What would the founders do about welfare?

David Weinberger Contributor
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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.”

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.