- - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prescient and deliberate, our Founding Fathers conceived a nation governed in a manner that would incentivize American exceptionalism. They understood that the key to keeping America free and prosperous was not government. It would be its people. A country whose social fabric was rooted in the basic tenets of personal responsibility, service, sacrifice and compassion.

What our country’s architects did not aspire to was a 21st-century citizenry suffering from rampant, hard-to-cure addiction to government handouts. Nor would they have guessed the next so-called American Revolution would be a loosely aligned group of chronically unemployed egotists and union thugs waging a strange warfare on our nation’s own job creators and entrepreneurs.

Our government assistance programs were originally created to offer a “safety net” to those who were temporarily down on their luck or who could not help themselves — the elderly, infirm, wounded veterans. Many were programs conjured in the midst of the Great Depression when roughly a quarter of the nation’s workers were without a job. These programs were not intended to replace work for the able, subsidize iPhones or create a new social class of taxpayer dependents.

At our core, we are a humble, hardworking, law-abiding nation now at a crisis point because for years our leaders have turned their backs on our founding principles. These virtues are being replaced by a right-to-not-work culture. This new ethos eschews hard work in favor of the “give me” mantra of individuals who surf the Internet for the best free lunch rather than to find gainful employment. Our safety net for some has become an entitlement web ensnaring nearly half of our population.

Curing the addiction to government handouts will require extensive policy reform and a fundamental cultural shift. We must eliminate redundancy in our assistance programs and execute overall reductions in the total amount we spend each year. We must also implement greater accountability measures to ensure these dollars go to the individuals and families most in need. Honest work — whether it is manual labor or an entry level office job — must provide a step up from the current government-issued rewards of unemployment compensation.

One need go no further than www.Benefits.com to learn about at least 1,351 government assistance and subsidy programs available. They range from money to improve the quality of food in child and adult care centers to the Weatherization Assistance Program that helps drive down energy costs for low-income families to a variety of counseling programs.

Despite efforts to fight fraud, abuse remains rampant in the system. It is often reported Electronic Benefit Transfer cards are widely used to withdraw assistance dollars in exotic vacation destinations like Hawaii, Alaska and European hot spots. America’s “safety net” programs have morphed into a way of life in which families are better off living off a menu of government benefits than joining the workforce.

It is incumbent upon — and long overdue for — Congress to address these issues. Leaders in the Senate and House should create ad hoc committees within the current appropriations infrastructure to eliminate overlap, strengthen anti-fraud measures and connect the dots when it comes to exactly what and how much we are funding. Right now, the only organizations reviewing these programs comprehensively are community organizing groups like ACORN that seek to help individuals who share their political leanings to exploit the system at the taxpayers’ expense.

Kicking our addiction also requires a departure from a collective mentality that has led generations of Americans to leave their dignity, self-respect and self-reliance at the doorstep of big government. We have turned millions of our citizens into cradle-to-grave dependents because we have made it easier to get free housing, free transportation, hot meals and top health care — all with the bonus of escaping tax burdens. Our last-resort programs have become a viable and socially acceptable alternative to hard work and sweat equity.

America exceptionalism will be lost to our past if our policies and culture continue encouraging chronic unemployment and single parenthood by providing a better life for those who don’t work than those who play by the rules.

This insanity must stop.

Proponents from the left will cry out that this is a heartless approach, insensitive to the plight of the poor, especially in a tough economy. But, the opposite is true. True caring for our fellow neighbors is instilling in the less fortunate the belief that they can have higher expectations for themselves and their loved ones. Throughout our history, hardworking Americans from similar backgrounds learned to play by the rules and succeeded because of it.

We will always be a compassionate nation. We will feed our hungry, clothe the poor, care for the needy sick and elderly and ensure every single child has access to a quality education. But, we must no longer be taken advantage of by socially irresponsible individuals.

Our Founding Fathers agreed that our Creator endowed us with the unalienable right to pursue happiness. We all share this opportunity, and achieving it begins with a desire to work for it.

• Al Cardenas is chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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