The Unintended Consequences of the Welfare State on the Human Spirit

By Walter Williams Published on May 10, 2018

Before the massive growth of our welfare state, private charity was the sole option for an individual or family facing insurmountable financial difficulties or other challenges.

How do we know that? There is no history of Americans dying on the streets because they could not find food or basic medical assistance. Respecting the biblical commandment to honor thy father and mother, children took care of their elderly or infirm parents. Family members and the local church also helped those who had fallen on hard times.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, charities started playing a major role. In 1887, religious leaders founded the Charity Organization Society, which became the first United Way organization. In 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America started helping at-risk youths reach their full potential. In 1913, the American Cancer Society, dedicated to curing and eliminating cancer, was formed. With their millions of dollars, industrial giants such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller created our nation’s first philanthropic organizations.

The bottom line is that we Americans are the most generous people in the world — something we should be proud of.

Generosity has always been a part of the American genome. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French civil servant, made a nine-month visit to our country in 1831 and 1832, ostensibly to study our prisons. Instead, his visit resulted in his writing “Democracy in America,” one of the most influential books about our nation.

Tocqueville didn’t use the term “philanthropy,” but he wrote extensively about how Americans love to form all kinds of nongovernmental associations to help one another. These associations include professional, social, civic, and other volunteer organizations seeking to serve the public good and improve the quality of human lives.

The bottom line is that we Americans are the most generous people in the world, according to the new Almanac of American Philanthropy — something we should be proud of.

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Before the welfare state, charity embodied both a sense of gratitude on the behalf of the recipient and magnanimity on the behalves of donors. There was a sense of civility by the recipients. They did not feel that they were owed, were entitled to, or had a right to the largesse of the donor.

Recipients probably felt that if they weren’t civil and didn’t express their gratitude, more assistance wouldn’t be forthcoming. In other words, they were reluctant to bite the hand that helped them.

With churches and other private agencies helping, people were much likelier to help themselves and less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior. Part of the message of charitable groups was: “We’ll help you if you help yourself.”

Enter the federal government. Civility and gratitude toward one’s benefactors are no longer required in the welfare state. In fact, one can be arrogant and hostile toward the “donors” (taxpayers), as well as the civil servants who dish out the benefits. The handouts that recipients get are no longer called charity; they’re called entitlements — as if what is received were earned.

What we have in our nation is not material poverty but dependency and poverty of the spirit, aided and abetted by the welfare state.

There is virtually no material poverty in the U.S. Eighty percent of households the Census Bureau labels as poor have air conditioning; nearly three-quarters have a car or truck, and 31 percent have two or more. Two-thirds have cable or satellite TV. Half have at least one computer. Forty-two percent own their homes.

What we have in our nation is not material poverty but dependency and poverty of the spirit, with people making unwise choices and leading pathological lives, aided and abetted by the welfare state.

Part of this pathological lifestyle is reflected in family structure. According to the 1938 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that year 11 percent of black children and 3 percent of white children were born to unwed mothers. Today it’s respectively 75 percent and 30 percent.

There are very little guts in the political arena to address the downside of the welfare state. To do so risks a politician’s being labeled as racist, sexist, uncaring, and insensitive. That means today’s dependency is likely to become permanent.


Copyright 2018 The Daily Signal

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  • Paul

    “That means today’s dependency is likely to become permanent.”

    Considering how failed a system it is it will eventually collapse.

  • jgmusgrove

    Thank you Dr. Williams for another excellent analysis.

    • Frank Lessa

      Or a well-spun analysis.

      • Tim Pan

        Truth is a hard thing.

        • Frank Lessa

          What is “true” about misleading and/or irrelevant statistics? “Having” air conditioning is not an indicator of affluence, nor is owning two clunkers because you cannot afford to have one reliable car.

          By conservative logic, if all poor Americans had air conditioning and a car, they would be living high on the hog.

          • Bryan

            Poor in the US have it far better than poor in many other countries.
            That said, the article is more about entitlements vs charity and government vs non-government entities than whether poor is really poor.

          • Tim Pan

            Frank you are a moron. If you want to see poverty check out the slums in Mexico and India.

  • Frank Lessa

    1) Government “poverty” metrics and statistics are garbage, largely because they are based on nominal CASH INCOME, without regard to non-cash income, assets, cost of living, or standard of living. A retiree living entirely on $1,000/mo from Social Security – while owning a $500K home free and clear – is defined as poor, while a burger flipper earning minimum wage and paying half his income for rent is considered not-poor. According to government, the retiree is considered “poor” while enjoying comfortable wealth and having greater discretionary income than the “not-poor” burger flipper, who has zero wealth and is vulnerable to becoming homeless.

    2) The statistics bandied about by many conservatives are also garbage. Most poor Americans do not own their homes, and have air conditioning only because their landlords provide it – whether the tenant wants it or can afford to even use it! (Landlords generally market their properties to the broader market and not to the poor specifically. And poor people don’t buy homes – most poor homeowners are retired or disabled, and either inherited homes or bought them earlier when they were working AND NOT POOR.) Many poor people own two clunkers – one for backup when the primary breaks down – when they would rather have ONE reliable car, so owning two cars is often NOT a sign of affluence.

  • Carol Duryea

    No history of people dying in the street from starvation and homelessness… really?? How far back in history did you look?
    “New York, which was 10% of the US population, was experiencing death by starvation and would keep track much better than most places, such as Appalachia or Oklahoma, where I would think it would be much, much worse before the New Deal programs started. There is evidence that many government agencies conducted studies on malnutrition levels, but at the time they did not have an established definition or complete understanding of the symptoms of malnutrition would be or even what foods a person must eat to not die.”

  • Jed

    I’m not sure ‘magnanimity’ is what church benefactors should project … or feel.

    People know the difference between compassion and contempt.
    This is a very fine line.

    It takes true humility to treat others like oneself;
    and it is that impression that wins souls.

  • Dena

    75 percent of black children and 30 percent of white children are born to unwed mothers. That’s an awfully high number. I didn’t realize it was that high. That means most of these kids probably grow up without a Dad. Kids need a stable family.

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