America's Not Faring Well on Welfare

Over the last two generations, most of the improvements in the material standard of living of America's poor have proceeded not from the welfare system per se but by advances in technology and the affordability of goods that have come through the normal workings of free markets. As of the middle of the previous decade, for example,

• 46% of all poor households (defined by the Census Bureau) own their own homes, with on average, 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, a garage, and a porch or patio.
• 76% of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36% of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
• Only 6% of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
• The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
• Nearly 75% of poor households own a car; 30% own two or more cars.
• 97% of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
• 78% percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 % have cable or satellite TV reception.
• 73% own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

Against this background of capitalism's magic, the burgeoning welfare state has accompanied increases in dependency and a decline in social mobility. Crony corporatism, contributing hugely to American poverty, has also accompanied these trends, and I have written against it extensively, but a serious engagement with the well-being of our fellow Americans demands an honest look at the pillar of our redistributive system whose stated purpose is to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity. That pillar is state-delivered welfare in the broadest sense.

While free markets have made being poor less painful, all of the State apparatus of re-distributions and support have made more people poor and/or kept them poorer for longer. That more than one in six Americans are on food-stamps is a national disgrace. Another ten million are living on "unemployment insurance"; another five million on welfare. And I've not included the 50 million lower-income individuals on Medicaid.

Things are particularly bad right now and many argue that it's a good thing that these figures are high, as they represent improved lives... but if governmental redistribution was succeeding over time by its stated goals, there would be a steady decline in poverty and dependency over time -- but there is not.

Most Americans who are alive today cannot imagine a society in which a social safety net can be delivered by any entity other than the state, because they have never seen it happen. But is this really the best we can do? What other mechanisms are there for people with a social conscience to support?

Certainly, simply taking an ideological stance against welfare, rather than an empirical one, when the immediate needs of many people appear to be at stake, seems to be callous. Given the undeniable presence of the poor and needy among us, there is a moral burden on those who would refuse to let the government intervene to explain why governmental help should not be provided and some other approach taken.

This moral demand can be reasonably answered, as it has been most succinctly by another British observer of these United States, speaking from experience of a British welfare system that has done more than perhaps any program in the country's modern history to destroy a productive and content society. Said Daniel Hannan, British member of the European parliament, in a speech in DC in June of this year.

What happens as welfare expands is that private morality is nationalized. The bonds that used to tie individuals together are frayed.

As background, you need to know that in the UK, one in 11 households have no working adult. Most disturbingly for anyone with a social conscience, one in six children live in a home where no parent works. These children have never been exposed to the relationship between work effort and well-being. This is beyond entitlement mentality: it is the generational hard-wiring of entitlement and poverty. America is moving in the same direction, and will get there unless active decisions are taken to prevent it, because State social programs never organically shrink -- never.

Ultimately, the failure of government programs to reduce poverty and their apparent tendency to increase dependency stem from the fact that the provider of help -- the government -- has no way of responding to the personal situation of the recipient. It cannot differentiate according to the circumstances, character or even intent of the individual whom it helps. One cause, then, of the failure of large government programs -- is not the motivation that underlies them, but their decoupling of intervention from the circumstances that precipitated the need for that intervention.

More subtly, but infinitely more destructive in the long run, is that the recipient of help is completely unconnected to the individuals taxpayers who are providing the help. Recipients cannot see the impact of the giving on those who gave. This is literally a de-humanization of a huge set of human transactions, as it eliminates the natural human responses of reciprocity and responsibility toward those who help us. Since the welfare state delivers help in a way that seems to come from no person, the perceived cost is zero. Why then, would any recipient feel grateful toward, or any moral obligation to, those who provided the help? Responsibility wouldn't need to be legislated if we had not instituted a system that demolishes it.

It's often been said that communism fell because it tried to build a socio-economic structure that failed to allow for a basic aspect of human nature (in that case, the urge to improve one's lot by one's own efforts). Why would we think that this exact same error, just concerning a different aspect of human nature (reciprocity and gratitude), would not damage our society, too?

Before the American welfare state, there were many poor, infirm and ill, as there are today, and it would have been as wrong then to ignore them as it would be today. It is hard for us not to believe that before the welfare-state, society was crueler; that too many people fell through the cracks. But in the absence of blanket government help, desperate people tended to be helped only by people in their family or immediate community, and this situation offered two important advantages over our current system: first, the recipient of charity within the community could see the sacrifice made by the others in the community that had provided time and money -- people with whom the recipient would have to coexist, perhaps even work with, eat with and socialize with. Second, those who were in a position to give that help knew something about the recipient of their help, and could thus make choices about future help based on the character and behaviors displayed by the recipient, and even the way the help was used.

This personal type of support creates a very natural incentive for people to help those who help themselves in the most positive of ways -- in ways that allow people to experience the consequences of their actions, which include the reactions of those around them, and particularly those who were kind enough to provide the support in the first place. Even as we believe in a social and economic safety net, why on earth should we prefer to have it operate in a way that dilutes our humanity and eliminates this kind of mutuality in our society -- the very same humanity and mutuality that motivates us even to provide that safety net in the first place?

Government-administered redistribution for welfare manifests the assumption that a society's response to hardship is independent of its causes, and, in particular, the choices that have led to it. Since the mechanism is so unconcerned with causes, it is little wonder that we have not been able to identify and correct them. With all the problems of our clumsy governmental mechanism of social protection, we should expect that individuals learn all of the lessons that we are teaching them in a kind of anti-Pavlov's-dogs phenomenon: that the link between actions and consequences is essentially unimportant to how society will treat individuals, who owe nothing, even gratitude, to those who fund others in their times of need. That, of course is the definition of the entitlement mentality.

This characterization is absolutely not equivalent to saying, "welfare recipients are lazy" or any other similarly crass generalization. Rather, it is to point out that removing all direct human experience of the largest single class of acts of giving and receiving that occur in our society is necessarily and hugely distorting of motivations and behaviors.

We have so many more resources and data than were available before the New Deal: in that context, another look at the social dynamics of the past, or even a brainstorming of new futures, can only help, but we must leave no cow sacred.

America is in a crisis, which may, if America is wise or lucky, prompt this nation to reconsider the basic assumptions of its modern society, and to check them against those on which the nation was founded.

At America's current cross-roads, the most important assumptions to question are the most fundamental; the most important actions to question are the most general, and the most important institutions to question are those that affect the most people.