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Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More from the Poor—and from Ourselves

by James L. Payne


James L. Payne argues that welfare contributes to the following: Envy, resentment, unfairness, depression, freeloading, self-destruction, destruction of others, low motivation, low self-efficacy, radical alienation, and lack of autonomy. Payne recommends work.


He writes: “Help must demand accomplishment.” One rule, he argues, should be all should contribute. Accomplishment must be a standard, even when problems are unmerited. Brooding over the bad things that happened to you and others accomplishes nothing, even when the fault for bad things is completely something or someone else’s. When you are not at fault for bad things, you are still responsible for making better things happen in the future. Misplaced compassion wrecks morale and multiplies problems. To do for others what they should do, is degrading and harmful. To make heroic efforts for someone unwilling to make the efforts they should make is immoral.


Payne regards the aggravation principle as immensely important: “[R]epeated giving prompted by misfortune or bad actions or both increases the incidence of the problems. That problems are often undeserved does not make sympathetic giving a sound policy.” The more that gets spent on welfare, the more it somehow is “needed,” causing even more to be spent in vicious cycles. Welfare creates multitudes of moral hazards. People start taking bad risks because someone else gets stuck with the costs when bad alternatives are chosen. He also takes task commitment—believing whatever we are doing is valuable—to task. We too often justify destructive habits to protect our self-worth.  Economic need spurs good actions. Without that pressure, wasted lives are often the result.


Payne proposes a system of expectant assistance, demanding performance in exchange for assistance. Traditional programs typically give and give. Recipients then do what they please. He argues that when all state and federal welfare programs are added the bill comes to over $300 billion per year. Welfare activists typically cite a much smaller number because they count only TANF as welfare, ignoring dozens of other programs. The bill in human harms and opportunity losses is greater.


The counterargument that reforming welfare is too paternalistic is weak. If that is the case, then pro-welfare policies are themselves a form of paternalism inflicted on taxpayers and children, forcing taxpayers to do harmful things with their money, dictating where children must live and under what conditions. Pro-welfare paternalism leads to terrible consequences, failing to distinguish between contributors and non-contributors, between children automatically dependent, and adults pretending to require dependency. Those not competent enough to work at jobs, are probably not competent enough for childcare.


Individuals on welfare, J.S. Mill noted elsewhere, should not be better off than the least advantaged workers in the private sector, including the large transportation and child care costs born by the least advantaged in the private work force, costs which should be small for those on welfare. Welfare demoralizes and alienates low-income working individuals. Michael Tanner argues elsewhere that in at least eight states, the overall welfare package—TANF, Medicaid, food stamps, other federal programs, state and local programs—pays more than a $12.00 an hour job in 1995 dollars. In at least 40 states, welfare pays more than an $8.00 an hour job (in 1995 dollars).


According to research by the Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment and the Denver Income Maintenance Experiment, each additional dollar in welfare reduces earned income by 80 cents.


Mostly social philosophy, Overcoming Welfare lacks specific recommendations, placing too much emphasis on charity.

The AAFRC Trust For Philanthropy reports only ten percent of $190 billion donated to charity in 1999 was for basic human services and international affairs, not including domestic health care spending. Most charitable contributions go for religion, the arts and so on. Private charity can also be dependency creating and goodness destroying.


Payne places too much emphasis on shaming. Policies are what end welfare, not shaming. Individuals in fluid modern societies do not make major changes in their lives because some caseworker shames them a couple times a year. Recommended.    243p (H) 1998


Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.


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