Tag: welfare

Charity and the Federal Government

David Boaz’s post on bizarre and utterly preposterous claims that the federal government’s “social safety net” has been shrinking brought to my mind James Madison’s position that “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

“The Father of the Constitution” wasn’t being cold-hearted when he took this position during a 1794 debate in the House of Representatives over federal aid to refugees. Rather, he was merely recognizing that “the government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects.” Charity just wasn’t one of the specified objects. Of course, future politicians decided otherwise.

Today, most young Americans grow up in federally subsidized schools offering federally subsidized meals. They are inculcated to view the federal government as a benevolent caregiver that exists to provide Americans with housing, food, health care, and even income (to name just a few). Madison’s unfortunately quaint notion that the federal government isn’t supposed to be engaged in “charitable” activities would probably leave them dumbfounded.

I single out children because this week a private charity that I am involved with, the Purple Feet Foundation, is giving select inner-city sixth graders an opportunity to take hold of their futures now. Instead of promoting dependency, these kids will spend the week engaged in educational activities that will hopefully inspire them to utilize their individual talents to succeed in life. The Foundation does not seek, nor will it accept, taxpayer money. I believe this sets a good example for these kids.

Those of us who desire the limited federal government that Madison envisioned are often accused of being uncaring about those who are in need. In fact, the opposite is the truth: we recognize that government programs are wasteful, ineffective, and counterproductive to the aims that they are trying to achieve. As a Cato essay on federal welfare explains, private charity is superior to government programs for several reasons:

Private charities are able to individualize their approaches to the circumstances of poor people. By contrast, government programs are usually designed in a one-size-fits-all manner that treats all recipients alike. Most government programs rely on the simple provision of cash or services without any attempt to differentiate between the needs of recipients.

The eligibility requirements for government welfare programs are arbitrary and cannot be changed to fit individual circumstances. Consequently, some people in genuine need do not receive assistance, while benefits often go to people who do not really need them. Surveys of people with low incomes generally indicate a higher level of satisfaction with private charities than with government welfare agencies.

Private charities also have a better record of actually delivering aid to recipients because they do not have as much administrative overhead, inefficiency, and waste as government programs. A lot of the money spent on federal and state social welfare programs never reaches recipients because it is consumed by fraud and bureaucracy…

Another advantage of private charity is that aid is much more likely to be targeted to short-term emergency assistance, not long-term dependency. Private charity provides a safety net, not a way of life. Moreover, private charities may demand that the poor change their behavior in exchange for assistance, such as stopping drug abuse, looking for a job, or avoiding pregnancy. Private charities are more likely than government programs to offer counseling and one-on-one follow-up, rather than simply providing a check.

Two Pictures that Perfectly Capture the Rise and Fall of the Welfare State

In my speeches, especially when talking about the fiscal crisis in Europe (or the future fiscal crisis in America), I often warn that the welfare state reaches a point of no return when the people riding in the welfare wagon begins to outnumber the people pulling the wagon.

To be more specific, if more than 50 percent of the population is dependent on government (employed in the bureaucracy, living off welfare, receiving public pensions, etc.), it becomes difficult for taxpayers to form a majority coalition to fix the mess. This may explain why Greek politicians have resisted significant reforms, even though the nation faces a fiscal death spiral.

But you don’t need me to explain this relationship. One of our Cato interns, Silvia Morandotti, used her artistic skills to create two images (click pictures for better resolution) that show what a welfare state looks like when it first begins and what it eventually becomes.

The welfare state starts with small programs targeted at a handful of genuinely needy people. But as  politicians figure out the electoral benefits of expanding programs and people figure out that they can let others work on their behalf, the ratio of producers to consumers begins to worsen.

Eventually, even though the questionable beneficiaries should realize that it’s not in their interest to over-burden the people pulling the wagon, the entire system breaks down.

Then things get really interesting. Small nations like Greece can rely on bailouts from bigger countries and the IMF, but sooner or later, as larger nations begin to go bankrupt, that approach won’t be feasible.

