Friday, July 10, 2015


There’s been a great deal of ink devoted in the Gazette recently to the issue of poverty and government’s role in alleviating or eliminating poverty altogether. While I’m sure that those writing have the best intentions, I find myself at odds with them. It’s not because I think alleviating and eliminating poverty is an unworthy goal. I believe that a free society, like ours, that abandons the poor is a society that’s bound by shackles of neglect and greed.

Why, then, do I object?

My objection has little to do with the motivation of those advocating for the welfare state. I object because our government, at all levels, has failed to even make a dent in the problem. In fact, government has made things worse.

Since the days of Lyndon Johnson, America has been at war with poverty. We’ve spent trillions upon trillions. All the money being poured into the welfare state is buttressed by a massive bureaucracy, with close to a hundred means tested programs created to ensure that the poor spend the money they’re getting “sensibly.”  Yet, the problem has only gotten worse over time. The money spent hasn’t solved the problem. Why, then, should I delude myself into thinking that spending more money will eventually fix things? It won’t.

We’re now in a headlong rush to do the very thing that makes things worse. In 2012, Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, testified before Congress that “Combined annual federal and state spending will reach $1.56 trillion in 2022. Overall, President Obama plans to spend $12.7 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade.” Rector further testified that “If converted to cash, means-tested welfare spending is more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, roughly $44,000 per year for a family of four.”

We conservatives and libertarians are often accused  by elites and progressives of being greedy, compassionless monsters. The accusation is unwarranted and unfair. Conservative and libertarian economists have championed a system with guaranteed income. F.A. Hayek advocated government just sending checks to the poor. So did Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. Most recently, sociologist Charles Murray proposed sending a $10,000 check annually to every American citizen.  That would almost amount to the $44,000 for the family of four that Robert Rector testified to Congress about.

The simplicity of the proposals was astounding. Send the money to the people who need it and dismantle the massive welfare bureaucracy. Some say it wouldn’t work, mainly because perpetuating the system is in their best interests, not the poor’s.

Beyond the data and statistics, though, I have a vested interest in the problem of poverty. I grew up within the welfare state. I know how dehumanizing it is.

My dad died when I was young and my mother was an immigrant with only a third grade education. Our situation seemed hopeless, or so the government believed.

The payments we got weren’t really enough to support us, but the welfare system didn’t know my mother. She found a way out. She was from hardy stock. Her father was a whaler. Her brothers were fishermen and lumberjacks. The value of hard work was hard wired into the family and passed down to us.

There was a man who delivered fresh fruits and vegetables on Saturdays in our neighborhood. His name was Mr. Sahady. He was a hard working Lebanese immigrant. Like us, he was poor.  He would drive around the neighborhood, his broken English booming over a loudspeaker, “Raspberries, strawberries…thirty-five cents a quart.”

Although child labor laws and the welfare bureaucracy would have stopped her, my mother spoke to Mr. Sahady and got him to agree to let me ride with him on the sly and deliver baskets to his customers for the tips I’d get.

I spent many a Saturday with Mr. Sahady. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. He seemed to know that our circumstances were mirrored in his. He always brought me a lunch that we’d share in his truck. At the end of the day, he’d put five or six more dollars in my hand and whisper to me, “Butch, you tell your muddah that everything gonna’ be okay someday. We’ll get you through this. You just keep working hard. Don’t ever forget that!”

Well, I escaped the system’s clutches, by admittedly illegal means. My mother and Mr. Sahady violated child labor laws and did an end run around the welfare bureaucracy. But, they did right by me. They taught me early on about the dignity of hard work and taking care of myself. I also learned that a poor man’s wages, earned by the sweat of his brow, are far better than living life at the mercy of the welfare state.

I learned those lessons well and I’m a better man for it. I’ll always be grateful to my mother and Mr. Sahady for that.

No comments: