Middle class fueled move to get people off rolls

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Government assistance to the poor has evolved as social attitudes toward poverty have changed, social historians say.

The decade-old reform of the U.S. system — and recent reauthorization of the changes — are examples.

In recent years, Americans have embraced more of a take-care-of-yourself attitude. That fueled the work requirements and time limits on payments that are the heart of today’s welfare system.

“There was a period of time when we sort of said, ‘We have a welfare problem. People need help,’” said Ed Berkowitz, a history professor at George Washington University who has written extensively on the evolution of U.S. programs. “Now, it’s, ‘No, it’s a question of responsibility.’ We’re in a fix yourself mode. It’s about accountability.”

Before the 1935 Social Security Act — a precursor to today’s program — there was federal and state assistance to those in financial straits. It was mostly limited to pensions that provided money to widows with children.

The Great Depression convinced Americans that job losses and the financial hardships that followed weren’t always the worker’s fault.

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