Eliminating welfare will not eliminate the cost of the disadvantaged on society

Matt Telleen

Since the late 1990s, this country has enforced time limits on the welfare benefits that Americans can receive when they cannot support themselves financially. With the new Republican-controlled House and Senate, social welfare in this country is likely to face increased scrutiny and decreased funding. The logic is simple enough. Opponents of social welfare argue that guaranteed government funds create recipients who become dependent on government assistance and have no motivation to become self-sufficient.

However, there is also a common myth that accompanies the arguments against government welfare programs. The myth is welfare creates costs for society that can be avoided by cutting off benefits to those who cannot support themselves. The truth is society always will have to pay the cost when some members cannot support themselves. The only question open for debate is not whether to pay the cost, it is how best to pay it. This question comes down to very basic philosophical questions of the values we place on human life and the values that we want the United States to represent.

This problem is best illustrated with a hypothetical. Imagine that Jane Doe is a single parent with two children who cannot earn enough money to support herself and her family. How should society handle Jane’s problem? Before we can answer the question, we must first eliminate some popular cliche answers that do not solve the problem. First, we cannot answer by saying that Jane should have made better choices. Whether Jane’s situation was created by poor choices on her part, social disadvantages or any combination of the two is moot. We cannot turn back time and change the fact that Jane is not self-sufficient.

We also cannot answer by saying Jane’s problem is not the government’s role. Many people like to point out that people who find themselves in Jane’s position should depend on private charitable organizations, rather than turn to the government. This is a fine theory, but here we are dealing with someone who cannot find the support needed through alternative private methods. Even with our current system when many poor families are still receiving government benefits, the charitable organizations cannot begin to meet the needs of the nation’s underprivileged. Perhaps some people in Jane’s position could find private support, but here we are dealing with the role the government must play when there is no other place to turn. What are the government or society’s alternatives?

Offer Jane financial support to help her meet her family’s needs.

This is similar to the answer old welfare systems give. Welfare serves as a sort of wealth distribution, taking taxes from those who earn income and distributing it to those who cannot earn enough income to meet their needs. This makes many people uncomfortable. It offends our notions of fair play and personal accountability. But Jane is a member of our society; if we chose not to help support her, it does not make her go away. It simply changes the way in which our tax dollars are used to “deal” with people in Jane’s position.

Imprison Jane and remove her children from her custody.

It may seem like we skipped a couple of steps here. How did we go from paying Jane’s way to locking her away? Unfortunately, this is the only other possibility when members of society cannot meet their basic needs within the accepted norms of societal convention. Jane cannot pay her rent, so she will not have a place to live. This means that she will regularly trespass or loiter, both of which are against the law. Jane does not have money for food and clothing, so she will have to attain the money for the things she and her family needs. If she cannot or does not earn enough money from a job accepted by society, she will either turn to a profession that pays more but is illegal, or she will steal the things she needs. Human beings will do what they must to survive. Even if Jane agrees with the morals of society, she will be forced to set those morals aside in order to provide for her family, like pacifists who must resort to violence to protect their own life or the lives of their loved ones.

When what Jane must do to support her family goes against the laws established by society, then society will be forced to imprison Jane. Some would argue that this is a logical result. Jane’s choices have consequences, and the choices she made put her in a situation where she could not support herself in a manner acceptable to society. So the consequence of her actions is that she must pay the price for her failure to live within the standards of society.


Of course this seems extreme and ridiculous. However, if we have made the decision that those who become a burden to society have lost the right to exist freely, is it really so far fetched to believe that the low cost option for society would be to exterminate those who are not self-sufficient? If we are performing a cost-benefit analysis for society as a whole, imprisonment will often be more expensive than simply giving Jane a handout. Many in society find a handout to be insulting to the notions of fairness and equality. If we need to find the least expensive way for society to deal with people in Jane’s position, who will inevitably be forced to break the law in order to support their family, extermination is certainly the cheapest solution.

These choices might seem extreme, and none seem completely satisfying. In the end, the discussion we avoided earlier about whether Jane’s position is a result of her own choices or societal disadvantages may shape our decision. People might find a handout that alleviates people’s responsibility for their own choices untenable. At the same time, people might find the idea of imprisoning those who cannot support themselves to be barbaric. Maybe no one solution works for every situation, and maybe we need options that evaluate how Jane got into her position before we decide how we as a society want to deal with her.

One thing is certain, empty rhetoric about eliminating the cost that society must pay when some of their members cannot sustain themselves is unrealistic and misleading. No matter what choice we make, society will always have a cost to bear when some of its members are not self-sufficient. When we are asked to be patriotic, we must decide what it means to be an American, and what it means to live in the United States. None of the options seem completely satisfying, but a choice must be made with a full understanding of what it will mean, both economically and philosophically. It must be made with a full understanding of what it says about our society, and our country.

Matt Telleen’s column appears alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]