“Compassion resembles love: to demand it is a good way to kill it.”
When an acquaintance of mine on the Left heard that I would be writing an article for the Free Press about how the right helps the poor, his initial reaction was laughter, accompanied by self-righteousness. It is almost written in stone today that our current welfare policies, though flawed, are the best we can do to address the dilemmas of poverty in America. When the various problems with these policies are pointed out, the Left is content to simply rest on the assumption that the Right could never offer anything better.
If one’s thinking about the Left and the Right were limited merely to those representing us in Washington, this view might be convincing. Congresses and presidents for the past 65 years have been relatively consistent in their acceptance of the welfare state and its principles. (Contrary to popular myth, spending on entitlement programs increased even under President Reagan, despite all his talk of reducing it.) However, those on both sides of the debate continue to pay far too much attention to the question of how much welfare has reduced material poverty, ignoring the more important issue of whether it is compatible with a system of self-government.
Many on the Right, fortunately, are now realizing that the most dangerous element of the welfare state is not the fact that it spins up into increasing debt, but rather that it creates citizens who are unfit for democratic self-governance. To counter this trend, there have been numerous policy changes advocated by conservatives and libertarians—some of which have already taken effect—that help to give more independence to the less fortunate. But these programs are having a tough time gathering support on the Left (though many of the poor who are affected are quite satisfied with them), since the Left still operates on the premise that its approach to poverty is more morally sound. I would like to challenge this conventional wisdom through some unconventional examples.
The most radical solution to poverty advocated by those on the Right is the elimination of government welfare programs. Though this idea is met with violent opposition from those who fear that people will starve on the streets without government aid, these objectors ignore the obvious fact that there was life before the welfare state. Most supporters of the status quo assume that life before Franklin Roosevelt must have been nasty, brutish, and short—why else would we have needed his New Deal? However, the facts seem to support the conservative case that people don’t have to be forced to be charitable.
The most pressing question liberals always ask about a society without massive government aid programs is whether or not private charity was “enough” to really help out the poor. Contrary to popular belief, there has always been a consensus in America that there is a duty to take care of the poor. There is one crucial difference, however, between the way that duty is viewed today and the way it has been viewed throughout American history. Unlike today, it was assumed that some people, given the choice to work or not, would choose sloth. This brought the necessity of distinguishing between those who were voluntarily poor and those who were merely affected by circumstance, so that attention could be focused on the temporarily downtrodden.
Second, in the absence of large government programs there were numerous charitable organizations that appear almost alien to us today, the largest of which was the mutual aid society. These societies existed primarily for lower- and middle-class workers, and provided benefits such as life insurance, health insurance, and retirement pensions. Their membership consisted of approximately 30% of the adult male population, with particularly high participation rates among African-Americans and immigrants. Mutual aid societies were what Tocqueville had in mind when he praised the American reliance upon associations. Such organizations were a unique feature of democracy, and of people who took it upon themselves to attempt to alleviate the suffering of their neighbors rather than leaving that messy job to the state or to the wealthy.
It is difficult to place a precise dollar amount on how much mutual aid societies typically provided their members, since much of the charity was not recorded. However, there are a few indicators of the extent to which these societies provided various services. The average life insurance policy of the largest aid societies in 1919 was $1,100, equivalent to the annual salary of the average American worker. The Masons, for one, established their own old age homes for the elderly, spending an average of $1,800 per resident in 1914. Aid societies were the largest suppliers of health insurance before the Great Depression, typically offering benefits ranging from $7 to $10 a week in case of illness. Unlike modern HMOs, there was a strong incentive not to cheat the system since false claims were easily recognized and paid for by other members of the society. This check on cheating gave the aid societies a competitive advantage in health insurance long after private companies had begun to provide better life insurance.
Private charity offered opportunities for self-improvement and networking that no government program has been able to duplicate. After aid societies, the second largest providers of charity before the Great Depression were churches. Church-based charity in America has always operated on the premise that the poor need spiritual guidance as much as material comfort, and attempted to provide both. Churches and other community-based charities have always succeeded in providing job opportunities as well as emotional support to the needy, while the federal job-training programs which have replaced these organizations have been, if anything, counterproductive. A six-year study by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1993 showed that young black males enrolled in federal job training actually had 10.7% lower earnings after the program than a control group that did not participate in job training.
