Can Welfare Programs Be Immoral?

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Coauthored by Lisa Conyers

Programs that provide help to the poor appear benign. That so many working Americans willingly pay taxes to assist those less fortunate seems to be the very essence of decency and generosity.

Yet over the years we have increasingly come to see that welfare programs can actually harm those they are supposed to help. President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, referring to the many welfare programs operating during his administration, was clearly concerned about their effects: "Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration," he said. "To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."

Former Florida Congressman Steve Southerland addressed the same issue from a different angle. "Being dependent makes you more vulnerable," he said to a welfare recipient in a 2013 Washington Post interview. "I believe that if you are going to eat, you should bring something to the table. That can be volunteering. That can be delivering Meals on Wheels, but somehow you've got to contribute."

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made much the same point when he wrote in 2012 that "This is painful for a liberal to admit, but America's safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency." He had recently visited a number of welfare recipients in Jackson, Kentucky and was appalled to find that some parents were pulling their young children out of literacy classes so that their families would continue to qualify for "disability" welfare. "Moms and dads fear that if their kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having a disability," he reported. "The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the [Supplemental Security Income] check," a literacy program teacher told him. "It's heartbreaking."

Many other people believe that welfare has undermined families. African American economics professor Walter Williams puts it starkly, asserting that the welfare state has done "what even slavery couldn't do... and that is to destroy the black family."

How do people on welfare themselves feel about this? We recently interviewed more than 100 of them around the country, and learned that most welfare recipients hate the system. They hate being poor and they feel trapped, because the current system keeps them poor. When a welfare recipient's income reaches a certain threshold, for example, the funds are cut off -- creating a frightening "benefits cliff." As a result, welfare recipients are punished -- often severely -- for getting jobs. As one mother in Georgia put it, "The minute I do any work, they say, "Oh, no, no, no. Now we have to reduce your welfare because you made a little money." Today she's afraid to earn anything at all.

In short, our welfare system ensures that work carries financial risk instead of financial reward -- something that goes against the very core of what most Americans believe, and against the things that make us feel valued as human beings. It is hard to see this as anything but morally wrong.

After the 1996 welfare reforms which required that beneficiaries work in order to participate, two studies examined what happened to the Subjective Well Being of single mothers. It rose after they entered the workforce. "These women experienced an increase in life satisfaction, greater optimism about the future, and more financial satisfaction," noted one researcher, "and the mothers' employment after welfare reform can plausibly explain the gains." The second study concluded that "It appears...that the package of welfare and tax policy changes [requiring work] increased happiness." Even relatively menial work, in seems, made these single mothers happier.

People have an innate need to accomplish things. Our sense of self-worth requires that we contribute to society, to our families, to others. On welfare people are deprived of this opportunity. Their pride and dignity are undermined.

Work is the antidote, but our welfare system is notably bad at encouraging work and getting people into jobs. Most welfare programs have no work or work training requirements. Only one program - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - has any training or job-placement components and that program is small, using only 2 to 3 percent of the welfare budget.

One man on welfare in the Bronx pointed out that no jobs were posted at his welfare office. "Every time you go in to an appointment they should tell you about jobs, instead of food stamps and cash assistance," he said. And a welfare recipient we met in Colorado pleaded, "Don't keep us down." Reflecting the views of many welfare recipients, she said, "Give us programs that help us get back up."

It is time to change our welfare system with such recipients in mind instead of supporting a lifestyle of dependency and penalizing those who have the courage to try to pull themselves out of it.


Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers are co-authors of The Human Cost of Welfare, just released by Praeger Publishers.