"The lessons of history ... show 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."
These searing words about Depression-era welfare are from Franklin Roosevelt's 1935 State of the Union Address. FDR feared this self-reliant people might come to depend permanently upon government for the necessities of their daily lives. Like narcotics, such a dependency would destroy the fiber and spirit of the nation.
What brings his words to mind is news that 41.8 million Americans are on food stamps, and the White House estimates 43 million will soon be getting food stamps every month.
A seventh of the nation cannot even feed itself.
If you would chart America's decline, this program is a good place to begin. As a harbinger of the Great Society to come, in early 1964, a Food Stamp Act was signed into law by LBJ appropriating $75 million for 350,000 individuals in 40 counties and three U.S. cities.
Yet, no one was starving. There had been no starvation since Jamestown, with such exceptions as the Donner Party caught in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47, who took to eating their dead.
The Food Stamp Act became law half a decade after J.K. Galbraith in his best-seller had declared 1950s America to be the world's great Affluent Society.
Yet, when Richard Nixon took office, 3 million Americans were receiving food stamps at a cost of $270 million. Then CBS ran a program featuring a premature baby near death, and told us it was an infant starving to death in rich America. The nation demanded action, and Nixon acted.
By the time he left office in 1974, the food stamp program was feeding 16 million Americans at an annual cost of $4 billion.
Fast forward to 2009. The cost to taxpayers of the U.S. food stamp program hit $56 billion. The number of recipients and cost of the program exploded again last year.
Among the reasons is family disintegration. Forty percent of all children in America are now born out of wedlock. Among Hispanics, it is 51 percent. Among African-Americans, it is 71 percent.
Food stamps are feeding children abandoned by their own fathers. Taxpayers are taking up the slack for America's deadbeat dads.
Have food stamps made America a healthier nation?
Consider New York City, where 1.7 million people, one in every five in the city, relies on food stamps for daily sustenance.
Obesity rates have soared. Forty percent of all the kids in city public schools from kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight or obese.
Among poor kids, whose families depend on food stamps, the percentages are far higher. Mothers of poor kids use food stamps to buy them sugar-heavy soda pop, candy and junk food.
Yet Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to the Department of Agriculture that recipients not be allowed to use food stamps to buy sugar-rich soft drinks has run into resistance.
"The world might be better ... if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages," said George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not stigmatize people on food stamps."
The Department of Agriculture in 2004 denied a request by Minnesota that would have disallowed food stamp recipients from using them for junk food. To grant the request, said the department, would "perpetuate the myth" that food stamps users make poor shopping decisions.
But is that a myth or an inconvenient truth?
What a changed country we have become in our expectations of ourselves. A less affluent America survived a Depression and world war without anything like the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance, welfare payments, earned income tax credits, food stamps, rent supplements, day care, school lunches and Medicaid we have today.
Public or private charity were thought necessary, but were almost always to be temporary until a breadwinner could find work or a family could get back on its feet. The expectation was that almost everyone, with hard work and by keeping the nose to the grindstone, could make his or her own way in this free society. No more.
What we have accepted today is a vast permanent underclass of scores of millions who cannot cope and must be carried by the rest of society -- fed, clothed, housed, tutored, medicated at taxpayer's expense for their entire lives. We have a new division in America: those who pay a double fare, and those who forever ride free.
We Americans are not only not the people our parents were, we are not the people we were. FDR was right about what would happen to the country if we did not get off the narcotic of welfare.
America has regrettably already undergone that "spiritual and moral disintegration, fundamentally destructive to the national fiber."