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Beyond the welfare state

Effective Compassion | Choosing a different path to stop the downward spiral of government dependence

Thank you for making WORLD’s Saturday Series a well-read part of our website. We’ve at times presented sermons, and over the next year we’ll occasionally print speeches about public policy issues. To get us started, here’s one I gave at the Manning Centre’s annual Networking Conference in Canada last year.

Four decades ago, when I was 21 and just graduating from college, I decided to bicycle across the United States. I started in Boston and kept going until I reached the city in Oregon where I had a newspaper job lined up. Wanting to go on pretty much a straight line, I bicycled across upstate New York, entered Ontario at Niagara Falls, and kept bicycling to Windsor—but on the way one day I stopped at a War of 1812 battle site. There I read about the American aggression, with the marauding invaders stopped by brave Canadians.

It was my first lesson on how things can look different on the other side of the border. And yet, having read a little bit about trends on your side, we may have more that unites us than divides us. Although Canada has not suffered economically to the extent the United States has, we both have high debt-to-GDP ratios. We both have the need to reduce our national budgets. We both have debates about governmental welfare. That’s what I’ll address briefly. First, a brief history of U.S. anti-poverty efforts. Second, where we are now south of the border. Third, where we are going.

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Let’s start with some history. Canada has had its own successes and failures, but in the United States from the 17th century through the 1920s we waged a war on poverty much more successful than recent governmental programs. The warriors were thousands of local, private charitable agencies and religious groups across the country. They did not abolish poverty, but they helped millions out of poverty.

Then, other people, new immigrants, would present new needs, but springs of fresh water always flowed among the poor. Now we have blocks of ice sitting in a perpetual winter of multi-generational welfare dependency—always winter and never Christmas. Those earlier groups helped people out of poverty because the help they offered was challenging, personal, and spiritual. They pushed people to work and gave them partners and mentors to help them find a job and stay in one. They helped these individuals’ self-image by showing them that a wonderful God created them with the ability to do great things.

Federal welfare programs in the United States began in a time of great need: the 1930s. Politicians described the Depression as a plague that would run its course, so welfare was supposed to be a temporary measure: The agency in charge was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Bureau of the Budget Director Lewis Douglas warned emphatically that “thousands would settle into government-made jobs” if programs were long-lasting, and the result would be long-term economic collapse.

Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged the danger of welfare programs becoming “a habit with the country.” In November 1933, he said, “When any man or woman goes on a dole something happens to them mentally, and the quicker they are taken off the dole the better it is for them the rest of their lives.” Early in 1935 Roosevelt argued, “We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination. …”

Later that year Roosevelt noted, “In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.”

From the 1940s through the 1980s, officials did not keep that barrier high. They kept lowering it. Instead of emphasizing challenging, personal, and spiritual help, they increasingly emphasized entitlement. In the 1960s they started banning any mention of God. Government organizations enabled people to stay poor instead of challenging them to come out of poverty.

Many U.S. Republican opponents of welfare from the 1960s to the 1980s complained about the cost of welfare but underemphasized that issue of “moral disintegration.” When I started researching this issue in the late 1980s, conservatives were still complaining about the overall cost in dollars but not the cost in human lives. They didn’t emphasize the problem to the recipients—that welfare encouraged them to give up on work and turn the safety net into a shabby hammock.

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