A culture of dependency is defined as a type of culture that relies upon, and comes to expect, state benefits and other support to maintain it. Overall the usage is best related to the neoconservative supply-side view of welfare in the 1990s. The argument of a culture of dependency assumes the position that entitlements lead to poverty by reducing the work ethic and regenerating dependency on state benefits. Following the lead of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, political attacks on a culture of dependency in Europe’s social democratic states began with Tony Blair in Great Britain and Gerhard Schroder in Germany in the 1990s.
In the United States, policies reducing welfare payouts by the Ronald Reagan administration and, later, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill of 1996, titled Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), were predicated on the concept of changing a culture of dependency. Along with TANF, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed to reduce welfare dependency and encourage work. The policies required individuals to become “job ready” and work to be eligible for welfare benefits. Between 1996 and 2002 there were 4.7 million fewer welfare-dependent Americans as defined by having 50 percent or more of a family’s income coming from TANF, food stamps, or Supplemental Social Insurance. The U.S. welfare reform laws also limit cash awards to 5 years.
The attack on welfare and a culture of dependency occurred as Western countries moved toward neoliberalism, fiscal conservatism, and free-market strategies. Along with attempts at reducing the size of government in Western nations came an emphasis on decentralization and deregulation. The 1994 conservative U.S. Congress played a key role in the philosophy of welfare reform and the attack on the idea of a culture of dependency. The policies of workfare were a result of this critique of dependency culture.
Welfare Reform and the Third Way
The culture of dependency argument holds that chronic low income among entitlement recipients results from welfare benefits and not personal inadequacies. The generosity of the welfare state reduces self-reliance and responsibility. The main ideas of this perspective originated with the concept of a culture of poverty argument in the 1960s, along with debates on the existence of an underclass in the 1980s. Both held that poverty in third world countries and poor communities in developed countries rested on a set of behaviors learned inside those poor communities. The culture of dependency argument draws on historical attacks on welfare, with a central focus on the undeserving poor and abuse of entitlements. According to advocates of the culture of dependency argument, welfare reduces the will of individuals to work. Other aspects of the argument are that welfare causes a decline in family values linked to child illegitimacy and a rise in the number of single-parent families. The assumption is that, when faced with opportunity, individuals with entitlements will not work if it requires too much effort to secure a small rise in income.
Social theorists identify a culture of dependency with other social problems, including family breakdown, addiction, and educational failure. Those critical of socialist welfare states and entitlements make the argument that the welfare state leads to passive actors and inhibits enterprise among dependents. The welfare reforms of the 1990s thus evolved with ideas of creating a new contract making recipients accountable, while using market solutions to end poverty. Supporters of the doctrine of the Third Way argue for a smaller role for the state, while emphasizing accountability and personal responsibility. They argue for a stakeholder approach to entitlements where the state does not guarantee long-term support. In Australia and New Zealand, social reforms also led to critical responses to the welfare state and the culture of dependency.
Critics of the Culture of Dependency Argument
Critics of this stance argue that welfare has not created dependency as much as it has produced an isolated population with few options. They point to welfare as a form of social control for capitalism and the idea of dependency as a myth used to dismantle the system under neoliberalism. Liberals and leftists argue that many single parents are trapped not by dependency on benefits but by the absence of affordable child care and a lack of decent jobs.
The idea of a culture of dependency has also been applied in international development perspectives on social problems faced by developing nations. Perspectives on poverty reduction strategies use the idea to describe the culture of dependency of poor people, including indigenous populations faced with colonialism, uneven development, and exploitation due to global capitalism. Development theorists point to dependency on limited benefits as a byproduct of land concentration, debt, and other social problems. World system and dependency perspectives criticize neoliberalism as a main cause of a culture of dependency in developing nations. Unlike the Third Way, they draw on dependency theory emphasizing the role of power and conflict in creating a culture of dependency. These approaches concentrate on development initiatives which include capacity building and institutional accountability.
- Dean, Hartley and Peter Taylor-Gooby. 1992. Dependency Culture: The Explosion of a Myth. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.
- Giddens, Anthony. 2000. The Third Way and Its Critics. Oxford, England: Polity Press.
- Midgley, James. 1997. Social Welfare in Global Context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Robertson, James. 1998. Beyond Dependency Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
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