Incurable Government Addiction?
by Robert Weissberg
Issue 212– September 26, 2012
No matter how you slice or dice it, Americans have increasingly grown dependent on Big Government. For example, one in seven Americans are now on food stamps, double the number since 2008 while the number on disability has outstripped the creation of private sector jobs. There are now one person on welfare for every 1.6 person privately employed. Washington currently spends $17 billion to subsidize housing for the poor (Section 8 housing). Enrollments in Medicaid—health care for the poor– outpace both population and economic growth. Meanwhile, millions of college students owe Uncle Sam for their education. And this only begins the depressing catalogue.
Analyses of this pernicious addiction properly focus on its out-of-control cost but few ask if it can be reversed once the economy improves. Note well, the term “addiction” is purposeful—for millions, the dependency rivals drug or alcohol addiction, and that sad fact understood, it is time to raise some awkward issues.
Freeing millions hooked on government largess is not a new phenomenon and the past record is hardly promising. Consider today’s Native Americans—a once proud people with vibrant traditions of independence now reduced by government to chronic sloth, alcoholism and multiple other pathologies. And, this dependency has resisted over a century of remediation. At least some observers, in hushed voices, now worry whether some inner cities will eventually end up similarly.
I’ll be blunt—I don’t have a magic bullet let me at least identify some obstacles impeding a cure. As unpleasant as it may be, this “what to do” question deserves a serious airing.
Begin by acknowledging that this dependency has become a burgeoning way of life, a mentality passed down from generation to generation. There are children whose families, grandparents and nearly everybody they know who liveentirely on government generosity. Life begins with WIC (the Women, Infant, Children food program), moves to Head Start, then “free” school lunches (and increasingly, school breakfasts), and on and on. Worse, as the stigma of taking government help vanishes, those who resist the gravitational pull of dependence are mocked as chumps.
Non-addicts can easily under-estimate the tenacity of this craving and how it quickly evolves into sacred right not just a temporary helping hand. Once given, taking it back, no matter how economically justified is exceedingly difficult. Imagine the outrage of paying full list price for groceries after years of paying nothing? Yes, people fight hard for government’s helping hand, but this fight is nothing compared to what happen when Uncle Sam takes his hand back.
Nor are beneficiaries alone in defending their entitlements. Millions of government (and private charity) workers whose job depends on continued dependency are allies. So, permanently uplifting the poor may mean ending middle class livelihoods for others. The symbiotic relationship is critical politically—the social workers, employment counselors and all the others will provide the necessary brains and energy to mobilize the poor to sustain their dependency. Next time you see the poor agitating over cutbacks look behind the curtain and, guaranteed, there will be middle class bureaucrats and union officials directing traffic. Matters are a far cry from the days when middle class reformers, many religiously motivated helped the poor without risking their own economic positions.
It is also possible that these enablers will bend the rules, even lie, to “help” their clients. Recall that in New York City during the 1960s the welfare rolls dramatically expanded thanks to radical city social welfare employees intent on destroying capitalism by pushing the city into bankruptcy. That this devious behavior is justified as “compassion for the poor” makes it difficult to resist let alone identify.
Further acknowledge that many of those on the dole are ill-suited to a modern economy. Even if they want to contribute, what can they do? It was far less of a problem when labor intensive agriculture soaked up 85% of the workforce. During the Great Depression there was always menial work, albeit often seasonal, to provide basic sustenance. Today, by contrast, much of that has been mechanized, out-sourced to overseas factories or done by Hispanic immigrants willing to work harder for less. Even generous employer tax breaks cannot convert many of these folk into solid employees.
Now, let’s suppose miracles of miracles and for whatever reason, Washington decided that widespread dependency would end and millions would be cut loose. No more EBT cards, free school lunches and public housing save for those physically or medically unable to survive! Life was either get a job or starve, an arrangement that was absolutely normal since humans began walking upright.
To be realistic, the end of “welfare as we know it” would only produce cosmetic changes with no real budgetary savings. The vision of cold turkey for millions of ex-welfare recipients plus those who owe their livelihood to helping them would be a nightmare. Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta, among many other cities, would become uninhabitable, a throwback to an earlier era of high street crime when the rich lived behind high walls and traveled with body guards. Race hustlers would re-discover the extortionist rhetoric of urban violence, the long hot summers. Police expenditures would skyrocket and, truth be told, much of the middle class would flee and thereby reduce the tax base. Federal bailouts would be inevitable. The dystopia vision of Indian reservations would become real. The upshot, I predict, would be a restoration of the welfare system under a variety of new names and not a nickel would be saved.
None of this restoration would be especially difficult. Here are some likely possibilities. Millions would be enrolled in vocational programs (“investing in America”), much of which just resembled high school and even then, largely remedial classes on reading, basic math and “soft” skills like how to manage one’s time. These newly enrolled students would probably be given “scholarships” to tide them over until finding employment while others a bit more advanced academically would receive jobs in this bloated educational enterprise. Today’s social worker would change job titles and become vocational counselors to students who might never find employment.
Quite likely, these newly “independent” folk would be soaked up with make-work government jobs. This is already occurring. Many schools now have staff whose job titles did not exist decades back, positions like teacher’s assistant or teacher-parent coordinator. My New York City neighborhood a year back received two (sometimes three) men to assist pedestrians cross a perfectly safe intersection with traffic signals. This is the hydraulic principle—cutting public jobs in one place pushes up employment elsewhere.
What makes addiction to government generosity especially disturbing is that it comes at a time when the US population is aging, and this means fewer tax-payers and more people (legitimately) consuming government subsidized health care. In a sense, today’s private sector workers are being sandwiched between two groups that soak up huge government outlays and all signs point to even less “meat” in the sandwich.
We must begin thinking about ending the addiction. The usual “things will improve when the economy improves” is only a partial solution, at best. Moreover, an improved economy may only attract more job-hungry immigrants, not thousands of ex-welfare recipients able to abandon deeply rooted habits.
In the 1950s frank discussion of nuclear war was “thinking the unthinkable” since the very idea of nuclear war was too painful to contemplate. I believe we are quickly reaching that point with soaring dependency on government assistance. With time dependency habits will evolve into a culture, and the culture will penetrate our national DNA. Time to start thinking the unthinkable.
Robert Weissberg holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, has authored 11 books, and has taught at Cornell University and the University of Illinois-Urbana; he still occasionally teaches a graduate seminar on elections at New York University. A rare academic, Robert had owned and operated a clothing store for fourteen years. This first appeared in Conservative Action Alerts.