Rethinking Welfare: A Road to Hell or Prosperity?
Welfare is an important topic that has become divisive in Western politics. In the name of compassion, liberals are supporting the need for social welfare. However, many of the welfare programs they have created have encouraged social dependency and family breakdown, undermining the long-term sustainability of society. Conservatives have reacted with attempts to defund these programs, but they often sound harsh and uncompassionate when they advocate leaving the problems to voluntarism.
In the nineteenth century, before the development of public poor houses and welfare programs, many people who were unchurched received no help from the churches. Immigrants flooding through Ellis Island and concentrating in poor ethnic neighborhoods were too large in number for the churches in established communities to care for. Social compassion demanded that something be done to help these people in need.The problem is that a system developed that became a road to hell paved with good intentions.
The real question is how to provide welfare in a way that promotes growth and maturity of the recipients rather than social dependency. When the government pays women to have out-of-wedlock children, you get more out-of-wedlock children. Statistically, these children enter the world with less opportunity for success. When you provide subsidized food and housing adequate for a subsistence lifestyle, you get more people living a subsistence lifestyle, and the government buys a growing underclass that costs more to support each year. If you pay bureaucrats based on the headcount of the number of people in a welfare program, you motivate them to keep more people on welfare. These are perverse incentives structured into programs rooted originally in compassion: it is just poorly directed compassion, the type that paves a road to hell with good intentions.
Historically churches and voluntary organizations have had a much better track record of getting people out of dependency and back on their feet than governments. They are motivated out of love for a person and want to see them succeed. The problem is that they have not been able to care for everyone. On the other hand, government programs that attempt to care for everyone have been impersonal, expensive, and have fostered dependency and a growing welfare class, including a class of dependent bureaucrats that manage the programs. We should think about other systems of welfare. Some ancient temples serve as examples that can stimulate new thoughts about how our present systems can provide welfare to all that is less expensive and serves the purpose of helping people become self-sufficient.
The Babylonians had a system that existed over 1,000 years, much longer than our experimental Western systems. Babylonian temples were not simply places of pagan religious worship. They were surrounded by significant areas of land that could be farmed collectively by refugees, widows, and abandoned children who would find safe haven on temple grounds. Those who could work provided food and housing for all, and those who could not might beg for alms. Basket weaving, rug-making, and pottery might be crafts learned by transients who could acquire a skill while getting an income from sales for the temple, or for themselves after they left. Temples also served as hospice for those dying and without family. Living in these communes was not so desirable that people wanted to stay there, but it was also a system that kept people from becoming vagrants or dying in the streets. And, it was motivation to re-enter society as a responsible citizen.
The Babylonian system did not promote out-of-wedlock births, it did not encourage breakdown of regular families, and it did not drain the country’s coffers—although the kings often made sizable contributions for land and building maintenance. Today, the issues of separation of church and state might be brought up as a reason not to fund such enterprises, as what we would call religion played a role in the temples to promote the moral behavior necessary for those on the temple land to live peacefully together.
If you examine this portrayal of the Babylonian welfare system from the standpoint of economic motivation, it seems far superior to welfare state handouts that end up causing family breakdown, welfare dependency, ghettos that turn to rioting, and ultimately government bankruptcy. This system could also be just in that it did not deny the needy based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
It is not simply the economic weight of government bureaucracy that the welfare system has increased, but the increase of taxes to support it has been driving out the businesses that traditionally fueled the economy, creating a two-pronged economic collapse.
A system of compassion with much better incentives needs to be developed for modern society than what we presently have in the West. While modern society differs from the agrarian society of ancient Babylon, we should examine the incentives of the Babylonian system. It was a form of welfare for work, for those who could work, yet it was a safety net for those who could not. It created a type of extended family among people not biologically related. The standard of living was strict and more like monastic life; it was not an environment that would promote an underclass with second and third generation welfare dependency. It was not a system that allowed the idle behavior that leads to the formation of gangs and criminality. It was a system that helped those who want to get out of it.
One can imagine that graduates of such a temple system, like those who complete Alcoholics Anonymous and alumni of colleges today, would be inclined to provide financial support when they get on their own feet.
