Welfare programs tend to expand. Advocacy groups discover coverage “gaps.” Economic downturns understandably sow sympathy for the needy. Arcane eligibility rules are liberalized. In 2010, a fifth of food stamp recipients had incomes exceeding twice the federal poverty line (about $45,000 for a family of four), estimates a study by David Armor and Sonia Sousa of George Mason University.
Eberstadt, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sees three dangers in the welfare state’s unchecked growth.
Robert J. Samuelson
Samuelson writes a weekly column on economics.
First, it squeezes other government programs. This is already happening. President Obama’s budget assumes that defense spending, as a share of the economy, falls 39 percent from 2011 to 2022. The Army is to drop by 80,000 soldiers, the Marines, 20,000. Domestic “discretionary” spending is cut even more, 45 percent. Research, education, transportation, law enforcement and other programs face pressures.
Second, it undermines work incentives. This, too, is occurring. Social Security’s eligibility ages influence retirement. If eligibility were higher, people would work longer. Eberstadt thinks that relaxed disability requirements have lowered work effort. In 2011, about 4.5 percent of working-age adults (20-64) received Social Security disability benefits, up from 1.3 percent in 1970.
Finally, there’s a moral cost. It encourages “gaming” the system to maximize benefits. It devalues the ethic of “earned success.” There’s tension between helping the truly needy and fostering dependence on government and helplessness.
The welfare state’s great contradiction — the reason its politics are so messy — is that what seems good for the individual is not, when multiplied by thousands or millions of cases, always good for society. Politicians appeal to individuals who vote, but in doing so may shortchange the nation. Most obviously: The welfare state’s costs may depress economic growth.
The need is not to dismantle the welfare state but to modernize it gradually, preserving its virtues, minimizing its vices and not doing it abruptly so as to derail the recovery. But first we need to admit it exists.