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Charity, dependency, and entitlement

I’ve always been fascinated by the differences between charity and government-provided welfare entitlements.  There are many practical differences, of course, including the eternal left-wing contention that voluntary charity can never adequately provide for the needs of the destitute, so an immense system of compulsory welfare is required.  There are important conceptual differences, too, and the big ones are contained within two words from the previous two sentences: “compulsory” and “entitlement.”

The welfare state has absolutely exploded over the past few years, capping off decades of spirited growth.  To describe programs such as SNAP (i.e. food stamps) as part of a “social safety net” is laughable.  As Daniel Payne notes at The Federalist today, 20 percent of American households are now enrolled in SNAP.  That’s not a safety net – it’s the foundation of an entirely separate society.  And the upper edges of Food Stamp Nation now extend well into the formerly independent Middle Class.  The end game for American socialism was never a society in which pure Takers dominate indentured Makers, endlessly voting themselves the largess of the federal treasury, because they’ve got a 51 percent or better majority.  Instead, it’s about creating a hybrid class of Takers who are also Makers – people who see themselves as highly productive taxpaying members of society, but who are dependent on government wealth transfer programs to make ends meet.

It’s not hard to get people dependent upon such programs.  You don’t have to pay someone’s full freight to get him hooked on welfare, or plant the seeds of dependency for generations to come.  Give someone who makes a good living just $50 or $100 a week in food assistance, and you’ve got the fish on your socialist line.  Those people will adjust their lives around their welfare benefits, thanks to the liquid nature of their income stream  – a hundred bucks in food stamps frees up a hundred dollars in cash they can spend on other things.  An ObamaCare subsidy which defers $100 a month of jacked-up ObamaCare premiums will pave the way for a lifetime of government dependency, and it will spread to other areas of life, once those hard-working taxpaying Middle Class folk grow accustomed to seeing their government lollipops as an entitlement they deserve.

I wrote at length years ago that the grand project of the Left was to completely remove the stigma associated with accepting voluntary charity.  I’ve worked for charitable organizations before, and nobody involved was looking down their noses at the recipients, but it could still fairly be said that a certain stigma was associated with the process: it was understood that the beneficiaries would do their level best to get off charitable assistance as quickly as possible, and perhaps even repay the generosity of their benefactors someday, by becoming a benefactor.  Scarce resources were needed for others in dire straits.  You can’t march up to voluntary donors and demand they take care of you for life.

But you can do that to taxpayers, with the coercive power of a titanic welfare state to handle the negotiations for you.  Apologies that I can’t find the link to my old post, but Payne says the same thing very well at The Federalist, prompted to write by a public-school initiative that aims to put every student on the “free lunch” program… making kids accustomed at a very young age to look for “free” benefits they “deserve” to collect.

It’s bad enough that we’ll have more students belly up to the government food trough (if you’ve never had a taste of “free” government lunch, consider yourself lucky); instead, consider RPS Superintendent Dana Bedden’s positive gushing about the new program: “I like it for the health and nutrition aspect, but this also removes the stigma of free lunch. Everyone can eat.”

Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency. With all due respect to Bedden, he and the rest of Richmond Public Schools are doing a grave disservice by attempting to remove the “stigma” associated with free government handouts. While the city’s busy filling its school buildings with vermin and serpents, it might consider inculcating a modicum of self-reliance within its studentry.

Not to tread too heavily on too many sensitive progressive ideals, but there should be a stigma surrounding government dependency; that’s not to say we should adopt a campaign of aggressive public shaming for anyone who goes on the dole, only that we shouldn’t create an atmosphere–especially amongst children–in which “free lunch” is a no-big-deal kind of thing.

Of course, everyone on the Left pays insincere lip service to the idea that welfare should be temporary, and nobody should treat the safety net as a hammock… but the far more powerful and widely-transmitted message sent by their policies is very much the opposite.  As Payne notes, the very idea of “stigmatizing” welfare dependency makes liberals extremely uncomfortable, even though such stigma is the inevitable logical consequence of sincerely believing that no one should treat the social safety net as a hammock.  Conversely, if there is zero stigma associated with accessing the safety net, there is no reason for people to believe there is a hard time limit on their residence within it.  

In fact, since very few people are cheerfully willing to see themselves as hapless dependents, the complete dissolution of welfare stigma causes an angry sense of entitlement to replace it.  There is defensive outrage against anyone who might take benefits away, harvested and refined by opportunistic left-wing politicians.  There’s also frustrated ambition, the natural human tendency to desire improvement for your standard of living.  Angry demands are the only way to secure such improvements for a long-term welfare dependent, especially when a moribund economy provides few attractive options for satisfying ambition through hard work.  (In quite a few states, it is literally illogical to give up welfare benefits in exchange for entry-level work.)  

The corrosive effects of this dependency culture across generations are terrifying, and patently obvious.  That doesn’t stop the Left from denying them, of course.  Maybe we can start bringing stigma back into the system by aggressively stigmatizing the deniers.  Decades of the Great Society left taxpayers poorer, and beneficiaries devastated.  It wasn’t just a mistake, it was a hideous disaster.  It’s long past time to junk it all, before the tendrils of that disaster reach any further into a Middle Class that stands on the verge of losing its self-reliance and independence… and therefore ceasing to exist.

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