Federal welfare and the undeserving poor *UPDATED*

George Bernard Shaw was a reprehensible human being and, for the most part, quite bombastic (by which I mean dull, because polemical) playwright.  Nevertheless, he occasionally hit the nail on the head, as he does with this little monologue by Alfred Doolittle, from Pygmalion, a man who feels that welfare and morality should never be intertwined:

Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor:  that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up against middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, ’cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth.

One of the things implicit in Doolittle’s speech is the belief that welfare agencies would actually recognize the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.  Certainly it was true for centuries that England tried to distinguish between the two.  England’s ancient poor laws required local communities to care for their own poor.  To use a weak analogy when thinking about pre-Industrial England, the system was a state system, rather than a federal one, with the national government mandating local responsibilities, but otherwise staying out of the way.

These local poor laws had a definite down side:  communities tended to be very xenophobic, since they were worried that any strangers coming through might become a welfare burden.  Generosity also varied greatly from locality to locality, with Town X perhaps being infinitely more beneficent than Town Y.  The gaps in the system left old people dying in their beds of starvation, and orphan children dying by the side of the road.

The old poor laws weren’t all bad, though.  Their main virtue was the way in which they allowed the community to apply to its decision-making actual knowledge about the state of the person seeking charity.  Thus, the community would know for an absolute fact that Widow Green was genuinely destitute, and incapable of keeping herself, thereby making her one of the deserving poor.  Likewise, the community would know that Joe Smith was simply lazy and drank too much.  As to Joe, the hardworking people in the community, who were often hungry themselves, would see little virtue in subsidizing him.  Conversely, looking at Widow Green, each would think “there but for the Grace of God go I (or my wife, or mother, or father),” and would much more willingly aid the poor widow.

As industrialization took over in England, the British had to grapple with the fact that urbanization meant one no longer knew ones neighbors.  It was impossible to tell whether that strange man  seeking aid was truly down on his luck or was simply a slacker looking for a buck (or, I guess I should say, a pound).  The Victorian response was the infamous “poor house,” which institutionalized poor people.  The theory was that, if you were in a poor house, it would be obvious if you were able to work, in which case you would be put to work for your food, or if you were genuinely incapable of supporting yourself, in which case you would be given charity without labor as a purchase price.

In theory, the poor house was quite a sound system, neatly separating the needy wheat from the lazy chaff. In practice, though, the poor house was a magnet for abuse.  The “able” poor were worked liked slaves; the “disabled” poor were starved and abused.  The poor houses were also dead ends from which it was very difficult to emerge.  Unless your local poorhouse had a truly enlightened management, which sought to teach people useful skills and find them employment, it was pretty much a revolving door of slavery and abject poverty.

When the welfare state came along, however, all distinctions between deserving and undeserving poor went out the window.  The system assumed that, with everyone stirred into a single joyful, Communist economic pot, those who could work would want to, and that those who claimed disability would be telling the truth.  Somehow the socialists entirely missed out on the seminar discussing base human nature.

The fact is that there are some people who are lazy, and will not work unless an external force pressures them to do so.  There are some people who feel an enormous sense of entitlement and will not work if they feel they are superior to all offerings in the marketplace.  There are some people who consider scamming the system sufficient work in and of itself.  And there are, of course, people who are genuinely incapable of caring for themselves:  the disabled (mentally and physically), the aged, the widow surrounded by her children, the 0rphan.  In an ideal world, family steps in to help.  In a welfare world, the federals get greeted with “Hello, Daddy!”

In other words, our federal welfare system is set up so that, no matter who turns up at the door, the system does not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving.  It is a vast bureaucracy that, aside from forcing people through a few meaningless hurdles (such as pretending to look for a job), treats all comers as equally needy.  This is partially because we live in a non-judgmental world (unless you’re a conservative, in which case you deserve all negative judgments rained down upon you), and it is considered politically incorrect to hint that someone’s bad situation might be a result of bad decisions and bad behavior, rather than bad luck.  This is also because, in a system that is the antithesis of the old British poor laws, the people charged with handing out the money are completely ignorant about the identity and nature of those applying for this recycled tax money.

This double whammy — political correctness and the ignorance of a giant bureaucracy — is an enticement to those who, in Doolittle’s words, think to themselves, “I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, ’cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving.”

I’ve certainly seen many people over the years who have cheerfully, or arrogantly, abused the system.  And I’m not talking about the infamous “welfare queens” of the Clinton era, those larger than life women who lived in all-black ghettoes, and raised five children, all by different fathers, with each child’s welfare payments contributing to the family pot.  I’m actually thinking of welfare abusers who come from middle class homes and simply feel entitled to support.  When their families stop supporting them, they believe the “system” should take over.

