Human nature is prone to look at the short-term, rather than plan for the long-term. We try to stop immediate pain without considering the pain we — or worse, our children — will face later.
This is perhaps the most challenging task for government officials who want to do what is right and best for their constituents, their state, and their country. It goes to the core of what it means to be a statesman—a steward of the foundation of freedom. So many ideas that sound good and will help people in the short run actually do harm in the long run.
One of the most devastating examples of unintended consequences is our welfare system. By “welfare” we mean any program in which the government takes money from one person (the taxpayer) and gives it to another person who has not earned it. This could be given to the recipient directly, by check or debit card, or indirectly, by having the government pay for products or services on their behalf.
There is no doubt that many people have had their immediate needs met by government welfare programs. The impetus for those programs was a genuine concern for those whose need for food and medical care were not being met. Families, neighbors, churches, and communities worked hard to help each other meet those needs, but still there were some people and some needs that fell through the cracks. As a result, there developed a prevailing notion that the government needed to step in to fill those cracks, or at least create a “safety net” underneath them. It all sounded so good, and there were real needs that were met.
However, the long-term negative impact of those programs is immense. By targeting financial assistance to low-income women with children, the programs contributed to the perception that husbands and fathers were no longer needed, at least financially. By devaluing marriage as the starting point for raising children, they helped launch an alarming escalation in the number of children born to unmarried mothers, resulting in single-parent families and, ultimately, entire neighborhoods where children would never see an intact marriage.
Because children in single-parent homes are highly likely to live in poverty, it’s clear that the very system designed to help the poverty-stricken has in many ways led to more poverty, not only financially but relationally. That system also helped create an atmosphere of “entitlement,” the idea that “merely by being alive one is owed costly things at other people’s expense,” as one writer put it.
The welfare mentality extends to people who would give to meet the needs of the poor, if they didn’t think the government was taking care of them. In other words, the more government steps in, the more private individuals and organizations step out. This results in new pressure for government to fill that new void, creating a perpetual cycle of more government provision and fewer relationships that would provide accountability, emotional support, and spiritual support. Before government programs were so widely available, that type of additional support accompanied personal assistance – because it was personal assistance from one person to another, not help from a bureaucracy. The problem with government programs (and now some non-government programs) is that they help people while they are in their poverty, when the real need is to lead them out of poverty.
This is an excerpt from Governing By Principle, MCPP’s ten principles to guide public policy.