I often conclude my speeches by joking with the audience that it’s time to stock up on canned goods and bottled water. Many people, I’m finding, don’t think that line is very funny.

Romney and Huckabee, What a Choice

You know you’re really wrong when Mike Huckabee can call you out. But that’s the situation Mitt Romney finds himself in, as Michael Cannon points out below.  Huckabee says Romney’s government-run health care plan with an individual mandate is a bad idea, Romney says he’s still proud of his plan, which is totally different from President Obama’s government-run health care plan with an individual mandate. But really, what can he do? In 17 years of seeking high political office, he is known for two things: changing his position on a surprisingly large number of issues, and his Massachusetts health care program. Which was of course the forerunner of Obamacare, as Michael Cannon and I pointed out in the video that Michael linked. So Romney is still defending a position I think we’ve already refuted.

Meanwhile, in speeches and interviews this week, Mike Huckabee continues to make the untenable connection between gay marriage and family breakdown that I discussed two weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times. Huckabee told reporters:

Huckabee opposes gay marriage on the grounds that, according to him, it destroys traditional families.

“There is a quantified impact of broken families,” Huckabee said. “[There is a] $300 billion dad deficit in America every year…that’s the amount of money that we spend as taxpayers to pick up the pieces because dads are derelict in their duties.”

But what’s the connection? As I wrote:

One thing gay couples are not doing is filling the world with fatherless children. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that allowing more people to make the emotional and financial commitments of marriage could cause family breakdown or welfare spending….

Social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions.

But you won’t find your keys on the thoroughfare if you dropped them in the alley, and you won’t reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and preventing them from adopting orphans.

One might add that, as Huckabee knows very well, rates of divorce and unwed motherhood soared decades before anyone started agitating for gay marriage.

If Huckabee and Romney are the Republican frontrunners, President Obama must be sleeping well these days.

Social Conservatives Offer Irrelevant Solutions

In today’s Los Angeles Times I write that social conservatives are pointing to real problems, but the only policy solutions they discuss are completely irrelevant to what they call “the high cost of  a dysfunctional society”:

… Reducing the incidence of unwed motherhood, divorce, fatherlessness, welfare and crime would be a good thing. So why the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the “breakdown of the basic family structure” and the resulting “high cost of a dysfunctional society”? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn’t go over very well, even with the social conservatives. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame it for social breakdown and its associated costs.

That’s why social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions.

But you won’t find your keys on the thoroughfare if you dropped them in the alley, and you won’t reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and preventing them from adopting orphans.

Rising Welfare Costs

The Government Accountability Office released Congressional testimony this week looking at Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF, which replaced unrestricted welfare in 1996, has reduced welfare rolls and encouraged recipients to obtain work. Unfortunately, TANF’s goals have been undermined.

The GAO notes that “work participation rates … do not appear to be achieving the intended purpose of encouraging states to engage specified proportions of TANF adults in work activities.”

States are required to have at least 50 percent of eligible TANF recipients from single parent families participating in work activities. However, states are given various credits and exemptions that significantly reduce the number of recipients required to work. As a result, only about 30 percent of TANF recipients engage in “work activities,” which is often liberally defined. (This has been the case before and during the recession.)

Moreover, while TANF has successfully reduced the budgetary cost of cash-welfare, overall federal spending on anti-poverty programs has increased dramatically. According to a chart from Brian Riedl, anti-poverty spending has increased an inflation-adjusted 89 percent over the present decade:

I previously discussed how TANF enrollment has dropped since its passage in 1996 while food stamp enrollment has greatly increased. A food stamp user interviewed by the New York Times indicates one reason for the trend:

‘It used to be easier to go on cash assistance,’ she said as she left a food stamp office in Brooklyn this month. ‘You didn’t have to go to work, you didn’t have to report every day to an office and sign in and sign out. Now, if you don’t go to those group job meetings in the mornings, they shut down your whole welfare case. So that’s why I just get food stamps.’