I first became aware of this sense of entitlement as a child living in a home with a father who worked like a dog.  Throughout my childhood, my Dad held two and sometimes three jobs at a time, in addition to earning his Masters in the hopes that he could increase his earning power (faint hope, that).  He was, in other words, an old fashioned moralist who believed that a man is responsible for himself and his family.

Daddy was livid, truly livid, when he learned that a certain shlub we knew through Israeli folk dancing (an activity that attracted both families and hippy-dippies), while on welfare, had indulged himself with a trip to Mexico, and was planning on a trip to Hawaii.  That would have been the year we couldn’t afford a trip anywhere thanks, in part, to the fact that my Dad was subsidizing these scroungers through his taxes.

What also brought my Dad to a foaming frenzy was the way in which the daughter of family friends conducted herself.  These friends were quite well-to-do.  When their daughter didn’t want to live at home anymore (she was in her early 20s), they did not set her up in an apartment, nor did she get a job.  Instead, she simply moved out and instantly applied for welfare.  Once again, my father found himself subsidizing a young woman whose needs were substantially less than his, and whose family much richer.

With the current recession, I know people who lost their jobs, and looked for and found new ones.  For all of them, it was a dreadful, destabilizing experience.  Some had to leave communities in which they had deep roots.  Others had to settle for jobs far removed from their interests or skills.  I deeply sympathized with their travails, and counted my blessings (as I do daily) that I was not forced to make the hard decisions that were driving them.

However, during this same recession, I’ve also known people who feel that they ought to be holding a specific type of job, with a specific market cachet, and refuse to settle for anything less.  These job snobs are on welfare now, and you and I are supporting them.  Apparently welfare is more honorable than the “wrong” kind of job.  Given their sense of entitlement, I can assure you that these people are not at all appreciative of your tax sacrifice.  They feel, instead, that they’ve been done wrong by a system that fails to recognize their true worth.

I don’t have an answer to the conundrum of the poor.  As the Bible says, “For ye have the poor always with you” (Matthew 26:11.)  However, I do have a few core beliefs that would dictate a an approach entirely different from our current federal welfare.

First of all, I would get the feds out of welfare entirely.  I don’t see anything in the Constitution that allows the feds to engage in this type of wealth redistribution, even for ostensibly charitable reasons.

Second, I would drastically reduce taxes all around.  As you know, I believe that government doesn’t create wealth, it simply prints money.  People create wealth.  And, to recycle a hackneyed phrase, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  If we can stop the paper money cycle of an overweaning federal government, and encourage genuine wealth (and job) creation, the scale of poverty would be significantly smaller.

Third, I would take a page out of the old English poor laws and make welfare a local system, although I would agree to make it subject to state, or even federal oversight to avoid the glaring inequities that resulted either from pre-Industrial xenophobia or post-Industrial greed.  By localizing welfare, those charged with distributing money would have a much better handle on that sticky line between deserving and undeserving poor.  Oh, and as to this last one, I would through PC pieties out that window and draw that line with impunity.  If you are capable of working, you work; if not, as a moral person, in a moral society, I will provide for your care.

The final conundrum, which is a subset of my belief that people should work if they can, is to figure out how to create jobs that aren’t tantamount to slavery.  The logical thing, of course, would be to put these people to work for the local community’s benefit:  caring for public lands, cleaning litter, etc.  To avoid the slavery issue, they would be paid the going, non-union rate for their labors.  The problem, of course, would be that these people would complete with the SEIU and other government unions.  So the last thing I’d do is to get rid of the government unions.  Boy, wouldn’t that be a change to the system?

UPDATE:  Speaking of unending welfare….

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  1. says

    I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about pre-industrial-revolution and early-industrial-revolution Britain. The Poor Law system greatly restricted the mobility of anyone who wasn’t a property owner–you were assigned to your parish, and they were responsible for your welfare should you become impoverished, even if you’d moved somewhere else and lived there a long time. Hence, the poor, even the working poor, required *permission* to change their place of residence.

    There was also considerable government intervention in wages–both maximum wages and minimum wages–in agricultural areas.  This was at times mixed with a strange subsidy system, in which landowners paid their employees sub-survival wages but they (the employees) also received payments from the poor rates…hard to see how this benefitted then landowners since they were the ones paying the poor rates in the first place.

  2. says

    I agree, David, about the economic hindrance that was the poor law.  If you were poor, you couldn’t move, and if you were rich, you never wanted to see new faces.  As I said, it’s signal virtue was that it enabled a community accurately to assess sloth and neediness.

  3. says

    “Boy, wouldn’t that be a change to the system?”
    As Danny mentioned before, many of us would be better rulers of this nation than the current crop of prostitute seeking plutocrats and robber barons.
    It’s not like we need to get the details right. That’s what the intellectual class is for, to crunch numbers for us. Visionary leaders have always had weaknesses and blind spots, but their primary importance to a group was always that they had the vision and capability to bring about necessary change without destroying the entire community in the process.


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