ON RELIEF: The Economics of Poverty and Public Welfare by Bruno Stein

ON RELIEF: The Economics of Poverty and Public Welfare

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Partly a descriptive primer, partly a critique of welfare-reform proposals, this essay lacks intellectual force and social-scientific earnestness. Stein begins with an outline of the various welfare categories, the distribution of clients and aid in each group, and federal-state-local funding arrangements. A shallow discussion of the absolute poverty-line concept of poverty versus a relative concept is followed by a survey of the history of public assistance from the English Poor Laws through the Depression. Stein goes on to various technical and bureaucratic arguments against negative income plans and children's allowances. Though he does not favor making welfare mothers work for bottom wages at foul jobs, he is surprisingly uncritical of the Nixon administration's plan. At the same time he implies that ""the persistence of the work ethic"" is an irrational, prejudiced anachronism, and he purports to believe that the whole ""community makes welfare policy."" The book also refuses to spell out the political issue of ""the working poor,"" i.e. whether adequate minimum wages or taxpayers should boost their living standards. Discussion proceeds within a status-quo context, and a narrow version of that: a negative income tax might drive up the price of drugs for addicts by ""increasing demand""; if children's allowances are granted, the non-poor should be compelled to pay theirs back, but their tax forms should hide the compulsion or they'll be irate. Stein's proposal to increase the real income of the poor by expanding public services for everyone is worth developing, though he himself doesn't do so. The book falls short of the rank of Schorr, Titmuss, Riessman, the Millers et al. who are more serious about diagnosis and prescription; its most glaring failure is in the area brilliantly served by Piven and Cloward's analysis of the origins and functions of public assistance as related to general labor policies, in Regulating the Poor (p. 486).

Pub Date: July 26th, 1971
Publisher: Basic Books