Fixing Welfare Is Ultimately A Philosophical Problem
With the passage of the recent bipartisan budget agreement and its $300 billion assault on spending caps, coming on the heels of the GOP’s Tax Cut and Reform Bill and its sweeping $1.5 trillion reduction in taxes, at some point Republicans must focus their attention to a side of the spending coin that has never sat well with America—welfare.
According to Gary D. Alexander, Pennsylvania’s former Secretary of Human Services, the federal government’s $1 trillion-a-year “limitless war on poverty” has spawned a kraken of runaway spending that threatens America’s economic survival.
Currently, over 70 “unearned” public welfare programs within nine federal agencies— Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), cash and energy assistance programs, student loan subsidies, etc.—are “riddled with inefficiencies, abuse and fraud,” ingest 60% of every federal tax dollar, and account for almost half of states’ budgets.
To Alexander, simply put, “No nation has ever spent itself into prosperity.”
Likewise, according to The Heritage Foundation, the costs of America’s four largest entitlement programs—Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—added to the interest on the national debt “are set to consume every dollar of taxes paid in just 20 years.”
As the largest federal program, Social Security alone accounts for approximately one-fourth of all federal spending. On its current trajectory, trustees predict SSA trust funds will be depleted in 2034. The CBO forecasts bankruptcy by 2030.
When that day comes, income from payroll taxes must balance strictly with benefits paid, and Social Security recipients can expect more than a 20% reduction in payments from levels in the past.
Democrats will bristle for government to muster the political will to raise taxes or convince Americans to live with lower benefits.
Republicans will denounce America’s appetite for Brobdingnagian federal programs that reek of moral failure and saddle catastrophic debt onto future taxpayers.
But to a growing, more impatient chorus, given the clear and present fiscal danger, now is the time to challenge the very concept of the welfare state—one that encourages dependency, provides a disincentive for self-improvement, promotes special “rights” for special groups, engenders social dysfunction, and bastardizes the bedrock American economic principle of earning personal rewards for productive work.
In truth, welfare has never fit the heart of the American ethos, and it is a proposition we’ve been grappling with since our founding—how to distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving”; how to balance one’s “need” with another’s “achievement”; how to reconcile private virtue with public good.
Since 1791, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution has held that public welfare is the function of state and local governments. But as poverty was forced more and more into the public square—through industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and various national “rights” movements—Main Street was outstripped of its ability and resources to deal meaningfully with the issue and its solution inevitably swayed to federal responsibility.
It is no secret that President Trump wants to put his imprimatur on America’s welfare system. Recently, his administration revived the debate by firing off its first official salvo—announcing it would allow states to impose work requirements for “able-bodied” recipients on Medicaid. As budget director Nick Mulvaney put it, “If you’re on food stamps and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work.”
So far, 10 states are already in the queue: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Seema Verma, the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is even more succinct, “Believing that community engagement requirements do not support or promote the objectives of Medicaid is a tragic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations consistently espoused by the prior administration. Those days are over.”
Predictably, Democrats are bristling and there will be lawsuits: Under the new rules who will be exempt? Is it a blatant, cold-hearted attempt to thin the Medicaid rolls? Are we witness to another example of whites changing the rules on the backs of blacks and the poor? Is Trump playing political football by pandering to his mostly red state constituencies?
But herein lies the philosophical divide. Just as experts and scholars say to defeat ISIS we must ultimately defeat its underlying ideology, so, too, let it be with America’s flawed welfare philosophy.
There are those who believe that government should be the grand mediating force between the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong—dividing up the bounty of the national pie according to the needs of those who might be less intelligent, less industrious, less able, less fortunate, or otherwise lacking. Under the banners of “equal justice” and “economic equality,” they feel justified requiring the more productive among us to be an insurance policy for those who are passed by in the race of life.
There are others who believe it is not government’s job to make us moral, benevolent, or charitable but simply to protect our individual rights through a neutral, objective framework of laws. Politics should not endorse any particular vision of what constitutes virtue, good character, or what choices one should make to live a proper life. In America, every person is an end in him/herself and to serve others involuntarily is a violation of one’s freedom to choose his own compass, his own purpose. One’s life is one’s own responsibility.
Given all this, it does not mean a free society can’t be compassionate and have economic safeguards, programs for the indigent, public initiatives to combat drugs, local safety measures, or retirement benefits. However, they should be addressed privately and without coercion—through voluntary contracts, individual philanthropy, charitable organizations, religious groups, non-profits, personal bequests and planned giving programs . . . the list is long.
In fact, according to Charity Navigator, charitable contributions in 2016 were estimated at over $360 billion (2.1 % of GDP)—growing virtually every year since 1976, with 72% coming from individuals.
In the end, if the philosophy of welfare isn’t consonant with the individual liberties that our system of government requires and protects, it must be changed and made right.
Some believe President Franklin Roosevelt, ironically one of America’s most liberal champions, put it best in his 1935 State of the Union Address: “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
Russell Paul La Valle’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Village Voice, Newsday, NY Daily News, American Thinker, Playboy, The Hill, The Federalist, among other publications. He is also a past contributing editor to a philosophical think tank, The Atlas Society.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.