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Since the late 1990s, the idea of welfare dependency influenced Australian debates over social policy. The idea of welfare dependency is that long-term reliance on income support payments can weaken a person’s character or create a ‘culture of dependency’ that can spread across communities and pass from parents to children. Character is understood in terms of ‘self-discipline or self-control.’ A ‘culture of dependency’ is understood as an attitude of fatalism and defeatism.

According to this idea, dependent individuals become resistant to economic opportunity and are likely to remain on income support payments even when jobs are available. From this perspective, the problem of welfare dependence cannot be solved simply by providing income support recipients with opportunities for education, training and work or access to services designed to overcome barriers such as lack of access to childcare or transport.

This paper explores the historical context of the idea of welfare dependency. It does not attempt to settle debates over whether welfare dependency is a real problem, or its merits as a guide to policy-making.

The term ‘welfare dependency’ was popularised in the United States and spread to other English-speaking countries during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the underlying idea is much older. While commentators sometimes link the idea of welfare dependency with neoliberalism and economists like Friedman and Hayek, ‘welfare dependency’ is a new name for ideas that predate the influence of economic liberals like Friedman and Hayek on social policy debate.

Debates over welfare dependency revive 19th century ideas about pauperism and reinterpret 1960s ideas about a culture of poverty. US thinkers like Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Marvin Olasky draw explicitly on 19th century ideas about poverty and pauperism. Thinkers like Lawrence Mead adapt 1960s theories of a culture of poverty to inform their recommendations for welfare reform policies.

The current debate over welfare dependency reproduces many of the themes of earlier debates, such as that dependency is like an addictive drug; a poison or a contagious disease that can spread through communities; or a way of life that is passed from parents to children.

While the term welfare dependency is sometimes used to refer narrowly to the receipt of certain income support payments, it cannot be easily separated from the broader idea of dependency and can imply a particular position on issues of causation and moral responsibility.

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