What would the founders do about welfare?

Forty-four million Americans are on food stamps — up from 26 million in 2007. Spending on the program has more than doubled as well, to $77 million. Meanwhile, reports of abuse have skyrocketed.

It’s not the only anti-poverty program that seems to be growing like Topsy while accomplishing little. The federal government currently runs over 70 different means-tested programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and low-income persons. They cost nearly $1 trillion per year — more than the 2009 stimulus package and no more successful.

Adjusted for inflation, welfare spending is 13 times higher today than it was in 1965, when Washington launched the War on Poverty. Yet the proportion of people living in poverty remains essentially unchanged.

In Vindicating the Founders, Thomas West notes that:

In 1947, the government reported that 32 percent of Americans were poor. By 1969 that figure had declined to 12 percent, where it remained for ten years. Since then, the percentage of poor Americans has increased to about 15 percent. In other words, before the huge growth in government spending on poverty programs, poverty was declining rapidly in America.

So what was driving down poverty rates before LBJ declared “war”? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Our nation’s founders recognized the need to take care of the sick and indigent who couldn’t help themselves. Quoting natural rights philosopher John Locke, West writes that “[T]he law of nature teaches not only self-preservation but also preservation of others, ‘when one’s own preservation comes into competition.’” In other words, society is organized for the security of its members as well as their liberty and property. A society that fails to respond to those in need jeopardizes its own preservation.

In the early days of the American experiment, local governments — not the feds — assumed this responsibility. But there was careful emphasis that “poor laws not go beyond a minimal safety net,” West notes, and that aid be provided only on the condition of labor. Only the truly helpless, those “who had no friends or family to help, were taken care of in idleness.”

The founders saw a great danger in overly generous welfare policy — that it would promote irresponsible behavior. That, in turn, would threaten the inherent natural right of every individual “to liberty, including the right to the free exercise of one’s industry and its fruits.

Contrast that with today’s anti-poverty measures. Of 70 federal welfare programs, only one — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — actively encourages greater self-reliance. The remaining 69 encourage irresponsible behavior. Unsurprisingly, abuse of the system is rampant. Food stamp recipients sell benefit cards on Facebook, then falsely report lost cards. And recipients include prison inmates as well as millionaire lottery winners.

Our founders would not be surprised. While living in Europe in the 1760s, Franklin observed: “in different countries … the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

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  • Kordane

    Quote David Weinberger: “A society that fails to respond to those in need jeopardizes its own preservation.”

    – Society can’t respond to anything, since society is not some super-organism or supernatural entity, but is merely a number of unique individuals. Those individuals may “voluntarily” respond to those in need, but there is certainly no obligation on them to respond to those in need, and there is certainly no threat of destruction should they not respond to those in need.

    The author, I believe, is suffering from collectivism.

  • Jdine

    The founders would have voted for governor Gary Johnson!

  • marissab

    Yes, Americans do need to change their attitude and rediscover the principles of our founding fathers. But what about the people who have no other choice? For example, my father was raised outside of Pittsburgh in a West Virginian steel town. I see pictures from the mid 1900s and it was a booming place. But now it’s practically a ghost town because the steel mill shut down. Now the only way people make money is from owning gambling joints or being on welfare. We need to do more than just change our attitudes; we have to create jobs, which I know is easier said than done, but not everyone on welfare is at fault. They can’t afford to move their families or go back to school, but we do have to prevent the next generation from being as dependent.

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  • rick57

    Sadly people already have lost that desire. Welfare has become generational to some families in America. When a mother closes in on her abilty to collect welfare based on the age of her own children there seems to be a trend, where she is now a grandmother taking care of that grandchild thus continuing the steady stream of government handouts.

  • bigdvbc

    When I was a firefighter in a large city on the west coast, I encountered a 13 year old child out on the streets when he should have been in school. I asked why he wasn’t in school to get an education so in the future he would be able to get a decent job. His reply was “I don’t need no education cause when I grow up I’m going to be on welfare.” I encountered this attitude nearly daily in my 35 year career.

    I believe in helping people that truly need it, but there must be an end to that help or people will lose the desire to better themselves.