There are two powerful reasons for giving government aid to the poor, one good and one bad. It alleviates human suffering, which is good. And it increases dependence on government, which is bad.
Or at least it is bad if you believe in virtues such as personal responsibility and self-reliance. On the other hand, if you are (let us say) a Democratic congressman or a bureaucrat in the Department of Health and Human Services, then swelling the rolls of those who need your help could be a very good thing indeed. At least for you.
This might sound just the teeniest bit paranoid and nutty. But that does not make it wrong; even paranoids can have enemies. And the past few weeks have produced a passel of evidence that government and its principal cheerleaders would like very much to render Americans more rather than less dependent on them. Consider:
A few days ago the Department of Health and Human Services adopted a change in policy that "ends welfare reform as we know it," according to Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. HHS has decided to grant waivers to states that will knock out the keystone of the welfare-reform arch: the work requirement. That requirement helped cut welfare rolls in half. But now states will be able to "test alternative and innovative strategies," including "multi-year career pathways" and "a comprehensive universal engagement system," whatever that is. Neoliberal Mickey Kaus calls it, probably correctly, a "stay-on-the-dole-while-we-keep-you-busy-with-anything-other-than-actual-work" system.
The Department of Agriculture also has been doing its part for the welfare state: It has been producing Spanish-language radio novelas dramatizing the desirability of signing up for food stamps, or whatWashington calls the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). "Will Claudia convince Ramon to apply for SNAP? Don't miss our next episode of Hope Park!" concluded a typical spot. (Once word of the campaign spread, the department deep-sixed it.)
A similar USDA program has been trying to combat ostensibly nefarious value systems – such as pride, personal responsibility and self-reliance. The Daily Caller reports that last year the department handed out Hunger Champion awards to North Carolina officials who developed strategies for "counteracting what they described as 'mountain pride' [by appealing] to those who wished not to rely on others." A USDA fact sheet stressed the importance of countering "myths about SNAP among those who . . . have beliefs that discourage them from enrolling."
In short, the USDA is not merely making sure that people who want food stamps know how to access them. It is trying to sign up people who don't want them in the first place.
These efforts march in tandem with the Obama administration's greatest triumph to date, the 2010 health-care overhaul. Democrats are happy that the Supreme Court upheld the law – but furious that some Republican governors are not embracing one of its principal components, a major expansion of Medicaid. That expansion, says The Washington Post, "would seem an irresistible deal for states: Starting in 2014, in exchange for spending a percent or two more of their own funds, states will get nearly a trillion additional federal dollars." A trillion? Thank goodness Obamacare aims to "bend the cost curve downward." Otherwise we might be talking about real money!
Of course, this is a swell deal only for state governments – not for state residents. Congressional and White House staffers will not exactly be passing around a bucket to pay the tab; the money will come from taxpayers who live in the very states that supposedly are so lucky to receive such lavish funding. (That minor detail calls to mind one of Will Rogers' quips: "I can remember way back when a liberal was generous with his own money.")
If you want a glimpse of where this relentless campaign to increase dependence will lead, cast your eye to Europe – whose metastasizing welfare state is devouring the last remnant of the continent's substance. The result there? An increase, not a diminution, of human suffering.
Most Americans do not object to government programs that offer temporary help those who have fallen on hard times; nobody wants to see children go hungry because a factory shut down. But the public does resent, rather strongly, the cycle of dependency that the 1996 welfare-reform law sought to break. It does not want a perpetual underclass that votes for whichever politician offers the biggest cut of other people's money. Americans believe in the cliché about giving people a hand up, not a handout. That is why a 2008 campaign spot boasted that a certain candidate "passed a law to move people from welfare to work; slashed the rolls by 80 percent. . . . As president [he'll] never forget the dignity that comes from work."
The candidate's name? Barack Obama. Like so many of the president's promises, it rings rather hollow now.