An examination of the US welfare system reveals that whatever good it does in terms of providing subsistence, it does so at a terrible cost in human happiness. [ Work & Happiness: The Human Cost of Welfare credits: Dir: Erin Mae Miller/ Narrator: Johan Norberg/ 60 min/ Documentary/ Anti-Socialism/ 2017]
The US spends about a trillion dollars a year on its multi-agency welfare system. That’s an extraordinary amount of money, but Cato’s Johan Norberg contends in this Free to Choose documentary that there’s an even greater cost involved – the human cost.
The typical life of a beneficiary of the State is not a happy one. Welfare drains a person emotionally, corrodes self-confidence, and destroys independence. When you consider that the millions living on welfare experience those effects every day, you can begin to see Norberg’s point, that ongoing state aid is a drag not just on our finances but on the quality of human life — and on a catastrophic scale. This is an important point that is rarely acknowledged, let alone fully appreciated.
Of course, no one ever intended for welfare to be anything other than a short-term helping hand, a temporary bridge from poverty to the middle-class. It was supposed to give a leg up to those still struggling. But like so much else that government does, it produced the opposite of its intended effect. [Chart here; note US poverty rate was declining until government stepped in with the Great Society programs in 1964-1965, and rose slightly in ensuing years.]
Norberg takes us through several very sympathetic cases, of impoverished people who innocently turned to welfare as a lifeline. Once signed up, they all discovered that getting off of welfare was nearly impossible. In particular, if a welfare recipient gets a job, they are instantly cut off from all benefits; in many cases that means less income, as the job may pay less than the benefits were worth. For people with kids, often struggling financially, that may make getting that first job a non-starter. If a welfare recipient saves money, perhaps to move to a place where there are more job opportunities, they are likewise cut off. If two welfare recipients get married — a desirable thing you would think given that there are economies involved and kids with two parents have a better chance of escaping the poverty trap – their combined benefits are sharply reduced.
At the same time, benefits are delivered not through one single source but through a patchwork of many agencies, so the recipient must spend hours on the phone complying with various confusing and conflicting rules, submitting updates, etc. Many recipients break the rules by necessity, simply to get by.
Nothing about the system is designed to restore its beneficiaries to normal independent lives. It’s almost as though it was designed to maximize the number on welfare, a possibility that brings to mind the economic theory of the “agency problem.”
Some say we just need a more efficient welfare system, one that provides more generous benefits and does so in some simpler manner. Today the replacement proposal being pushed is UBI; tomorrow it will be something else. But all these proposals miss an important and largely overlooked point, the one Norberg nails in this persuasive documentary: work isn’t just about money – it also gives us fulfillment, happiness, and dignity, things that people on welfare, efficiently delivered or not, live without. The solution to welfare isn’t to just to modernize it, but to minimize its necessity, so that people can finally have the satisfaction of earned success.
The importance of work is made rather clear in the final part of the film, in which Norberg highlights a New York City charity/staffing agency called Ready, Willing, and Able, which has had extraordinary success in training welfare recipients and placing them in full-time jobs. The heartfelt joy expressed by these people when they are placed is uplifting to see. People living on welfare don’t want more or better welfare – they want work and the happiness that comes from work. Work & Happiness: The Human Cost of Welfare makes a good case that they rarely get that through out current welfare system, which if anything seems almost designed to keep them…just where they are.
How to See It
“The welfare system has the best of intentions – to help those in need. But it often turns out to be a quagmire, difficult to escape. Trying to save money? Penalty. Trying to work and earn money? Penalty. Getting married? You guessed it. Penalty. It’s also a full-time job just to keep up with the appointments and confusing paperwork. Join noted author and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Johan Norberg as he meets real people whose dreams and aspirations are defined and confined by a well-meaning system that provides assistance but forgets the human costs. A hand out or a hand up? How can we better help those in need while providing more to them than just subsistence?”
— Free to Choose Media