How the welfare state hurts the poor

The welfare state hurts the poor even more than it hurts taxpayers. For the Left, on the other hand, it's a bonanza

by Daniel J. Mitchell on 4 July 2013 05:34

Political cartoonists like Michael Ramirez and Chuck Asay are effective because they convey so much with images.

But we need more than clever cartoons if we’re going to educate the general population about how government harms the economy and undermines freedom.

His latest column about poverty is a good example. In this first excerpt, he succinctly explains that official poverty is not the same as destitution:

'“Poverty” once had some concrete meaning — not enough food to eat or not enough clothing or shelter to protect you from the elements, for example. Today it means whatever the government bureaucrats, who set up the statistical criteria, choose to make it mean. And they have every incentive to define poverty in a way that includes enough people to justify welfare state spending. Most Americans with incomes below the official poverty level have air-conditioning, television, own a motor vehicle and, far from being hungry, are more likely than other Americans to be overweight. But an arbitrary definition of words and numbers gives them access to the taxpayers’ money."

He then makes a very important point about economic incentives:

"Even when they have the potential to become productive members of society, the loss of welfare state benefits if they try to do so is an implicit “tax” on what they would earn that often exceeds the explicit tax on a millionaire. If increasing your income by $10,000 would cause you to lose $15,000 in government benefits, would you do it? In short, the political left’s welfare state makes poverty more comfortable, while penalizing attempts to rise out of poverty."

Since columnists are limited to about 800 words, Sowell doesn’t have leeway to give details, but his explanation of how the government traps people in poverty is the rhetorical version of this amazing chart.

He concludes with some powerful observation about who really benefits from the welfare state:

"…the left’s agenda is a disservice to [the poor], as well as to society.  …The agenda of the left — promoting envy and a sense of grievance, while making loud demands for “rights” to what other people have produced — is a pattern that has been widespread in countries around the world. This agenda has seldom lifted the poor out of poverty. But it has lifted the left to positions of power and self-aggrandizement, while they promote policies with socially counterproductive results."

But his main message (similar to this video and illustrated by this chart) is that the welfare state hurts the poor even more than it hurts taxpayers.

P.S. As a big fan of Professor Sowell, I’ve cited his columns more than 20 times. My favorite examples of his writing can be viewed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And you can see him in action here.

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, the free-market, Washington D.C. think tank. His articles are cross-posted on his blog by agreement

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