This brings us to an important point that is mostly lost in the empty rhetoric of welfare politics today. Unfortunately, many on both the Right and the Left still place a great faith in the federal government’s ability to make productive citizens out of welfare recipients despite the evidence of its failure to do so. Nearly every U.S. president since Kennedy has expressed agreement with the idea behind Kennedy’s words that welfare should be a “hand up, not a hand out,” whose rolls eventually decrease as welfare recipients are brought into the working class. Yet when President Clinton signed legislation intended to do just that, there were cries of horror from all over the Left. This is because of a large and dangerous change in the way our society views welfare that happened in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who changed government aid from a temporary necessity to an entitlement.
Though the entitlement status of welfare was intended to free recipients from the arbitrary power of government to terminate their benefits, it subjected them to arbitrary control over their behavior. After all, along with entitlements come responsibilities. So even after the Great Society reforms, welfare recipients were subjected to government control of their savings habits, intrusion into their family planning (marriage was strongly discouraged), and embarrassing questions about their personal lives. It is odd that liberals often object to private charities on the grounds that they are invasive, conveniently forgetting the hoops current welfare recipients must jump through to receive Uncle Sam’s money. The reason such changes became necessary, of course, was that so much money was being offered by the government, so great attention had to be paid to who was receiving it.
This radical shift was made possible by the expansion of the economy throughout the 1950s. The Great Society programs increased the amount spent on welfare programs from about $10 billion (1995 dollars) to $50 billion by the end of the decade, and the Left actually believed that with this greater redistribution of wealth, poverty could soon be eradicated. Left-wing intellectuals began promoting the notion that poverty was never caused by laziness or other vices but by the capitalist system itself. Anyone suggesting otherwise, to this day, is said to be “blaming the victim.”
In a sense, it is true that capitalism breeds poverty, insofar as “poverty” is a relative term and in a society with any income inequalities some will be classified as “poor.” But these relative measures of poverty are not particularly useful. They lead us to, for example, the bizarre conclusion that an American earning $6 an hour is just as poor as a sweatshop worker earning $0.10 an hour because both are equally lacking relative to what their society can afford. Also, although no one denies that poverty is sometimes caused by circumstances beyond our control, our current mentality comes dangerously close to saying that people bear no responsibility for their condition, instead placing blame on the vague injustices of “the system.”
It seems best to insist on an absolute standard of poverty, difficult as it may be to identify. This concept has the virtue of recognizing that capitalism—a system which allows for inequality—has produced more material wealth and eradicated more disease, death, and famine than any other economic order. Also, kit rids us of the idea that socialism could ever be a “solution” to poverty, as that would require a global government to ensure that each of Earth’s 6 billion-plus citizens had the same distribution of resources and wealth. Finally, under an absolute definition of poverty, the government could no longer provide a guaranteed income to people making under a certain percentage of the median income, but would be limited to providing for a demonstrated need for food, clothing, or shelter.
Since the contemporary view of poverty refuses to admit the role of vice in creating poverty, current welfare programs rarely encourage good behavior. For example, AFDC explicitly frowns upon thrift, as recipients are allowed to have only $1,000 in savings in order to remain eligible. Grace Capetillo, a 36-year-old welfare mother, found this out the hard way after she managed to save up $3,000 over four years, only to be sued by the county of Milwaukee. Fortunately, she ended up with a sympathetic judge who refused the county’s request that she pay back the $15,545 she had received since going over the limit. However, she did have to pay a $1,000 fine and spend another $1,000 to get under the savings limit. (Partly as a result of Capetillo’s case, many states adopted savings limits above the federal constraints once the 1995 welfare reform bill came along. As of today, about 20 states still follow the federal limits.)
Closely related to the failure of the welfare state to foster virtue in welfare recipients is the question of whether or not welfare programs make the rest of society better. Why is it that our society, the richest in human history and the one that has provided the most material comfort for the poor, is hardly recognized as the most compassionate? The answer may be found in one of the insights of the Bible: that the virtue in charity is not dependent on the amount given but on the willingness of the giver to sacrifice for the other. This is one of the flaws of government charity that cannot be overcome. Not only will government bureaucracies always be incapable of the kind of personal attention true charity requires, but the fact that government aid is collected through taxation destroys the joy that usually accompanies charity.
