we operate as one.