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Posted by on Jul 31, 2011 in Politics, Society | 16 comments

America Is 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.

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Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice
  • PJBFan

    This is quite possibly the BEST explanation of why the US Welfare State will fail, and fail it will. This fact was explicitly foretold by DP Moynihan, a sin for which LBJ ran him out of Washington.

  • DLS

    Somebody beat me to Moynihan (not only in 1965, either).

    And yes, it’s culturally related — not totally, but substantially.


  • DLS

    Please remember, too, that the modern welfare state model was created during different times — the model is obsolescent now, and while we’ll still have a welfare state, it’ll be subject to rationalization and reform, as it will have to be, because demographics make it (not only the entitlements directed at the elderly, which everyone who is knowledgeable knows is unsustainable as is) forced to reform.

    If that’s not enough, there is the mid-1970s failure of New York City, which bankrupted itself by liberal politics that included a vast welfare state as well as a bloated and well-tended municipal (public) labor force.

    The problems are fiscal and eventually, demographic with the welfare programs themselves, not to mention their cultural effect.

  • Jim Satterfield

    After reading the Heritage Foundation article that Koerner based this post on I’d like to refer you to the old saying about lies, damned lies and statistics. Yes, I followed the links in his footnotes. Pointing out that since it is from the Heritage Foundation the conclusion was predetermined is not ad hominem, btw, just a simple fact.

  • EEllis

    Just because the article is partisan doesn’t mean it’s not true. If you disagree then you should go looking for facts to back your belief. Show some of the logical inconsistencies in the conclusion. Make some kind, any kind of point because now you are just whining because it looks like you may be on the wrong side.

  • I see a difference between true anti-poverty programs, like job retraining, and those that are made to keep people comfortable in their poverty.

  • Allen

    What utter BS.

    1. Whoa! They have a place to live do they! My God I wonder what those stick and chalkboard houses cost to build anyway, a tenth of what they sold for? They pay 20 or thirty years on a stick and chalk board house that costs what…three, four times what the retail cost was just to get the massive loan? Then there is that big fee paid the cheap jackass that listed the house in a news paper. Wow what a paper work effort. All because nobody knows how to put property through escrow. Ten percent for THAT?! What a deal. Don’t see any conservative complaining about that log jam of legal red tape. Not as long as they can skin somebody with it!

    2. Air conditioning? Oh heck why not go on back to 80 years before air conditioning was even invented? It was a hundred percent then! And uh, and uh, and it’s taken HOW LONG for the nation to reach 76%? And how many died this year alone due to the heat wave? I…I think the media stopped counting at 24. You know they don’t like to offend the rich in the media very often. The rich can afford lawyers. How many MILLIONS does 24% of “the poor” add up to anyway. I know it’s just so insignificant we won’t mention it here today, it might dampen the propaganda.

    3. Not overcrowded. No dummy that’s because most are OLD PEOPLE living alone or in a pair. Gee, how does one convert empty space into food or medical bills paid? Not by rent. Who wants to live with an old couple? Better yet, who’s going to PAY to live with an old couple?

    4. More space that Europeans? What does that mean? It means nothing because many more Europeans live in larger homes that hold the whole family, including grandma, than they do here. They used to do that here but not any more, which of course, a cultural difference that the Europeans do NOT want to live like Amerikans. It’s a choice.

    5. They own a car do they? Gee no wonder they are poor considering what they cost. Without mass transit, they won’t even get to the grocery store much less to work. No mass transit, buy more gas and cars. The rich laugh all the way to the bank. No wonder conservatives are against mass transit.

    6. Color TV’s. ROTFL! I don’t remember seeing any Black and whites around for about 35 years. But what do you do if you’re poor? Save up for a TV, because that’s all you can afford to do, watch TV. What would you have them do? OMG they bought a TV! They could have put that $400 in the bank for 50 years for retirement. Watch the walls for fifty years. What good lemmings they would make.

    7. VCRs? Very few of them even work anymore. DVD player? So what? It’s just a cheap little plastic box that replaces the $15 movie ticket, when you can go to red box and get a movie for a buck. People used to go to the theater Saturday matinee movie for 25 cents mid sixties! Now it’s $25 if you buy popcorn! Gee, they got a little DVD player. Well they are just pulling the wool over our eyes. We have to stop this excess!

    8. A microwave costs $30. Another beyond the pale excess. A dishwasher too! You know I bet 80% of all these appliances for the poor are real top dollar items. Funny they didn’t mention the average age of those appliances or if they still work. Now don’t tell me they refrigerators too? Why these poor are just living the high life!

    Welfare, the “pillar” of redistributive systems. World Wide, don’t forget to mention! At least among modern nations and some not so modern. I don’t even like the word, “redistribution”, in this context because it means taking from someone that “has” in order to help someone that “has not“. It further implies that the “have” would not perform this emergency charity on their own, no matter how small the collective requires from the individual. The public service governments do for the giver and the receiver is the cost effective method possible and still care most of the unfortunate. It means the government has to force people to do the right thing and that is sad. It’s an embarrassment to this country needs to do it at all!

    Decline in poverty? Of course there is no “Decline in Poverty”. Has nothing to do with welfare. Has to do with the unjust business practices our famous capitalists run their mouths about. Send the jobs to china, Thailand, Mexico, or where ever they can get the cheapest labor from. They don’t give a flip if their market shrinks here due to unemployment. That’s only ten percent when they are paying pennies a week for foreign labor! You do the math.

