We can no longer afford the welfare state (Part 4)

 Ep. 4 – From Cradle to Grave [4/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980)

With the national debt increasing faster than ever we must make the hard decisions to balance the budget now. If we wait another decade to balance the budget then we will surely risk our economic collapse.

The first step is to remove all welfare programs and replace them with the negative income tax program that Milton Friedman first suggested.

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. In addition, welfare programs tend to be self-perpetuating because they destroy work incentives. 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.

Here is a  portion of the trancript of the “Free to Choose” program called “From Cradle to Grave” (program #4 in the 10 part series):


Participants: Robert McKenzie, Moderator; Milton Friedman; James R. Dumpson, Chief Administrator, Human Resources Admin., NYC; Thomas Sowell, Professor of Economics, UCLA; Robert Lampman, Professor of Economics, Institute of Poverty; Helen Bohen O’Bannon, Secretary of Welfare, State of Pennsylvania

MCKENZIE: The discussion’s already underway here at the University of Chicago, so let’s join it.

DUMPSON: As I looked at the film, I had a growing sense of anger. Anger that that position failed to recognize that the system that was being attacked was necessary in our capitalistic, free enterprise system that by its own failure produces poverty, and therefore requires governmental intervention in the interest of those people caught in the traps of poverty. So, as I sat and looked at the film, and as I hear Dr. Friedman’s statement, I was aroused to the point, as I said, of anger because only half the story is told. We are really blaming again a victim, this time a system, the welfare system, for the failure of other systems to operate in the interest of people.

MCKENZIE: Let’s get other reactions now to that statement: “Trying to do good with other people’s money simply has not worked, the welfare system is rotting away the very fabric of society.” Tom Sowell.

SOWELL: My reaction was just the opposite from __ my anger was at what had been created in the city where I grew up, under very different conditions, during the period of capitalistic failure, during the period when there wasn’t this humanitarianism, and when it was possible for people to live better and to get out of that poverty. Now, I think someone who lived in the very same place where I lived would find it much harder to escape from that poverty because of all these things. Buildings were not abandoned like the buildings that we saw in that film when I lived in Harlem. The crime rate __ they’re all things that are blamed upon the failures of the previous method did not exist. I slept out on the fire escapes in Harlem. I would defy anybody to do that in any part of New York City today.

LAMPMAN: Traditionally in the United States we have tried to avoid some of the welfare trap that was referred to by denying eligibility to people who are able-bodied and not aged and so on. And we’ve therefore tried to close the welfare door to a good number of categories within the poor population. The second point that was emphasized and I think needs to be put in some perspective is that some, but not all, of what we might call welfare programs broadly, have this very strong take-back of benefits as you earn some more money and that I guess is what I would like to single out as the principal problem identified in the film but it is not common to any and all welfare programs that one might think of.

O’BANNON: When the family fails, when the private sector fails to create jobs at a fast enough rate you find that people are unemployed and drift into needing help in order to exist and the welfare system was created in the ’30’s to do exactly that. When the private sector, essentially, failed we have the development of a welfare system, and it’s not corrupting society, it is taking what society _ institutions have left behind: The family breaking up, the economy not expanding fast enough, the health system failing, the educational system not doing its job. We have untrained, unskilled people looking for jobs in a highly technical society or jobs that pay so low that people cannot in fact live at a decent level of humanity. I see the welfare system not corrupting, but in fact taking the remains and attempting to help people live in dignity.

MCKENZIE: So rotting away the fabric of society is not supported __ except perhaps by you, would you back that phrase or so.

SOWELL: Absolutely. You’re saying __ you’re talking about the failures of the other parts of society. What the welfare system and other kinds of governmental programs are doing is paying people to fail insofar as they fail they receive the money; insofar as they succeed, even to a moderate extent, the money is taken away. This is even extended into the school systems where they will give money to schools with low scores; insofar as the school improves its education the money is taken away, so that you are subsidizing people to fail in their own private lives and become more dependent upon the handouts.

O’BANNON: We have expectations built in today about the quality of life, the quality of jobs, the level if income for which one expects in return. Why? Because we look at the level around us that it takes us to have __

SOWELL: No, that’s not why. That’s not why. I may have all sorts of expectations, the question is: What can I do? If someone else is subsidizing my expectations, my expectations would be far higher. But insofar as the Center for Advanced Study was subsidizing my expectations a few years ago, I refused to work at UCLA for the normal full professor’s salary. Why should I when I can get the same money for being at the Center for Advanced Study with no hours, no duties and no classes.

MCKENZIE: Let’s look at another proposition in Milton’s case. The insidious effect on those who receive welfare. They lose their independence and dignity, are treated like children, and so on. Now, Dr. Dumpson, as a former Administrator of a major program, is that a great hazard?

DUMPSON: That is not a great hazard. As a matter of fact, that presumes that people get on welfare, stay on welfare, and therefore have the result that Dr. Friedman’s statement issues. The fact of the matter is that in our AFDC program throughout the country and particularly was this true in New York, there is a graduate __ a turnover of the welfare AFDC roles _ about a third of them go off each year. Now, if these people were so destroyed by the system, when they go off they wouldn’t go into employment, they wouldn’t hold employment, they wouldn’t stay off the roles for six months, eighteen months, twenty-four months, as long as they are able to stay off. So, there’s something wrong with that argument when one looks at people and what they do. People, you know, who are poor are no different from those of us who are not poor and their motivation for self-dependency, self-support and mobility in the economic scale is no different that those of __ than the motives we have, so that they will not let the system __ you remember, Dr. Friedman, the welfare rights organization who refused to let the system squash them down as it was attempting to do. We turned the policies around.

FRIEDMAN: You and I agree completely, that the people who are poor and are on welfare roles are no different from the rest of us. Of course not. They are human beings and they deserve every sympathy and every possibility of making their own way, but the welfare system makes them different.

DUMPSON: But you give them __

FRIEDMAN: It makes it in their interest to be different.

MCKENZIE: How do you account for them going off the roles, Milton?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, but figures are figures and you’ve got to be careful with figures. The fact that a third, there’s a turnover of a third does not mean that there aren’t half who are on all the time. People come on, go off; come on, go off. We’ve got to have the other figures __

DUMPSON: The latest statistic, Dr. Friedman, is that __

FRIEDMAN: __ fraction __

DUMPSON: __ 34 percent of the people on AFDC are on for five years or longer and when one thinks of the purpose of the AFDC program, which was the rearing and support of children, dependent children, minor children, I would submit to you that five years is not a terribly long time for a mother and children to have to be dependent if there’s no other source of income.

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