No one takes joy out of seeing a huge chunk taken out of his paycheck by the federal government, and there will always be a significant amount of money that people would have given to worthwhile charities in lieu of taxation. Try as it might, the government cannot make us more generous people by taxing our eyeballs out.
There are several other policies advocated by the Right that would greatly benefit the poor, and it is curious to see that few on the Left support these simple, commonsense measures. Though a common refrain on the Left is that the Right only wants tax cuts for the rich, one of the most important tax cuts that many conservatives would like to see is one that would disproportionately benefit the poor. The most insidiously regressive taxes are those on alcohol and cigarettes. In an odd twist, it is the Left that turn Puritanical when speaking of alcohol and tobacco, as it becomes willing to advocate any means necessary to eliminate the deadly vices of smoking and drinking.
Not many people realize how much of the money we spend to support our bad habits goes toward taxes. Beer drinkers place 43% of the cost of a beer into government coffers, and 58% of the cost of hard liquor goes toward taxes—an astonishing two-thirds of which is composed of “sin taxes.” Even without the increases in cigarette taxes due to the recent tobacco settlements, 75% of the average $1.80 retail price on cigarettes goes to federal, state, and local governments. Despite all this taxation, and the fact that almost everyone knows the dangers of smoking and drinking, smoking has only seen a 3% decline since the surgeon general’s warning in 1965, and alcohol use has persisted despite being heavily taxed throughout all of American history.
If liberals cared at all about the freedom of conscience, they would
join with those on the Right who are concerned with the government acting
as “morality police,” and demand that the government removed its tentacles
from the lives of its citizens and their choice to drink or smoke. After
all, the “slippery slope” argument, that all taxation is open once we start
taxing things like cigarettes, has already started to unfold here at Yale
with Professor Kelly Brownell’s advocacy of the “fat tax,” an additional
tax on fatty foods.
Why, then, do sin taxes not make people stop sinning? (Which is, presumably, why they are enacted.) Ideas like the fat tax are only possible under the twisted logic that requires all Americans to subsidize the vices of others (e.g., health care for people whose choices to smoke and drink have made them ill). Like all other sin taxes, the fat tax will fail to achieve its intended goal because it does not afford people the opportunity to face the consequences of their actions—that smoking kills, for example. Rather, people leading unhealthy lives are allowed to pay taxes on their vices and then let the government force others to pay when they get sick. Just as in the case of charity, all the evidence seems to show that government’s efforts to try to regulate our behavior have backfired, and that well-meaning people would be better off using their powers of persuasion.
In a closely related issue, it is curious that the Left has largely abandoned the fight against the War on Drugs, leaving it as a cause for libertarians and a few conservatives, such as William F. Buckley, Jr. The abnegation of the anti-War on Drugs cause stands as one of the most serious failings of the Left today. By continuing the War on Drugs, the Left has acquiesced in a number of evils perpetrated in the name of keeping kids off drugs and decreased its ability to claim to be the true defender of civil liberties.
In fact, many of the arguments used by libertarians sound fairly similar to arguments that Leftists use for a variety of other issues. First, there is the fact that the War on Drugs has amounted to an excuse to persecute and incarcerate poor people, particularly African-Americans. Anyone truly concerned about America’s booming prison population must look to releasing nonviolent drug “criminals” as a solution, rather than our current policy of paroling rapists, robbers and murderers.
Most disappointing about the Left’s attempts to eradicate poverty is the fact that they opened the door to many dangerous policies that micro-manage the lives of the poor while failing to make them more independent. In their zealousness to get the government involved in charity, the Left has forgotten that the government is rarely charitable to those who have neither money nor political power. The bleak picture that people often draw of a society without a welfare state—in which the underclass grows and is controlled by elites who don’t care enough to really help them out of poverty—is a perfect description of our society for the last 30 years.
Charity, it is said, begins at home. Little wonder, then, that a system whose charitable impulses began in the ivory tower and in Washington is careening toward ruin. It would be a wonderful show of generosity if the Left would concede the failure of the welfare state and work for a more progressive—for lack of a better word—alternative.
—Shamed Dogan is a senior in Trumbull College
Joseph A. P. De Feo
Return to Top