    Man I could go on about this ridiculous rant excusing the selfish behavior of our rich business people. Like we are supposed to an agrarian society “like or forefathers” completely ignoring that we are a post industrial society whereby one NEEDS cars and TV’s to even function in it.

    Your “data” is screwy, skewed, and, manipulated to hate the poor as if they are not really poor and we just ought cut off those lazy dogs. You make me sick.

    You greedily close your eyes to reality so that you can stick more in the bank for yourself. That is all that YOU are doing.

  • DLS

    In contrast to what Allen is saying, it’s worth noting by me again that poverty research (not an inflated set of expectations of “dignity,” as in previous liberal times) has long been neglected, though some are still trying. Allen, more good reading for you.

    Census has been involved this, too, as I’ve said before.

    (So has, incidentally, the National Academy of Sciences.)

  • I have neither a TV nor a car.

    Not only do I survive; I have a wonderful life.

  • Dr. J

    It means the government has to force people to do the right thing and that is sad. It’s an embarrassment to this country needs to do it at all!

    Allen, the gist of Robin’s post was lamenting that welfare programs are keeping us in that embarrassing state. Despite your huffing and puffing, it sounds like you two share some goals.

  • The issue I have with this article isn’t that our social programs have caused dependence (they have), it’s the mechanism being debated to reduce that dependence.

    The GOP & Teabaggers simply want to cut off the aid and put people on the street. This will cause social upheaval reminiscent of the race riots in the 60’s, not to mention people dying in the streets from untreated medical conditions.

    The Dems, well, they don’t believe this problem exists, and are more than willing to continue to kill the country with kindness.

    What’s needed is a series of reforms to break the dependency without hurting those who really are dependent through medical conditions, mental illness, old age, etc.

    Such plans do not exist, or at least are not being discussed in the halls of power.

  • Quelcrist Falconer

    The Dems, well, they don’t believe this problem exists, and are more than willing to continue to kill the country with kindness.

    It’s not that they don’t believe it’s problem, they have no idea as to how to fix it.

    Now you’re going to say the solution is obvious:create jobs.

    Good luck creating jobs that require minimal skills and pay a living wage ($10 to $15 an hour) that will not be outsourced or automated away.

    Now we could always the Agrarian way, and get a bunch of Amish to teach welfare recipients to farm using 19th Century technology, where are do you expect to find land for them to farm.

    PS. Most Americans are no more than a handful of paychecks from homelessness, they really shouldn’t look down on the poor nor on welfare recipients cause but for the grace of god they could be one.

  • Absalon

    “The Dems, well, they don’t believe this problem exists, and are more than willing to continue to kill the country with kindness.”

    No, they just don’t believe any of the know-it-alls that demand entitlement “reform” are capable or even willing to actually make entitlement programs more cost-effective.

    Republicans hate the very idea of a social safety net and the “centrists” that constantly harp about scary spending are mostly sanctimonious and clueless.

  • Allen

    What absolute BS.

    Dummy here don’t even take into consideration that so many people have fallen from another income level and still may own a thing or two, like a toaster or a TV.

    You need to get your one sided ignoramus view in line with the fact that it COSTS just to be poor in this damn country!

    You, “neither have a car or a TV” and your simplistic, all encompassing stupidity-in-a nut-shell claim that people are not poor if they have something you don’t.

    You weird self absorbed jackasses are simply not going to be happy until you see people begging in the streets, on every street corner, and, at every super market entrance.

    Did you read this elderly people? Republicans say screw you, sell everything you have and live on it the 10 or twenty days before you ask them for anything. Then and only then will they consider you poor.

  • DLS

    Barky, perhaps you’re among the few potentially aware of and good with this:

    It is surprising that among some things about post-2010 that may superficially remind people of post-1994, nobody in the GOP has, and no liberals have said they predict or fear, begun using language from back in post-1994, about referring to cutting people off the welfare programs as “empowerment” (notably, with offering some “market-based solutions” as part of current entitlement reform such as Ryan’s famous quasi-privatization of Medicare, the conversion from paying for health care to subsidizing (only partially paying) private health insurance for the elderly (those who can afford, and of course who can be offered, it).

    Yes, “empowerment,” which really could be used with any new “market-based solutions” (consumer power in the hands of citizens once more, that is), not just terminating programs.

    Libs-n-Dems failed to say “Abandonment!” to correct them then, and I wonder if they would fail to say it (as a correction to GOP nomenclature) now. (Then, and I bet now, they’d act like it, even if using different language. But the key is those two big words.)

    By the way, too, Barky, I have yet to hear an obvious retort by libs-n-Dems that I’ve used more than once when viewing things clearly about Republican proposals to arbitrarily reduce or “cap” expenditures, to reduce costs (or cost growth). Even with just the smallest grating reduction like that (that you’re right to fear may be incrementalism, depending in part on encouragement or increased boldness after perceiving the results from the first step or steps), there’s always the retort there:

    “You could reduce costs to zero, easily: Just end Medicare!”

    (or substitute any other program)

    (The purpose of that retort is augmentation to absurdity of cuts — and reduction to absurdity of the resulting “reformed” program.)

  • JSpencer

    Robin, you make some excellent observations and I applaud you for tackling the subject, but I didn’t see any suggestions for a new direction or possible solutions. Of course the current state of the economy is such that a great many people who are skilled and able, and desperately want work can’t find it because there isn’t any. We can’t all make a living slinging burgers at macs or being greeters at Walmart. It’s one thing to talk about a problem, quite another to discuss solutions, and truly rare to discuss solutions that might actually work.

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