- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003



by Michael D. Tanner

Cato Institute, $15, 220 pages

“Politics ruins character,” said German Chancellor OttovonBismarck, the father of the contagious Welfare State, in 1881. The Welfare State infected Britain in 1911 and the United States in 1935, bloating here in 1965 via Medicare and Medicaid. Today it politicizes all the West and Japan.

Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and a man of wit and grit, fathoms the welfare state’s catching if self-defeating core, evinces its unconstitutionality and shows how instead of helping 293 million Americans with Social Security and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), it ends up harming them and, per Bismarck, tends to ruin their character.

On welfare’s unconstitutionality, Mr. Tanner tells how in 1794, then-Rep. James Madison, a Founding Father and the architect of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, told the House as it debated a proposed welfare bill: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Federal Constitution [granting such] a right to Congress.”

President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill to give states land for insane asylums, saying: “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the federal government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States.”

Calling for welfare privatization, Mr. Tanner credits Alexis de Tocqueville for noting in “Democracy in America” (1835-40) how local and state welfare was aided and generally topped by private giving. The author also credits Marvin Olasky and his 1992 book “The Tragedy of American Compassion” for seeing in the first half of U.S. history private charity’s vast variety and reach.

Protestant, Catholic and Jewish charities led and almost all tried to cull the “deserving” from “undeserving” poor. Explains Mr. Tanner: “The deserving poor included those who, although normally self-sufficient, found themselves suddenly in need of help because of sickness, accident, loss of employment during a recession, or similar misfortune.

“The deserving poor also included the elderly, orphans and others for whom circumstances made self-sufficiency impossible. The undeserving poor were those who could be self-sufficient but were not because of personal or ‘moral’ failings; that group included drunkards, layabouts and profligates.”

Well, can welfare foster out-of-wedlock births? Mr. Tanner points to U.S. data from 1960-2001 showing unmarried births as a percentage of all births soaring 632 percent. In 1960, 5.3 percent of all births were out-of-wedlock. Among whites, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 2.3 percent while the rate for blacks was 23 percent. But by 2001 33.5 percent of all births were out-of-wedlock, with the white rate up to 27.7 percent and the black rate to 68.4 percent.

The figures imply family breakup. Mr. Tanner quotes George Gilder, who penned “Wealth and Poverty” (1981): “The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family,” that he is being “cuckolded by the compassionate state.”

Mr. Tanner found corroboration abroad. He cites a study on how Canada’s welfare system hits the family; the study holds that “providing additional benefits to single parents encourages births of children to unwed women.” British studies post similar results.

So, welfare drives politics and vice versa. Mr. Tanner sees the wall facing U.S. poor as welfare itself. For instance, most states limit the amount of assets a family may hold while staying eligible for TANF assistance. Limits are usually low, about $2,000 to $3,000. So families trying to break out of the welfare trap or save some rather than spend all their assistance run into penalties.

Sloth, for example. Mr. Tanner quotes Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu (c. 500 B.C.): “The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.” Or another penalty, crime-cum-prison. Ten years ago,the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) concluded that “ready access to a lifetime of welfare and free social service programs is a major contributory factor to the crime problem we face today.”

Says Mr. Tanner: Despite much “reform,” the giant federal-state welfare maze pushes on, with 70 overlaying anti-poverty programs and a looming $25 trillion unfunded liability in Social Security. Enough, he says. It is civil society that offers “the best hope for the future. Let the debate begin.” Indeed.

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and a contributing editor to the Foundation for Economic Education’s “The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.”

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