The strings attached to federal welfare programs

When you receive an email “informing” you that you’ve won a lottery you never entered, or that a widow from an exotic nation wants to give you the money from her deceased husband’s estate, do you reply? Some people do, to their detriment. Most do not, because they know there’s a catch. Most people know that “free” stuff is going to come with strings attached.

One of the entities extensively involved in trying to get Americans to sign up for “free” stuff is the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads (see here and here) promising weight loss from food stamps, giving awards to agencies for overcoming the “pride” that keeps them from accepting government assistance, and thinking up games to get people excited about taking federal welfare. It also has an outreach for its summer meals program which uses local schools to distribute free meals to all comers. 

One need not be desperately poor to be eligible either. National Review’s Rich Lowry explains that “if someone is eligible for another welfare program, he is presumptively eligible for food stamps. In 2000, the Clinton administration issued regulations saying that merely getting a noncash welfare benefit could make someone eligible. Getting a welfare brochure or being referred to an 800 number for services is enough to qualify in almost all the states. In Vermont, receiving a bookmark with a telephone number and website for services is enough.”

All this outreach seems to be having success. As Mr. Lowry reports: “About 17 million people received food stamps back in 2000. Some 30 million received them in 2008. Roughly 46 million people receive them today. From 1 in 50 Americans on food stamps at the program’s national inception in the 1970s, 1 in 7 Americans are on them now.”

The solicitation of clients for federal welfare benefits does not often mention the strings attached. Unlike shady emailers, the USDA is not looking to get your financial data (the government already has your Social Security number). Those who’ve designed the welfare programs are likely sincere in their desire to prevent privation, but motives don’t control consequences, and there will surely be a cost for accepting government aid. The most immediate price is dependency and allegiance. Self-reliance and independence are drained as the price is paid.

This is not to suggest a conspiracy. It is merely the predictable result of the emerging client state. A nation of clients requires a government of providers. Politicians find it difficult to consider cutting off benefits once citizens have become dependent on them. There is also a temptation to purchase voter loyalty with expansive promises. Government programs, and staff, increase along with the range of services; individual dependence keeps pace; and a substantial reversion to a trim state composed of self-reliant families, individuals and communities becomes ever more remote.

There are, of course, other costs. The most direct are to taxpayers. The ability of the nation to maintain solvency is weakened. Innovation is stymied along with the entrepreneurial spirit.

As we have seen with Obamacare, other liberties could be at risk. The expansion of federal largesse has come with a heavy cost to individual conscience and religious freedom.

The government’s attempt to swell the welfare rolls is not likely to lead to an emptying of our bank accounts in one fell swoop as an Internet scam might be. But there are more forms of bankruptcy than financial. A bankruptcy of character and of freedom are perhaps more fearful.

So, in responding to welfare outreach, it is well to be wary of an offer that sounds too good to be true.