The Character Issue

The "pathologies" of welfare aren't confined to its recipients.


Mrs. G. Harris Robertson is one of the most influential women in American history, though almost no one has heard of her and I couldn't tell you her given name. She is the mother of the welfare state, the progenitor of the nanny state and its resentful children.

A proper turn-of-the-century lady, Mrs. Robertson believed in full-time motherhood as both the greatest expression of feminine virtue and the strongest support for a healthy society; she campaigned for family values in a maternalist state. "Our government should be maternal, some may prefer to call it paternal, there is no difference," she said. "The state is a parent, and, as a wise and gentle and kind and loving parent, should beam down on each child alike."

With thousands of other clubwomen, Mrs. Robertson campaigned for "mothers' pensions," state subsidies to families without fathers. In a rousing 1911 speech that launched the National Congress of Mothers' successful crusade, she declared that such subsidies should even "include the deserted wife, and the mother who has never been a wife….Today let us honor the mother wherever found—if she has given a citizen to the nation, then the nation owes something to her." (The campaign for a maternal state is sympathetically recounted by Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol in her recent book Protecting Soldiers and Mothers.)

Mrs. Robertson and her organized mothers couldn't vote, but they influenced those who could. Mothers' pensions swept the states, though they were never as generous, and rarely as inclusive, as Mrs. Robertson had wished. When FDR came along, these mother-honoring state programs were rolled into the Social Security Act. They became Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a.k.a. Welfare As We Know It.

In her day, Mrs. Robertson faced the same objections to her favorite social program that Mrs. Clinton faces to hers, and she replied with a quainter version of the same rhetoric: "Do not rise up in indignation to call this Socialism—it is the sanest of statesmanship. If our public mind is maternal, loving and generous, wanting to save and develop all, our Government will express this sentiment … [E]very step we make toward establishing government along these lines means an advance toward the Kingdom of Peace."

Eighty-two years later, we are a long way from the Kingdom of Peace, and the public mind is anything but maternal, loving, and generous. We no longer believe that government policy can usher in a messianic age. Nor do we deem government aid an "honorable" payment for the service of raising a child.

To the contrary, Americans deeply resent both the welfare system and its beneficiaries—resentment that has shattered the empathy that led Mrs. Robertson and her allies to identify with poor mothers, resentment that feeds ethnic stereotypes and racial hatreds, resentment that is turning a culture of self-reliance and individualism into a culture of victimhood and nosy animosity.

The welfare state has expanded beyond widows and orphans (and the farm programs that inspired the mothers' movement) to include almost everyone in one way or another—through student loans, retirement money, ever-growing health-care benefits that the Clintons would expand even more. One in every 100 Americans works for a government social-service agency or hospital. Millions more depend indirectly on government transfers.

So your own business is now the public's: Cigarette smoking isn't a private vice but a public-health issue; after all, says anti-smoking activist Ahron Leichtman, "Who pays for these people when they're ill and they're indigent and they go in the hospital?" The same goes for riding motorcycles without helmets, for drugs and drink, for driving without seat belts, for crossing the border to have an American-born baby.

We have become like the workers in Ayn Rand's story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, a factory in which work and wages were based on "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." A fable drawn in broad strokes, it is nonetheless prophetic: "In the old days, we used to celebrate if somebody had a baby, we used to chip in and help him out with the hospital bills, if he happened to be hard-pressed for the moment. Now, if a baby was born, we didn't speak to the parents for weeks. Babies, to us, had become what locusts were to farmers."

Locusts to farmers.

You cannot go a block in Los Angeles without seeing immigrants working; they bus tables and run shops, drill teeth and tend gardens, give manicures and clean houses. They were noticeably absent from the hundreds of people lined up for post-earthquake food stamps at the welfare office I pass on my way to work. A few blocks away you could find Latin Americans by the side of the road: soliciting day work on construction sites, selling strawberries or roses. Farmers, not locusts.

But Mrs. Robertson's legacy makes us see mouths to feed, not hands to work, in every new American—every child, every immigrant. "At least in the short run, the large number of illegals in California, and the high birthrate they represent, also contribute disproportionately to the mushrooming cost of maintaining the state's public services: welfare, schools, prisons, health care," opines the Sacramento Bee.

Republican Assemblyman William Knight produced a less polite version of the same message, circulating a constituent's doggerel that read in part, "Sent for family, they just trash! But they all draw more welfare cash … We have a hobby, it's called breeding, welfare pay for baby feeding." He was denounced as a racist, but his message is conventional wisdom: Immigrants are locusts. A lot of Americans, mostly off the record, believe the same of blacks. The welfare state feeds their prejudices.

And locusts are popular in some quarters. Welfare's defenders often disparage work—especially low-paid and manual work—and the people who value it. They imply than anyone who does such work is a victim or a sucker.

A lawsuit filed to block New Jersey's welfare reform, which stopped the practice of giving welfare mothers additional money if they have more kids, complains, "It is designed to compel adult AFDC recipients to work." Newsday columnist Robert Reno blasts "the Giuliani approach to welfare reform: Draft the poor to clean up New York and fill its potholes. Too bad there aren't some salt mines handy to the city … [I]f New York has sunk to that level, what's the point of cleaning it up?"

We might ask the same question about our welfare state, about tinkering with reforms rather than scrapping a failed experiment. The fundamental issue behind welfare reform isn't whether the government should make welfare mothers work or whether it should deter them from having kids out of wedlock. It is what the welfare state, in all its manifestations, has done to all of us, how it has corrupted our character. Mrs. Robertson's legacy has proved to be a triumph of statecraft as soulcraft, and its results are not exactly the motherly love, lower crime rates, and humane citizens we were promised.