Not surprisingly, the cost of the food stamps program has gone through the roof:

The desirability of federal anti-poverty programs in the midst of difficult economic times is a sensitive topic. However, with so many Americans currently in need of assistance, now is actually a good time to discuss the role of government in taking care of the less fortunate. As a Cato essay on welfare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families argues, the federal government isn’t the best option.

Food Stamps Cut?

Prior to last week’s passage of another $26 billion in bailout money for state and local governments, I noted that the legislation wasn’t really offset:

Congressional Democrats say the measure is paid for with a combination of spending cuts elsewhere and tax increases. However, the new spending is front loaded and much of the spending cuts wouldn’t be realized until after 2013. For example, the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the legislation shows savings from the food stamps program of $12 billion from 2014-2018. Congress can come back any time before that and rescind the cuts.

It’s typical Beltway budgetary sleight-of-hand: increase spending up front and “cut” spending on the back-end to get a more deficit-friendly score from the CBO. Democrats don’t really intend to see these cuts actualized, and have indicated as much. That hasn’t stopped media outlets from across the ideological spectrum from running sensationalist headlines.

A headline from CBS News says “Food Stamps Slashed to Pay for Teachers Job Bill.” A hysterical headline at the leftish Huffington Post reads “Cutting Food Stamps to Save Teacher Jobs: A Hateful Trade-off.” And a headline on the conservative Human Events website claims “Democrats Rob Food Stamps to Pay Teachers.”

Adding to the heat is legislation moving through Congress that would “cut” future food stamps spending to help pay for increased child nutrition programs. But as was the case with the bailout legislation, the only change that’s being proposed is to move forward the expiration date for the temporary food stamp expansion contained in the 2009 stimulus bill.

In addition to unnecessary hand-wringing over the future, the near past is all but being ignored. As the following chart shows, the cost of the food stamps programs has exploded over the decade thanks to the recession and benefit increases under presidents Bush and Obama:

The food stamps program needs to be cut. In fact, the entire federal welfare system needs to be devolved to the states, or preferably, private charity. That phantom cuts following a massive increase in food stamps spending would cause such angst indicates that those of us who believe the needy aren’t best served by Uncle Sam have our work cut out.

The Moocher Index

The Center for Immigration Studies recently put out a study arguing that immigration has had negative effects on California. One of their measures was a comparison of how many people in the state were receiving some form of welfare compared to other states. I found that data (see Table 3 of the report) very interesting, but not because of the immigration debate (I’ll leave others to debate that topic). Instead, I wanted to get a better understanding of the variations in government dependency. Is there a greater willingness to sign up for income redistribution programs, all other things being equal, from one state to another? The “all other things being equal” caveat is very important, of course, since the comparison produced by CIS may simply be an indirect measure of the factors that determine welfare eligibility. One obvious (albeit crude) way of addressing this problem is to subtract each state’s poverty rate to get a measure of how many non-poor people are signed up for income-redistribution programs. Let’s call this the Moocher Index.

A few quick observations. Why is Vermont (by far) the state with the largest proportion of non-poor people signed up for welfare programs? I have no idea, but maybe this explains why they elect people like Bernie Sanders. But it’s not just Vermont. Four of the top five states on the Moocher Index are from the Northeast, as are six of the top nine. Mississippi also scores poorly, coming in second, but many other southern states do well. Indeed, if we reversed the ranking and did a Self-Reliance Index, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia would score in the top 10. Nevada, arguably the nation’s most libertarian state, is the state with the lowest number of non-poor people signed up for welfare.

Let’s now emphasize several caveats. I’m not an expert on the mechanics of social welfare programs, but even I know that eligibility is not governed solely by the poverty rate. Indeed, some welfare programs are open to people with much higher levels of income. This means that a more thorough analysis at the very least would have to include some measure of income distribution by state. Moreover, states use different formulas for Medicaid eligibility, so this index ideally also would be adjusted for state-specific policies that make it easier or harder for people to become dependent. There also are some states (and even colleges) that actually try to lure people into signing up for welfare, which also might affect the results. And I’m sure there are many other factors that are important, including perhaps immigration. If anybody knows of substantive research in this area, please don’t hesitate to share material.