Are the French stingier with welfare benefits than Americans? A new study from the Cato institute says yes.
According to the study, a single parent raising two children in the United States can expect to receive slightly more in public assistance per year than in France and slightly less than in Sweden. The authors of the study are quick to point out, however, that Medicaid payments were not included in their calculations for the purpose of making a meaningful and roughly equivalent comparison. All of the European nations to which the United States was compared offer health care on a universal basis, whereas our Medicaid program is offered only to people whose annual income falls beneath a certain threshold. If Medicaid payments were counted as public assistance, the United States would place third in the rankings behind only Denmark and the UK.
Whether our massive welfare spending is a good thing or a bad thing is a very debatable point. I know some people would say that money spent on “human needs”—as if that’s all it ever goes to—is money well spent. I would counter that “human needs” aren’t nearly as important to the average liberal Democrat as sustaining a poverty-stricken political fiefdom. They buy power with other people’s money and expect the rest of us to stand in awe of their supposed generosity.
But before we have that debate it would be nice if welfare advocates would at least acknowledge that they’ve gotten their way most of the time and that the United States is, for better or worse, a European-style welfare state that just happens to be located across the ocean. That’s the reality of the situation and reality is always a good starting point for further discussion.
Welfare benefits vary from state to state, of course. In my travels I’ve seen that poor people in Texas, for example, really seem poor; or at least they don’t have much money for luxuries. The poor in my state of Massachusetts, however, live pretty well on the dole. I was not at all surprised to discover that only Hawaii and the District of Columbia offer more robust benefits packages than the Bay State.
Come to Massachusetts’ post-industrial inner cities and you’ll see satellite dishes sprouting like mushrooms from the government-subsidized housing. No one would be caught dead without their iPhone. They spend almost three hundred dollars a month on their pack-a-day cigarette habit and they prefer top shelf liquor. That’s how “poor” people live in Massachusetts. It’s not exactly a “Feed the Children” commercial.
But Massachusetts is not representative of the nation as whole. Fair enough. Although welfare spending is uneven across the nation, thirty-five US states have combined benefit packages greater than the European Union mean. In eleven states, welfare benefits exceed the pre-tax income of a first year teacher, and in a majority of states welfare pays more than a minimum wage job.
Yet liberals blame a lack of social spending for nearly everything from crime to disparate educational outcomes.
When a black criminal in Ferguson, Missouri was killed after robbing a store and attempting to murder a policeman, the culprit was lack of social spending. If only the black neighborhoods weren’t so shamefully neglected, they argued, this wouldn’t have happened.
This explanation might make more sense if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve been dousing black ghettoes with a cash firehose for the last five decades. From the dawn of the War on Poverty until 2014 the American taxpayer shelled out $22 trillion (in constant 2012 dollars) in anti-poverty programs. Our current national debt is about $18.4 trillion by the way, which gives you an idea of where all that money went.
It’s a form of national suicide, a rather peculiar phenomenon that deserves some explanation. Ever since the Watts riots happened fifty years ago this summer, American politicians have sought to “invest” in poor inner city neighborhoods. As “investments” go, it’s been about as lousy as buying confederate currency in 1864. The War on Poverty was launched the same year that Watts went up in flames but that didn’t prevent Detroit and Newark from burning in 1967. Nor did it prevent the nationwide urban conflagration of April 1968. Looting and rioting returned to Los Angeles in 1992. Ferguson exploded in 2014, followed by Baltimore in 2015, followed by more Ferguson rioting on the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s attempted murder of Darren Wilson.
Paying people not to riot clearly isn’t working.
How about academic performance? Can the differences between rich and poor, or black and white, be chalked up to a lack of social spending? One of the more common arguments is that hungry kids can’t learn. Let’s examine that.
We live in a country in which a majority of public school students qualify for free or reduced school lunches. The program was sold as a means of solving precisely this problem of underperformance among hungry children. When the solution was tried and found wanting it was of course expanded to include breakfast in many schools and even dinner in a few. Meanwhile, the kids’ parents are also afforded SNAP benefits, or any of the other fourteen federally subsidized food assistance programs. Heaven knows what the parents do with all that food while their children eat three meals a day at school. If the kids are still hungry, and some may be, it’s probably because they’re tossing Michelle Obama’s nasty lunches in the trash, a real problem in many schools.
These facts absolutely never penetrate the liberals’ bubble. They revel in asking snappy questions that contain the implicit assumption that we as a nation have almost no social safety net to speak of. Here are a few:
“Why is that we always have plenty of money for the military but not for basic human needs?” Answer: the military budget, though expensive, has been constantly decreasing, adjusting for inflation, since the end of World War II. We call on today’s military to do more with less. Welfare on the other hand is always growing. The inflation-adjusted $22 trillion that we’ve spent in the War on Poverty is more than three times the combined cost of all wars since the Revolution. The War on Poverty is undeniably the most expensive we’ve ever waged, and the longest.
“Why can’t we be more like Europe?” Answer: We are like Europe. Our welfare state is on par with theirs and it’s killing us.
“Why do people go hungry in a country as rich as ours?” Answer: Very few actually do, but even those who don’t have enough to eat can’t blame a lack of programs or appropriated funds. There are state, federal, and local programs, not to mention private charities.
A rational discussion cannot begin with an irrational premise. The idea that somehow our country adheres to a philosophy of rugged individualism is absurd. We hand out other people’s money like it’s going out of style. Our social safety net is deep and wide. The moment we acknowledge this stubborn fact is the moment we can begin a useful dialogue. I’ll be waiting with bated breath.