Dependency not solution to poverty

By Walter Williams: Syndicated Columnist

William Beach has just written a report for the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation titled “The 2005 Index of Dependency.”

Between 1962 and today, American dependence on government has more than doubled and shows little sign of abatement. The growth areas of dependency examined in the report are: welfare and medical care, housing, retirement income, education, and rural and agricultural services. The budgetary impact of dependency threatens perpetual budget deficits and high taxes, but to focus only on the budgetary impact is to trivialize the more devastating aspects of dependency.

Some of this has been commented upon by University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky in his 1992 book, “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” One of the results of the growth of dependency on government is what Professor Olasky calls the charitable equivalent of Gresham’s Law — where bad charities drive out good charities.

Consider two options for a homeless family. A church or some other non-governmental entity might offer a homeless family shelter in return for the family’s performance of chores such as cleaning the kitchen, mowing the lawn and washing windows. By contrast, a shelter financed by the government might provide that family shelter with no such obligation.

The natural tendency for many homeless families would be to opt for the shelter where they have no obligation to give back. The Gresham’s Law feature of this is the displacement of charity from the local and private level to the state, where all too often the state is unwilling or unable to distinguish between deserving and undeserving need.
There’s another devastating feature of growing dependency on government. Professor Olasky says that prior to the 1960s, marriage was a more vital institution than today. It was a “compassionate anti-poverty device that offered adults affiliation and challenge as it provided two parents for each child.”

Before the ’60s, the support for marriage was so strong that an unmarried woman who became pregnant usually would get married. Professor Olasky adds that 85 percent of teenage mothers in the 1950s were married by the time their babies were born. That’s before we bought into the vision promoted by “experts” such as Johns Hopkins professor Andrew Cherlin, who said, “It has yet to be shown that the absence of a father was directly responsible for any of the supposed deficiencies of broken homes.”

The real issue, according to Professor Cherlin, “is not the lack of male presence but the lack of male income.” That’s a vision that says marriage and fatherhood can be replaced by a welfare check.

Dependency on government also has the effect of reducing economic mobility among the poor. Professor Olasky says the dramatic progress of Asians and Cubans in recent decades demonstrates the existence of opportunities for those who are willing to conform to the traditional work-hard-and-rise pattern by staying out of the welfare system.

Easy access to welfare has made many individuals, who turned down opportunities, believe they were better off so far as income, leisure time and family time than they would have been by accepting a low-paying job. In terms of short-run economics, many were correct.

Welfare reform during the 1990s, despite the dire predictions, moved many former welfare recipients into the world of work and upward mobility. Many who never had a job are now working and are self-sufficient.

As such, the tens of thousands of former welfare recipients who moved from welfare rolls to payrolls are proof of the inhumanity of dependency. What’s more important is that these former welfare recipients and their families have a greater sense of self-worth.

Benjamin Franklin had it right when he wrote, “(T)he best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” Government dependency makes poverty easy.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at: wwilliam@gmu.edu