George Will: The harm incurred by a mushrooming welfare state

Opinion writer
1/21/15

America’s national character will have to be changed if progressives are going to implement their agenda. So, changing social norms is the progressive agenda. To understand how far this has advanced, and how difficult it will be to reverse the inculcation of dependency, consider the data Nicholas Eberstadt deploys in National Affairs quarterly:

America’s welfare state transfers more than 14 percent of gross domestic product to recipients, with more than a third of Americans taking “need-based” payments. In our wealthy society, the government officially treats an unprecedented portion of the population as “needy.”

Transfers of benefits to individuals through social welfare programs have increased from less than 1 federal dollar in 4 (24 percent) in 1963 to almost 3 out of 5 (59 percent) in 2013. In that half-century, entitlement payments were, Eberstadt says, America’s “fastest growing source of personal income,” growing twice as fast as all other real per capita personal income. It is probable that this year a majority of Americans will seek and receive payments.

This is not primarily because of Social Security and Medicare transfers to an aging population. Rather, the growth is overwhelmingly in means-tested entitlements. More than twice as many households receive “anti-poverty” benefits than receive Social Security or Medicare. Between 1983 and 2012, the population increased by almost 83 million — and people accepting means-tested benefits increased by 67 million. So, for every 100-person increase in the population there was an 80-person increase in the recipients of means-tested payments. Food stamp recipients increased from 19 million to 51 million — more than the combined populations of 24 states.

What has changed? Not the portion of the estimated population below the poverty line (15.2 percent in 1983; 15 percent in 2012). Rather, poverty programs have become untethered from the official designation of poverty: In 2012, more than half the recipients were not classified as poor but accepted being treated as needy. Expanding dependency requires erasing Americans’ traditional distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This distinction was rooted in this nation’s exceptional sense that poverty is not the unalterable accident of birth and is related to traditions of generosity arising from immigrant and settler experiences. 

Eberstadt’s essay, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State,” argues that this state is extinguishing the former. America “arrived late to the 20th century’s entitlement party.” The welfare state’s European pedigree traces from post-1945 Britain, back through Sweden’s interwar “social democracy,” to Bismarck’s late-19th-century social insurance. European welfare states reflected European beliefs about poverty: Rigid class structures rooted in a feudal past meant meager opportunities for upward mobility based on merit. People were thought to be stuck in neediness through no fault of their own, and welfare states would reconcile people to intractable social structures.

Eberstadt notes that the structure of U.S. government spending “has been completely overturned within living memory,” resulting in the “remolding of daily life for ordinary Americans under the shadow of the entitlement state.” In two generations, the American family budget has been recast: In 1963, entitlement transfers were less than $1 out of every $15; by 2012, they were more than $1 out of every $6.

Causation works both ways between the rapid increase in family disintegration (from 1964 to 2012, the percentage of children born to unmarried women increased from 7 to 41) and the fact that, Eberstadt says, for many women, children and even working-age men, “the entitlement state is now the breadwinner of the household.” In the past 50 years, the fraction of civilian men ages 25 to 34 who were neither working nor looking for work approximately quadrupled.

Eberstadt believes that the entitlement state poses “character challenges” because it powerfully promotes certain habits, including habits of mind. These include corruption. Since 1970, Americans have become healthier, work has become less physically stressful, the workplace has become safer — and claims from Social Security Disability Insurance have increased almost sixfold. Such claims (including fraudulent ones) are gateways to a plethora of other payments.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong New Deal liberal and accomplished social scientist, warned that “the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it but what it costs those who receive it.” As a growing portion of the population succumbs to the entitlement state’s ever-expanding menu of temptations, the costs, Eberstadt concludes, include a transformation of the nation’s “political culture, sensibilities, and tradition,” the weakening of America’s distinctive “conceptions of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and self-advancement,” and perhaps a “rending of the national fabric.” As a result, “America today does not look exceptional at all.”

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