Social Decline, Family Breakdown and the Welfare State

Welfare dependency has been a real mixed bag:

As governments increase in size and scope, so does the nanny state, and the turn away from individual responsibility. Decision making increasingly is handed over to various elites, politicians, social workers and bureaucrats who pay no price in any mistakes they make, or bad decisions and policies they promote. Regardless of any good intentions, the results can often go spectacularly wrong.

The modern welfare state is a classic case in point. First designed to help out the deserving poor, it has mushroomed into a massive bureaucratic nightmare, causing as much harm as good – perhaps more. That is not to say that there is no place for some state support, some government assistance, for a safety net, and so on.

But what we find in most Western nations today has moved far beyond that. Services and goods that formerly were provided by individuals, families, churches, and community groups are now taken over by faceless men and women sitting in air-conditioned offices looking at spreadsheets.

Most folks understand that some bureaucrat in Canberra or London or Washington is NOT going to truly care for and really help someone like a loving neighbour, church or community group can. Prior to the advent of the modern welfare state, these were always the ones who provided much-needed help.

Lest any reader here says that as a Christian we MUST support the welfare state, a quick reply if I may. It was Jesus who told his followers that they – and not state bureaucrats – should care for the poor and needy. They are the ones who should be good Samaritans. I prefer his way of doing things.

Many things can be said about the welfare state and the culture of dependency that has grown up with it, but one key area is that of family breakdown. The facts and figures on this have been thoroughly documented and laid out for us. Yet incredibly I once had a Christian person telling me this: “Attacks on the welfare state lead to homelessness, family fragmentation, adolescent and child suicide and spiralling alcohol and drug addiction.”

Oh dear. The exact opposite is of course the case. All these social pathologies have been skyrocketing during the same time as the welfare state has been expanding. And we find no better demonstration of this than what we see happening to Black American families over the past century.

There are so many we can appeal to here, but two Black American economists and social commentators deserve to be highlighted. I refer to Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. I have an entire shelf full of their important volumes – to be precise, 28 books by Sowell and 5 by Williams.

So many of their works could be quoted from on this matter, but let me draw from just two Sowell volumes:

Wealth, Poverty and Politics, rev and enlarged ed. (Basic Books, 2016)
Discrimination and Disparities, rev and enlarged ed. (Basic Books, 2019)

In the first work he says this about the welfare state and its impact:

Black Americans, a group often identified as beneficiaries of the welfare state in America, made considerable economic progress in the twentieth century but much, if not most, of it was prior to the massive expansion of the American welfare state, beginning with the “war on poverty” programs of the 1960s. This is just one of many possible empirical tests of the social vision behind the creation and expansion of the welfare state. p. 281

Consider just one set of figures:

As of 1940, 87 percent of black families in the United States lived below the poverty line. But this declined to 47 percent by 1960, as black education and urban job experience increased in the wake of the mass migrations of blacks out of the South. This 40 percentage point drop in the black poverty rate ‘occurred prior to both the civil rights laws and the “war on poverty” social welfare programs of the 1960s. Over the next 20 years, from 1960 to 1980, the black poverty rate dropped an additional 18 points’ — significant, but the continuation of a preexisting trend at a slower pace, rather than being a new result from new civil rights laws and welfare state policies, as so often claimed.


There were dramatic increases in the number of black elected officials in the South after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But nothing similarly dramatic occurred in black economic advancement as a result of the civil rights laws of the 1960s. In some important social ways, actual retrogressions set in.


Arguably the most consequential of these social retrogressions was the decline in two-parent families. . . . In addition, there was an increase in crime and violence, including ghetto riots. The first in a series of such riots across the country erupted in Los Angeles, just days after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.


This eruption of violence was contrary to the prevailing political and social vision of the times, in which problems among blacks were automatically assumed to be due to deficiencies in the way white people treated them. But such riots were less common in the South, where racial discrimination in laws and practices remained more common. By contrast, the worst of these riots— with 43 people killed, 33 of whom were black— occurred in Detroit, where the black unemployment rate was 3.4 percent and black home ownership was higher than in any other major city. Yet no such facts made a dent in the prevailing social vision. pp. 282-283

Image of Discrimination and Disparities
Discrimination and Disparities by Sowell, Thomas (Author) Amazon logo

In the second book he offers more facts and figures and evidence-based argumentation:

In both Britain and the United States, the prevailing social vision — endlessly repeated and reinforced in the schools, the media and intellectual circles — depicted social pathology as caused by poverty and oppression. Yet in both countries – and others – after the welfare state produced higher living standards for low income people, the social degeneracy that this was supposed to reduce, rose instead to far higher levels. p. 176

And this:

While the welfare state helped raise the material standard of living of low-income people, the social vision that created the welfare state also featured an undermining of behavioral standards and moral values. In New York, for example, the earlier housing projects screened applicants and screened out people with a history of “alcoholism, irregular work history, single motherhood and lack of furniture.” In short, it was judgmental and exclusive—contrary to the taboos of the new social vision that began its triumph in the 1960s. The New York City Housing Authority, for example, “loosened its selectivity in 1968, under immense pressure from the federal government and social justice activists.”


In the world of words, the “social justice” vision has triumphed, far beyond New York or even the United States. But, in the world of reality, there have been consequences unlike anything envisioned by “social justice” advocates—and the consequences have extended far beyond public housing projects, which are only one of the many places where social degeneration became painfully visible. However commendable the intentions, the actual consequences of that vision have been toxic, and especially so for those who were expected to be its principal beneficiaries. p. 178

One final quote:

In addition to the reversals of declining social pathologies in America, other social pathologies, which had existed before, expanded to new magnitudes. These included fatherless children and urban riots. As of 1960, two-thirds of all black American children were living with both parents. That declined over the years, until only one-third were living with both parents in 1995. Fifty-two percent were living with their mother, 4 percent with their father and 11 percent with neither. Among black families in poverty, 85 percent of the children had no father present.


Although white American families did not have nearly as high a proportion of children living with one parent as black American families had in 1960, nevertheless the 1960s marked a sharp upturn in white children born to single mothers, to levels several times what they had been in the decades immediately preceding the 1960s. By 2008, nearly 30 percent of white American children were born to single mothers. Among white women with less than 12 years of education, more than 60 percent of their children were born to single mothers in the first decade of the twenty-first century.


These social patterns were not peculiar to the United States, but were common in a number of Western societies. A study in England, for example, noted: “Births outside marriage were generally about four or five per cent of all births between 1900 and the early 1960s. They have now reached 40 per cent.” Countries where more than 40 percent of children were born to single mothers included France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.


These have not been simply inevitable consequences of modernization…. p. 180

This is just a tiny sampling of the evidence from two books from one author. I could offer tens of thousands of more words here trying to summarise the various bits of data on this. The conclusion is clear: despite what might have begun with good intentions, much of the modern welfare state has had a devastating impact on families.

Please bear in mind that neither I nor Sowell are arguing that the welfare state is the sole cause of these and other problems that we face today. Other factors can be mentioned, such as the increasing secularisation of the West. Also, there are militant activist groups in the culture wars that have made clear their intent to destroy the institutions of marriage and family, and so on. But welfare dependency and governments usurping the roles of others have been major contributing factors.

And as Sowell has said so often elsewhere, politicians and bureaucrats seldom if ever have to pay the price for their mistakes, lack of wisdom, and just plain bad policy recommendations. Indeed, three brief quotes from Sowell nicely sums things up here:

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”

“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

Those who cry out that the government should ‘do something’ never even ask for data on what has actually happened when the government did something, compared to what actually happened when the government did nothing.”

[1745 words]

7 Replies to “Social Decline, Family Breakdown and the Welfare State”

  1. While still at uni I got a job over the Christmas holidays which resulted in me working with one lady whose educational background was … interesting. She’d gone to a special school – not entirely sure why since she wasn’t handicapped in any way I could perceive, and she mentioned one time or another that they’d been taught at school to get knocked up and to live off the taxpayer thereafter.

    Who needs a man to provide when taxpayers will be far more generous and less demanding?

    It was advice she didn’t take – she was happily married when I knew her, though did have kids, but has social welfare supplanted family for financial support?

    I’m obviously not talking aged pension, disability, or veteran benefits, which are separate issues, but has what seemed like a good idea morphed into something that now causes as much or more harm than good?And if so can it be reformed? Is this largely a consequence of Atheistic assumptions and beliefs supplanting Christian norms and values? If it is the case, then perhaps the harm caused is a direct, though unofficially unintended, natural consequence of the move away from God’s standards, but attempts to reform\improve things will be opposed by those whose faith is in a system, and values, diametrically at odds with their Creator’s.

    Bill mentions the increasing secularisation\(Christophobia) of the West, and the militants wanting to smash the God’s family design, but doesn’t consider what share of those involved with shaping and operating social welfare will be from these groups.

    Hope this is coherent. Rather brain fogged tonight. :-\

  2. Thanks Andrew. We know that the left has urged the ‘long march through the institutions’ so a good many folks – but not all of course – in areas like social welfare work and related fields may well have the leftist vision in mind. As such they may well be deliberately contributing to the problems of social decay and family breakdown. And then there is the old truism that those who work in areas of ‘correcting’ problems can have a vested interest in ensuring that that there are always plenty of such problems around! They do not want to work themselves out of a job.

