Thinking Out Loud: The Founders’ Take on the Welfare State

Americans today are more dependent on the largesse of the federal government than at any time in our history.  Government dependency — defined as those persons receiving one or more federal benefit payments — is the highest ever (47 percent).  Welfare spending is also the highest ever, at $700 billion annually.  More Americans are on food stamps than ever before, nearly 40 million, almost double what it was when President Bush left office.  And, of course, America is $17 trillion in debt.

When Republicans complain about this, they are labeled uncaring and unmindful of the fact that most of them were born into affluence, or at least had solid middle-class backgrounds, that gave them a distinct advantage over the nation’s less fortunate.

So what would the Founding Fathers say about all of this?  Surely there were many less fortunate Americans in the 18th Century who couldn’t take care of themselves and needed assistance in order to survive.  How did the Founder’s approach this age-old problem?

By firmly recognizing that, yes, less fortunate Americans needed help, but the government should be the helper of last resort.  The best way to assist the less fortunate was through local civic institutions — family, church, neighbors, community groups, charitable organizations — which were far more familiar with the conditions that caused poverty and hardship among their fellow citizens, and thus were better able to address the causes of the problem.  To the Founders, a food stamp or other welfare program administered in Washington and intended to benefit citizens in localities hundreds, even thousands of miles away, was unfathomable.

Emphasizing local citizen organizations over distant government bureaucrats also made sense because, while many citizens in the 18th Century were truly disadvantaged, many others — as is even more the case today — were gaming the system due to laziness and irresponsibility.  As such, those in the local community organizations, having regularly interacted with their fellow citizens, were far more likely than a federal bureaucrat working in Washington to identify the truly needy, as opposed to the lazy and irresponsible.

Finally, in the Founders’ day citizens were far less permissive. Personal, moral and civic responsibility were considered crucial to the community’s, and nation’s, welfare, and those who exhibited those traits, even if they had fallen on hard times, were welcomed and helped.  Those who did not were not.

By contrast, in today’s culture of “moral relativism” we have become so permissive there is hardly any stigma attached to living off the government, and in some programs — food stamps being one — the government has actually encouraged enrollment.

Ben Franklin once wrote, “The more public (government) provisions that were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer.”