What would the founders do about welfare?

Similarly, Jefferson argued that “to take from one … in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

This is why the founders encouraged reliance upon family, private charity and community. This approach ensured that aid to the needy was provided as personally as possible. Family and community can make crucial distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, whereas government cannot. Many individuals, for example, need a government handout far less than they need moral guidance and correction, which church groups and family can provide.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, however, the War on Poverty turned these concepts on their head. Incentives for self-reliance, industry and hard work were reversed. Programs offering financial aid and child care to single women incentivized single-parent households while discouraging marriage. By 1995, a non-working, single mother of two was eligible for benefits equivalent to a job paying close to (and in some states, even more than) the average salary. Small wonder the decline in poverty rates was checked.

America needs to return to the principles that worked so successfully before Washington embraced the European welfare state model. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, with sound poverty policy, “industry will increase … circumstances [of the poor] will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves.”

David Weinberger is communications coordinator at The Heritage Foundation.