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Ten years later, the most striking thing isn't how the poor have adapted to TANF's new rules, which may be more stringent than the previous system but still aren't as constraining as the ideas Magnet, Wilson, or Kaus proposed. It isn't even the increasingly rigid institutions that have filled the social space the poorhouse left behind. (Wagner's book makes a convincing case that the modern homeless shelter tends to be more draconian than the almshouses he studied.) It's how the intrusiveness of the welfare state has climbed up the social ladder, affecting not just the indigent but the wealthy and middle-class beneficiaries (and potential beneficiaries) of the entitlement state. On the left, "public health" Fabians routinely justify restrictions on personal choices—smoking, eating, wearing a helmet—on the grounds that the public will pay the bill if your decision lands you in the hospital. On the right, the border-control crowd uses essentially the same argument against freedom of movement and freedom of contract: As long as we're paying for Mexicans to use our schools and emergency rooms, they argue, it makes sense to restrict immigration.
Immigration, incidentally, is the one area where welfare still has an impact on the culture wars. In the old days, you could rile up red-meat conservatives by arguing the relief rolls were filled with shiftless, undeserving bums living high on the taxpayers' dime. Today, the immigration debate centers not on services meant for the desperate but on services meant for everyone: schools, hospitals, public amenities. Immigrants aren't accused of pretending to be poor or pretending to look for a job. They're accused of pretending to be Americans, of taking goods that rightfully belong to all us citizens regardless of class.
Paupers or millionaires, we're all on welfare now—or might as well be, to judge from the state of our liberties. That's one way to end welfare as we knew it.