Friedman Friday:(“Free to Choose” episode 4 – From Cradle to Grave, Part 1 of 7)
Volume 4 – From Cradle to Grave
Since the Depression years of the 1930s, there has been almost continuous expansion of governmental efforts to provide for people’s welfare. First, there was a tremendous expansion of public works. The Social Security Act followed close behind. Soon other efforts extended governmental activities in all areas of the welfare sector. Growth of governmental welfare activity continued unabated, and today it has reached truly staggering proportions. Travelling in both Britain and the U.S., Milton Friedman points out that though many government welfare programs are well intentioned, they tend to have pernicious side effects. In Dr. Friedman’s view, perhaps the most serious shortcoming of governmental welfare activities is their tendency to strip away individual independence and dignity. This is because bureaucrats in welfare agencies are placed in positions of tremendous power over welfare recipients, exercising great influence over their lives. Because people never spend someone else’s money as carefully as they spend their own, inefficiency, waste, abuse, theft, and corruption are inevitable. In addition, welfare programs tend to be self-perpetuating because they destroy work incentives. Indeed, it is often in the welfare recipients’ best interests to remain unemployed. Dr. Friedman suggests a negative income tax as a way of helping the poor. The government would pay money to people falling below a certain income level. As they obtained jobs and earned money, they would continue to receive some payments from the government until their outside income reached a certain ceiling. This system would make people better off who sought work and earned income. This contrasts with many of today’s programs where one dollar earned means nearly one dollar lost in welfare payments.
Volume 4 – From Cradle to Grave
Friedman: After the 2nd World War, New York City authorities retained rent control supposedly to help their poorer citizens. The intentions were good. This in the Bronx was one result.
By the 50’s the same authorities were taxing their citizens. Including those who lived in the Bronx and other devastated areas beyond the East River to subsidize public housing. Another idea with good intentions yet poor people are paying for this, subsidized apartments for the well-to-do. When government at city or federal level spends our money to help us, strange things happen.
The idea that government had to protect us came to be accepted during the terrible years of the Depression. Capitalism was said to have failed. And politicians were looking for a new approach.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a candidate for the presidency. He was governor of New York State. At the governor’s mansion in Albany, he met repeatedly with friends and colleagues to try to find some way out of the Depression. The problems of the day were to be solved by government action and government spending. The measures that FDR and his associates discussed here derived from a long line of past experience. Some of the roots of these measures go back to Bismark’s Germany at the end of the 19th Century. The first modern state to institute old age pensions and other similar measures on the part of government. In the early 20th Century Great Britain followed suit under Lloyd George and Churchill. It too instituted old age pensions and similar plans.
These precursors of the modern welfare state had little effect on practice in the United States. But they did have a very great effect on the intellectuals on the campus like those who gathered here with FDR. The people who met here had little personal experience of the horrors of the Depression but they were confident that they had the solution. In their long discussions as they sat around this fireplace trying to design programs to meet the problems raised by the worst Depression in the history of the United States, they quite naturally drew upon the ideas that were prevalent at the time. The intellectual climate had become one in which it was taken for granted that government had to play a major role in solving the problems in providing what came later to be called Security from Cradle to Grave.
Roosevelt’s first priority after his election was to deal with massive unemployment. A Public Works program was started. The government financed projects to build highways, bridges and dams. The National Recovery Administration was set up to revitalize industry. Roosevelt wanted to see America move into a new era. The Social Security Act was passed and other measures followed. Unemployment benefits, welfare payments, distribution of surplus food. With these measures, of course, came rules, regulations and red tape as familiar today as they were novel then. The government bureaucracy began to grow and it’s been growing ever since.
This is just a small part of the Social Security empire today. Their headquarters in Baltimore has 16 rooms this size. All these people are dispensing our money with the best possible intentions. But at what cost?
In the 50 years since the Albany meetings, we have given government more and more control over our lives and our income. In New York State alone, these government buildings house 11,000 bureaucrats. Administering government programs that cost New York taxpayers 22 billion dollars. At the federal level, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare alone has a budget larger than any government in the world except only Russia and the United States.
Yet these government measures often do not help the people they are supposed to. Richard Brown’s daughter, Helema, needs constant medical attention. She has a throat defect and has to be connected to a breathing machine so that she’ll survive the nights. It’s expensive treatment and you might expect the family to qualify for a Medicaid grant.
Richard Brown: No, I don’t get it, cause I’m not eligible for it. I make a few dollars too much and the salary that I make I can’t afford to really live and to save anything is out of the question. And I mean, I live, we live from payday to payday. I mean literally from payday to payday.
Friedman: His struggle isn’t made any easier by the fact that Mr. Brown knows that if he gave up his job as an orderly at the Harlem Hospital, he would qualify for a government handout. And he’d be better off financially.
Hospital Worker: Mr. Brown, do me a favor please? There is a section patient.
Friedman: It’s a terrible pressure on him. But he is proud of the work that he does here and he’s strong enough to resist the pressure.
Richard Brown: I’m Mr. Brown. Your fully dilated and I’m here to take you to the delivery. Try not to push, please. We want to have a nice sterile delivery.
Friedman: Mr. Brown has found out the hard way that welfare programs destroy an individual’s independence.
Richard Brown: We’ve considered welfare. We went to see, to apply for welfare but, we were told that we were only eligible for $5.00 a month. And, to receive this $5.00 we would have to cash in our son’s savings bonds. And that’s not even worth it. I don’t believe in something for nothing anyway.
Mrs. Brown: I think a lot of people are capable of working and are willing to work, but it’s just the way it is set up. It, the mother and the children are better off if the husband isn’t working or if the husband isn’t there. And this breaks up so many poor families.
Friedman: One of the saddest things is that many of the children whose parents are on welfare will in their turn end up in the welfare trap when they grow up. In this public housing project in the Bronx, New York, 3/4’s of the families are now receiving welfare payments.
Well Mr. Brown wanted to keep away from this kind of thing for a very good reason. The people who get on welfare lose their human independence and feeling of dignity. They become subject to the dictates and whims of their welfare supervisor who can tell them whether they can live here or there, whether they may put in a telephone, what they may do with their lives. They are treated like children, not like responsible adults and they are trapped in the system. Maybe a job comes up which looks better than welfare but they are afraid to take it because if they lose it after a few months it maybe six months or nine months before they can get back onto welfare. And as a result, this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle rather than simply a temporary state of affairs.
Things have gone even further elsewhere. This is a huge mistake. A public housing project in Manchester, England.
Well we’re 3,000 miles away from the Bronx here but you’d never know it just by looking around. It looks as if we are at the same place. It’s the same kind of flats, the same kind of massive housing units, decrepit even though they were only built 7 or 8 years ago. Vandalism, graffiti, the same feeling about the place. Of people who don’t have a great deal of drive and energy because somebody else is taking care of their day to day needs because the state has deprived them of an incentive to find jobs to become responsible people to be the real support for themselves and their families.