Daring to Question the Welfare State

Posted: Jun 30, 2001 12:00 AM
Did Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill commit a "gaffe" of epic proportions? Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich certainly thinks so. In an interview with Financial Times, O'Neill said, "Able-bodied adults should save enough on a regular basis so that they can provide for their own retirement and, for that matter, health and medical needs." Shocking! Why, what subhuman dare question the logical, moral, philosophical and constitutional basis for the modern Welfare State? "The broad idea (for the government-provided social safety net)," says Reich, "was easily understood by the generation that experienced the depression, World War II, the Cold War and some deep recessions. Any family could find itself down on its luck through no fault of its own. ... Its breadwinner might lose his (almost always 'his') job and have a hard time finding another. Or he might become disabled or die, leaving his wife and children destitute. An elderly person or couple might lose everything in an economic downdraft and face their twilight years in grinding poverty. A humane society, it was assumed, would pool some of its resources to guard against these personal misfortunes." But the architect of the modern Welfare State, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his Jan. 4, 1935, message to Congress, warned about the dangers of government welfare dependency, "The lesson of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, shows conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. ... It is in violation of the traditions of America. ... The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief. ... We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination." The Reich mindset presumes that an "at risk" person possesses neither the means, resources nor ability to improve. But President Abraham Lincoln, a man not unfamiliar with bare-bones living, said, "There is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. ... The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account for a while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all -- gives hope to all, and ... improvement of conditions to all." Sister Connie Driscoll runs St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in Chicago, a home for alcohol- and drug-addicted single mothers. In addition to providing training on how to find a job, the house counsels ladies on the importance of assuming responsibility for one's own behavior. Sister Connie dismisses the need for a government-provided social safety net, "The problem is not lack of jobs, but the inability of people to work and be responsible with a paycheck." But shouldn't the government provide for these "lost souls"? Not according to Sister Connie, "The work is there. I see plenty of McDonald's 'help wanted' signs for $7.00 an hour along with a $100 signing bonus. The problem is not lack of jobs; it is bureaucracy and lack of accountability." Sister Connie feels private charity is well equipped to handle the needs of the disadvantaged and those who suffer unexpected misfortune. She reasons that the more government does -- and does inefficiently -- the more we see an I-gave-at-the-office mentality. (Still, according to Time magazine, "Charitable gifts by Americans totaled $190 billion in 1999 -- equivalent to one-third of the domestic federal budget, or 2 percent of our national income.") Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," echoes Reich's the-system-oppresses-people theme. She sought to demonstrate the near impossibility of surviving on minimum wages by taking entry-level jobs around the country. Ehrenreich describes the righteous indignation felt by a low-income worker, "When someone works for less pay than she can live on, when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently, then she has made a great sacrifice for you." But didn't we read in the Los Angeles Times of the progress of the mostly Hispanic fast-food workers in the Los Angeles area who took entry-level jobs, only to find themselves within a few years earning enough to purchase homes and cars? Jose Hernandez began working at McDonald's in 1990 for $3.35 an hour. He now earns $50,000 a year, and manages nearly 60 employees. "Look at what I am doing and how far I've come," said Hernandez. "I have a career, a real career, and I am supporting my family. My children can be proud of me." So leave it to academicians like Reich to discuss "gaffes." Others have work to do.