  3. The Conservative UK conservative government had just pledged to provide free child care from the age of 9 months until the age of 5 when the schools will take over care of the children. thus freeing up mothers to go to work, enabling them to pay impossible mortgages, rents and cost of living. So this is what progress and utopia look like.

    Me thinks that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt meeting children at a nursery after delivering his Budget earlier in the day on 15 March this year, has a look of madness in his eyes.

    David Skinner UK

  4. Thanks David. Yes, too often governments of both left and right have imbibed too deeply of the statist vision of things. In the US there is less and less difference between Republican and Democrat in this regard. Same here in Australia with Liberal and Labor too often singing from the same song sheet. This is true in so much of the West.

  5. I’m afraid that this is one of those issues where I’ll have to disagree with you again, Bill. I am a staunch supporter of the welfare state because it is wholly compatible with, and supplements, Christian pastoral responsibilities to assist the weak and vulnerable. And here’s one of the problems I have with anti-welfare policies in particular. Before 1990, New Zealand paid a domestic purposes benefit at sufficient levels to support single mothers to care for their children, and bear in mind that for many low-income pro-life single mothers, it meant that they could say no to abortion and respect the life of their unborn child. The NZ Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (as it was then) even had a pro-life solo mother on one of its advertisements. In 1990, one of the first things that the hardline libertarian National Party did was slash the DPB. Predictably, the abortion rate shot up rapidly during its first term in office and it did nothing to restrict abortion access. The consequence therefore was that ensuing generations of young women were forced into having abortions rather than keeping their babies and according to crisis pregnancy centre friends, we are witnessing the consequences in post-abortion trauma and grief for many of those women now. But hey, government spending was saved, so ‘all good’, right? Wrong. What I am worried about is that the National Party and ACT are going to imitate the British Conservatives and slash disabled peoples benefit assistance, which has caused massive misery, homelessness and suicide amongst disabled people in the United Kingdom. Quite by ‘coincidence,’ the radical libertarian ACT is talking liberalising our new euthanasia laws if it’s in the drivers seat after the forthcoming New Zealand election. Whatever’s the case in the United States, it should not be the case for New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain.

  6. Thanks again Rhona. Yes we will have to disagree. But sadly I sometimes wonder if those coming to my site to dispute things have actually bothered to read what I wrote. When a small mountain of data and statistics are marshalled, only to be blissfully ignored, one can get a bit frustrated!

    Had you read this piece carefully, you would have seen that I clearly stated that there is a “place for some state support, some government assistance, for a safety net, and so on.” Sometimes there can be good policies in this area – sometimes not. They all must be carefully assessed, with the overall and long-term impact taken into account. (And so-called conservative governments can be just as bad as leftists ones in terms of statism spinning out of control.)

    And I also made it clear here and in my other articles that there are of course “Christian pastoral responsibilities to assist the weak and vulnerable.” That believers should help others is NOT in dispute here, so please stop the straw man fallacies. What is at issue is how best to help others. Which policies actually work, and which cause more harm than good?

    If you want to spin Scripture and run with ‘The State is my shepherd, I shall not want…,” or pretend that Jesus had bureaucrats in Jerusalem or Auckland in mind when he told his personal disciples to feed the poor and help the needy, that is up to you. But I then won’t be too keen to take advice from you when it comes to what the Bible says about Christian social responsibility.

    And had you read this piece carefully you will see I mention more than the US. Indeed, if you ever read some of the authors and their meticulous research they have presented over many decades on this, you will see that “New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain” are ALL covered – and in very great detail. I simply focused on the US since it is my home country. Pretending that other nations are not having massive problems with family breakdown and the like – often aided and abetted by bad government policies, including welfare dependency – helps no one.

    And sadly here is another indication of your desperation to make a point, no matter how fallacious and incorrect your assertions are. Um, secular left governments pushing euthanasia have NOTHING to do with critiques of statist welfarism. Talk about a red herring! And guess what? Canberra is NOT some libertarian free-market utopia. It is as statist and leftist as they come. So please, at least get the basic facts right here!

    But sadly, I realise that too often some folks have made up their minds on some issues, and no amount of evidence and statistical support will sway them. That really is not how we should proceed.

    In sum, might I suggest that before you rush to pen a reply, you take some time to read some of the things I have recommended on this topic. Just one example for starters: a British woman that I know personally has written often on these issues, including this older but still very useful book:

  7. When our oldest child was very young, I sometimes pushed her in the pram to a playground in a nearby park. This involved walking through one of the poorest neighbourhoods in our city. One day, I passed a mother with her roughly 10-year old girl. As they looked at my daughter, the mother said to her girl, “When you’re 16, you can have one like that.”

    Somehow, I don’t think she was talking about getting married at that age!

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