Creating a public welfare system along these lines might be difficult in a spoiled society, addicted to deficit spending. Our culture has trained welfare recipients to be happy to take subsistence money without work. And, we have generated welfare bureaucracies that are equally dependent and fearful to change. Some policymakers will argue that new programs will only be able to emerge after the collapse of the present social system. But, such a collapse based on our fear of change could lead to untold suffering and death. However, the creation of such public welfare communities would be a liberal-conservative compromise that would lead to a long-term reduction in the size of the welfare state and the expenses that lead to government bankruptcy.
Further, the reduction of corporate taxes levied to prop up these current unsustainable welfare programs, would lead to the return to the US of over a trillion dollars of corporate capital parked overseas. This could lead to the formation of jobs available to those who now seem perpetually stuck in a jobless society, even when they are capable of working.
The moral measure of a developed society is how its people care for the
orphans, widows, sickly, and disenfranchised. Welfare is an ethical, economic and mental health issue. For many reasons, pressing human needs often times exceed the available resources for care. Unavoidably, triage has to be performed. Thus, ethical and economic dilemma occur. Who can stand in the position to make these kinds of decisions ? Many single parent families need supplementary care as the result of poor life choices and irresponsible actions. Many people on welfare suffer from mental illnesses, substance abuse or other physical disabilities. Many people move from the welfare rolls to incarceration. The growing economic burden of caring for people who are in these categories is reason for deep social and political concern. It is a problem that requires a systemic solution that includes expertise and leadership from business, educational, legal, politcal and religious sectors. A remedial policy would require political and legal authority; but, it would be administered on the subsidiary level and local community levels. It would tap the experience of the wisest and senior members of the community to make the fine judgement calls regarding the managed care provided.
It is a thought-provoking and an exclusive piece. Those who believe that the present system should be replaced only after if it has destroyed are following the Derrida’s philosophy of ‘destruction.’ A welfare state has been facilitating its people in all times and now what we find is that the concept of welfare state has almost been diminished.
Only rule of law is not important now the main vital thing is bread and butter. Even security has become less important. However, the security threat is coming from economically weak or poor “state and individual.” It seems good governance has become international phenomenon. In the past, no matter what the system of government, was there was a strong check on the institutions. We hardly see corrupt institutions rather we find corrupt individuals. Now, we see both individual and institutions have become corrupt. Both have failed to deliver their promises.
So, people’s life is not going toward heaven rather it is becoming hell. Recently, an Indian old man has initiated move against the corrupt and corruption and many people are supporting him. The time has come that people should wake up for their rights. They have to think for the collective interest instead of individual’s gain.
I’ve long thought this to be a model for the future: it nurtures (or could if designed properly) a humane life where skills are developed, spiritual growth can take place and self-respect is a natural outcome. Land and labor teach the simple truths that build internal strength: patience and humility. There is no harvest without proper planting and cultivation. One thing that America has in abundance is land.
In the same vein, look what happens when bureaucratic and regulatory laws are applied without discretion. I know of an organization that cares for the mentally and physically challenged. They have a nice campus setting and numerous apple trees on the grounds. They used to harvest the apples and sell them or make pies and apple butter for the community to raise funds. Recently this practice has been stopped because of liability issues and onerous FDA rules. To pursue these common sense solutions, we would need release from such rules.
Gordon – which party should champion these ideas?
Alan, I have received favorable replies from common sense people of both parties. The problem is that the special interests that control the two parties will likely reject such a plan. I would suggest it be made part of an internet citizen’s platform. See my article: https://blog.ganderson.us/2011/08/internet-conventions-bypass-party-politics/
It would be interesting to think of rural organic farms, rather than inner city ghettoes, as a place where welfare recipients would go. Living on collective farms, perhaps like the Shakers did, would be an interesting twist on Obama’s socialism–for the needy only. Having a form of socialism for a second line of defense rather than viewing as the main economic engine might be more practical. We know from experiences in Russia and China that most people are motivated to throw off socialism in the manner that children want to leave their parent’s home when they grow up, and people in impoverished societies want to move to “a land of opportunity.” Leaving the main economy a land of opportunity, the government could set up alternatives for subsistence in collective farms, where profits from the farms would pay the wage of the supervisors, everyone would have food to eat and chores to do, and a bed to lay in. The government would supply the land, and contribute toward the buildings. (You might even create a few construction jobs).
