Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 4 No. 1 (Winter 1990)


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The Economist's Lament: Public Assistance in America

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Burtless, Gary. 1990. "The Economist's Lament: Public Assistance in America." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(1): 57-78.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.4.1.57


This survey will provide a brief summary of the main features of the U.S. welfare system together with an assessment of some major criticisms of it. I will discuss major reforms proposed by economists and consider some recent evidence about the behavioral effects of welfare and alternatives to it. In the 1960s, many optimists believed that better research on welfare programs and the poor would result in improved policy making. In light of the absence of fundamental reform, it might seem that the new information has tended to support the status quo or to undercut proposed reforms to it. Although unsatisfactory, perhaps the current system is less unsatisfactory than any of the alternatives. I shall argue in the conclusion that much of the new evidence has turned out to be irrelevant to the main points at issue among advocates and opponents of fundamental reform.

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Burtless, Gary (Brookings Institution)

JEL Classifications

911: General Welfare Programs


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