I grew up on welfare and it is a raw deal. For about nine years, middle-class life was my lot. Then my father left without a word, never again to provide sufficiently for my mother or her four children. We became welfare recipients. Years later, when I saw him again, he explained that act of abandonment: "Sorry son, but I had to leave, and I knew that the state would take care of you kids and your mother."
The social engineer might call that an example of the disincentive effects of welfare; the welfare eligibility of abandoned families removes the onus of responsibility from the father. But this is also an example of the demoralizing effects of welfare; the integrity of the family is invaded by the state. The small-scale, voluntary interdependence of families—and the sense of responsibility and security that go with it—is threatened by the very existence of welfare benefits. And what benefits can outweigh the deterioration of poor families?
The state, of course, did provide—just enough money for my mother to carry on under constant fear of eviction or loss of welfare eligibility. She would wait in line at a neighborhood distribution center to receive boxes of overproduced foodstuffs such as flour, oatmeal, sugar, powdered milk, powdered eggs, and corn syrup, everything clearly marked "Department of Health, Education, and Welfare." Later, she bought our meals with food stamps, a handy means of publicizing one's dependence.
The social engineer would call this "the elimination of poverty," the greatest virtue of the welfare system. And although the elimination of poverty seems easy to quantify, it is not. A dollar spent on welfare is not equal to a dollar's worth of poverty eliminated. For it is impossible to know in which cases need would persist in the absence of state aid. I will never know how my family would have fared without welfare. Would my father have left in the first place? Would my uncle have helped? Would private organizations have willingly helped provide for my family?
Assuming that nothing but governmental redistribution could have kept us from even worse poverty, there are still costs to be considered that are usually ignored. The state does not give without taking. Yes, it takes from the rich in the form of taxes, but it takes from the poor as well. It takes for itself the right to inquire repeatedly into one's affairs, financial and personal. It takes away privacy and dignity. And remember, the state justifies all this taking and giving in the name of humanity. Gratitude is in order.
Yet every day of the many years that my family was on welfare, I was angry. The indignities of bureaucratic inquisitiveness and my mother's shame were to me the government's way of punishing us for the checks we got in the mail. These feelings of resentment and humiliation have no place in the analysis of the social engineer, yet they are the greatest costs of the welfare system.
The resentment of the welfare recipient is especially burdensome because it has no constructive or sensible direction. When I was a child, who was I to blame? My mother, who after 15 years as a dependent housewife could not earn enough to support a large family? My father, who, thanks to the state, felt that he could abandon his family with moral impunity? Or should I have blamed the state, my humanitarian benefactor?
If anyone is to blame for this mess, it is you—or those of you who are members of the educated, liberal, humanitarian middle or upper-middle class. You have never been poor. You don't want anyone else to be poor. You think something should be done for those who live below some government-determined poverty line. But you never wonder whether the state can take responsibility for individuals without taking responsibility from them.
Real wealth is seldom money; it is power. That power is exactly what the liberal social engineers and their followers have reserved to themselves by advocating welfare. As a boy, I wondered at the altruism of those who, with no special relationship to me, would give some of their income to my family through taxes. But we all know that welfare beneficiaries almost never take what you really cherish. No need to fear that people of different backgrounds, ideas, or colors might supplant you or even join you at the top of the hierarchy—not under a welfare system.
Redistribution is in your interest. It starches the social fabric. It keeps people in their places. It steals the sense of righteous ambition from the poor. The welfare beneficiary cannot point his finger at you or hold out his hand to his neighbor, because he has been provided for and he does not know that the hidden social benefits of that provision are yours. As long as he looks to you for the next check or the next box of surplus food, you are safe; your real wealth is enhanced.
What should be done? Or, better yet, what can you do? You can keep your money and let go of your sanctum. Eliminate the redistribution of wealth. What will the poor do without your aid? We will struggle, challenge, and win as individuals. Because, as you have always claimed to believe, we are your equals. Otherwise, the best egalitarian ends you can expect from your programs are the rare exceptions—welfare beneficiaries who succeed in your system in spite of it and who want to bite the hand that fed them.
Michael S. Christian is a student at Harvard Law School.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: I Was a Victim of Welfare".