I believe there was some effort to subsidize some collective farms in the US under Franklin Roosevelt’s experiments with socialism, but they were set up to compete with private farms rather than be a location for welfare services. They did not fare well in their attempt to compete with private farming.
The U.S. Constitution says in its Preamble that “we the people” have written the Constitution with certain objectives in mind. One is to promote the general welfare.
That does not mean the federal government must provide general welfare. Promoting is different from providing. Our Founders wanted freedom from government, not dependence on government. They’d seen the danger of absolute power, up close and personal, and rejected that as a way of life for their new nation. The Constitution was not intended to govern the people; it was intended to govern the government.
There are two primary aspects to any nation: the society and the government. In America, the society long preceded the federal government set up by the Constitution. Our society was based on the highest, most universal value: freedom. Our federal government was based on restraint of power so that it could not infringe on the freedom of we the people.
Over the last century, America has drifted farther and farther from its constitutional moorings and fundamental principles of society. One aspect of that has been the rise of the welfare state and the development of a culture of dependence. However well intended the programs which initiated it were—and we can identify Social Security under Franklin Roosevelt and the War on Poverty under Lyndon Johnson as two notable examples—the unforeseen long-term effects have been the degrading of American society as it declines in civility, morality and patriotism.
If you give a handout, people will keep their hands out. The creation and expansion of the federal welfare system has led directly—I said directly—to the destruction of the inner cities, where minorities have been by far the primary recipients of government handouts. The welfare system has driven the male out of the home and family, and has encouraged the female to have more babies in order to receive a larger welfare check. With the father driven from the home by welfare regulations, children—especially boys—grow up without a two-parent, marriage based family. The boys grow up in the streets and get their socialization from gangs. The girls grow up to have babies and please the boys. In the process, much is lost such as respect for the value of education, the work ethic, respect for duly constituted authority such as police, teachers and clergy, community service, the obligation of citizens to participate in their government by voting, and even simple public decorum.
To provide for the general welfare means to encourage people to take responsibility for their lives because in a self-governing society such as ours, the first level of government is the home. That is were children learn the principles of self-government, long before they learn in school about the structure and operation of municipal, state and federal government. The home is where children learn self-control, morality, courtesy, respect for their elders, taking care of themselves in dress and grooming, personal hygiene, cleaning up their room, and generally being responsible for their actions.
If the society of America is well, those in need will be cared for as our ancestors used to do—through private means and primarily as the local level. Churches used to run orphanages, villages and towns used to operate poor farms where destitute people could be housed and fed while they “got back on their feet.” Private organizations such as the YMCA and Salvation Army provided shelter and clothing and soup kitchens.
But with such huge numbers of citizens not providing for themselves nowadays because the government welfare check allows them to stay on the couch watching TV, private charity is woefully insufficient. The welfare recipients have become economic slaves wearing shackles—golden instead of iron, but shackles nonetheless. Without realizing it, they have also become addicts, welfare addicts.
When the government can no longer afford to provide welfare and food stamps for all who want it and are used to it, watch out. The riots in Europe over reduced benefits from government will occur here as well, and that time seems to be approaching fast.
John, I think you have amplified my concern about the current welfare system being the road to hell. And, you are right that they thought the Federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with the provision of welfare. The founders, left the states to decide how welfare would be provided for themselves. My point was that the private sector, in some circumstances, failed to reach everyone. Some still fell through the cracks. I suggested in my reply to Alan below that perhaps those people passed over by their own families, churches, or the Salvation Army, could be offered a bed on collective organic farms that would be self-sufficient enterprises on public land. The Shaker communities were actually a form of such collective welfare communities with a particular religious basis (like AA).
Boys Town (and now Girls Town) is a very successful model of using a geographical place set apart from the cities as a socialization method for troubled or abandoned youth to help them “reintegrate”. It has a spiritual core that drives its rules and programs. Seems that this could adapted for welfare recipients as well.