AT THE MOMENT, the government of the United States is sending out checks to help some people pay their heating bills. The checks are going out whether the people want them or not, whether they need them or not, whether, in fact, they pay for heating or they don't. Anatole France would have understood. He is the French writer who observed that in France both the rich and the poor were free to sleep under the bridges of Paris.
The checks have been sent to persons in nursing homes and insane asylums and shelters of various kinds. In Washington, the checks were received by women in a women's shelter, and presumably men in the men's shelter, and maybe some people incarcerated in penal institutions -- a phrase I once heard for being in the slammer.
One check was sent, for instance, to a mentally ill patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital. The patient's brother-in-law was quoted in the paper wondering at the logic of it all, thus missing a wonderful opportunity to question who, in this case, was really crazy.
The government's explanation for all this is that it is saving time and probably have cost too much to have culled the eligible poor -- those who pay their own heating bills -- from the ineligible poor. Winter was coming on and some people needed the money. Therefore, the humane and efficient thing to do was to send everyone the money. This could be called the shotgun approach to welfare. If you send out enough checks, you are bound to hit someone who is eligible.
The trouble here is that this is not the first time the government has worshiped the twin gods of efficiency and humanitarianism and come up with a sham. It happens all the time and it happens most frequently with welfare programs, where we are told a certain amount of cheating has to be tolerated. The argument is usually that it would cost too much and take too much time to eradicate all cheating and that the money to do that would come from the welfare program itself. It is, as they say, counterproductive.
This is pretty much the same argument used to explain why for years almost no attempt was made to collect on student loans. What you were told was that it would cost more to collect on the bad debts than the debts themselves were worth. Similarly, many local governments make no real attempt to collect on bad checks of less than say, $100. They say it's just not worth the time and money.
Taken individually, the explanations always make sense. They appeal to our desire for efficiency and the liberal urge most of us have to provide welfare for those who need it. If that doesn't do it, you get the ultimate argument, which is to be accused of caring more about some welfare chiselers than you do about all those who need welfare. With that, you shrink guiltily away.
But after awhile the examples add up and you get the impression that you're some sort of fool. You're the idiot who pays off government loans and you're the jerk who makes good on bad checks and you've got some sort of outdated notion that only the deserving should get welfare.
What suffers in the end is public trust in the programs. People think they are being mocked, ripped-off, and that their government does not care how it spends their money. This is what the relative of the mental patient meant when he questioned the logic of it all.He sent back the check, but most others will keep theirs and many will have a good laugh at the government's expense.
This is a cost the government does not seem to take into account when it talks about efficiency. Call it the cost of public confidence. Call it anything you want, but what it comes down to is that feeling in your stomach when you see pictures of a man -- just one man -- park a Cadillac at the curb and go into a liquor store to cash a welfare check. You feel somehow that you've been made a patsy and no amount of explanations about efficiency and good intentions will make up for that.
All this is not to say that the government should not have sent those heating bill checks. Maybe there was no other way to do it. But someone should have thought ahead, started earlier, maybe spent some money to hire some people to go through the files, made some phone calls and find out who should get the money and who should not.
Instead, the government took the quickest and cheapest way out, weighing everything but the damage done to public confidence in welfare programs. In the end, the programs themselves will suffer, which is just another way of saying that this sort of thing will wind up hurting those it is supposed to help.
There's an expression for this kind of thinking and someone in the government ought to learn it: penny wise and pound foolish.