Press Release—Los Angeles, CA

May 19, 1968


Los Angeles, CA

Perhaps the area of our greatest domestic failure is in the system of welfare—public assistance to those in need. There is a deep sense of dissatisfaction, among recipient and government alike, about what welfare has become over the last thirty years, and where it seems to be going.

Welfare is many things to many people. To the recipient it may be the difference between life and starvation, between a house and homelessness, between the cold wind and a child’s coat. To the taxpayer—facing inflation in the cost of living, paying for his home and educating his children—welfare may be an unwarranted imposition on an already overburdened tax bill. To certain politicians, willingness to oversimplify and confuse the issue, it may be a means to easy popularity…

The bill is rising further every day.

With all this enormous expenditure, might we not expect that the recipient would be satisfied? Yet the fact is that they are not. They are as dissatisfied with the welfare system as is anyone in the U.S.

…Is this rank ingratitude—or is it an indication of how the welfare system has failed? For what we are to make of a system which seems to satisfy neither giver nor recipient—which embitters all those who come in contact with it?

The worst problem in our very concept of welfare…Welfare began as a necessary program of assistance for those unable to work. But we have tried as well to make it the easy answer to the complex, but by no means insurmountable, problem of unemployment…

[The unemployed] are men like other men. They marry and have children; or they do not marry but have children just the same. In either case, they often leave home under strain of joblessness and poverty. We have dealt with the resulting female-headed families not by putting the men to work but by giving the mothers and children welfare. They might have wanted fathers and husbands; we have given them checks. In fact, the welfare system itself has created many of these fatherless families—by requiring the absence of a father as a condition for receiving aid; no one will ever know how many left their families to let them qualify for assistance so that they might eat, or find a place to live.

More basically, welfare itself has done much to divide our people, to alienate us one from the other. Partly this separation comes from the understandable resentment of the taxpayer, helplessly watching your welfare rolls and your property tax rise. But there is greater resentment among the poor, the recipient of our charity. Some of it comes from the brutality of the welfare system itself; from the prying bureaucrat, an all-powerful administrator deciding at his desk who is deserving and who is not, who shall live another month and who may starve next week.

But the root of the problem is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do—which means nothing to do with the rest of us. To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizen, is to be in truth the Invisible Man of whom Ralph Eillison wrote…

We often quote Lincoldn’s warning that America could not survive half-slave and half-free. Nor can it survive while millions of our people are slaves to dependency and poverty, waiting on the favor their fellow citizens to write them checks. Fellowship, community, shared patriotism—these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together. They come from a shared sense of individual independence and personal effort.

They come from working together to build a country—that is the answer to the welfare crisis.

The answer to the welfare crisis is work, jobs, self-sufficiency, and family integrity; not a massive new extension of welfare; not a great new outpouring of guidance counselors to give the poor more advice. We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay; the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, “I helped to build this country, I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.”…

It is a myth that all the problems of poverty can be solved by ultimate extension of the welfare system to guarantee to all, regardless of their circumstances, a certain income paid for by the federal government. Any such scheme, taken alone, simply cannot provide the sense of self-sufficiency, of participation in the life of the community, that is essential for citizens of a democracy…

Certainly, all the proposals for various systems for income maintenance deserve careful study. But if there is anything we have learned in the last three years, it is that we cannot do everything at once—that we must understand, establish, and adhere to a clear sense of national priorities. The priority here is jobs. To give priority to income would be to admit defeat on the critical battlefront…

Work is a mundane and unglamorous word. Yet it is, in a real sense, the meaning of what the country is all about—for those of us who live in affluent suburbs and for our children no less than for the children of the ghetto. Human beings need a purpose. We need it as individuals; we need to sense it in our fellow citizens; and we need it as a society and as a people.