We can no longer afford the welfare state (Part 5)

Ep. 4 – From Cradle to Grave [5/7]. 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

O’BANNON: I think the other __ we have a program in Pennsylvania for essentially all of those who are not taken care of by the AFDC program. It’s called the General Assistance Program. And there less than 15 percent are on more than eighteen months. So we have a great turnover. We have essentially young males moving into the welfare system after unemployment compensation, and then moving out when a job opportunity comes along. This, you know, I think the notion of generations of people on welfare is a very small minority in the whole system. That doesn’t mean that the system as presently defined and as the set of programs that we have put together don’t often contradict each other and I’m the first to agree with Dr. Friedman that some of the programs are conflicting. However, I think it is overly broad to say that we turn people into helpless children.

SOWELL: I don’t remember talking to anyone who’s ever been on welfare who didn’t think they were being treated like children while they were on it.

DUMPSON: Of course, I think, you know, you __ one must make a difference, a distinction between a system that was set up to help people and the people who are employed in that system. Look at any public welfare system around the country and we have no, practically few trained people who to work with people. We employ them ill-trained, people who are not equipped to be helping people. We say they’re social workers. They’re not social workers, they have neither the skills, the attitudes, and some of them not even the concerns; so I think one has to separate how a conceptual framework of a system designed to help people and what the country and community puts into that system to implement those programs.

SOWELL: You mean to separate the hopes from the reality.

DUMPSON: I separate the skills that are available in order to implement what the objectives of the program are. I think we have to separate whether we are talking about program objectives, or we’re talking about how it operates. I would be the first to say that the system that I administered had ill-prepared people to do the job that we were set up to do, and I would not say that the system that we set up __

SOWELL: I talked to some social welfare people who think that in fact they were so hamstrung by the system that there was very little they could do to help people to get off welfare; that is to build up skills at jobs, do whatever was necessary to get off welfare. They felt it was the system.

MCKENZIE: Bob Lampman, your comment.

LAMPMAN: The system that we’re stereotyping is one of a great deal of paternalistic interference in individual family’s lives and in fact isn’t it true, Mr. Dumpson, that case load is so high for an individual welfare worker that they can’t do a lot of interfering in individual family lives. Moreover, in the last decade there’s been a real attempt to ease this welfare trap in AFDC by changing the take-back rate and by administering work expenses and child care expenses in such a way as to facilitate work by those who may want to do it; so it’s not quite as harsh a picture as we sometimes get that there is this omniscient welfare worker who’s right there in the living room with the family making all their decisions for them.

FRIEDMAN: I’ve never heard of a government program which was defective in which the people who ran it didn’t say, “If only we had more money to spend on what we’re not being able to accomplish with the amount we’re spending now.”

MCKENZIE: Milton, we’re going to move along now to some of your prescriptions in that film because I think it’s good ground for discussion. The most drastic one was when you said, speaking of an unemployed man, “Supposing you were cruel and took away welfare from this man, he would find a job at some wage, there’d always be a job he could get; he might need some charity on route, private charity, but he would get a job.” Now, I want you to react, those of you, before we come back to Milton on that. Is that a picture that seems plausible to you?

DUMPSON: He may get a job, and he may get a job in what we refer to as the underground economy, and that’s where a number of our youth are now going to get their jobs. Those activities that are illegal, the only opportunities they have for earning their part of a livelihood.

O’BANNON: I think the other issue is that you have a whole group of people who are the single, female head of the household; and yes, cut off welfare tomorrow: What will they do? What will be their immediate response? At what price to their small children and to their middle-aged children? Yes, they’ll get a job, in fact the statistics show that women, in fact, are the most successful through the employment program. But what has to supplement that typically is the provision of some kind of day care arrangement. Either the individual woman has to earn enough money to be able to pay privately for her day care, or in fact, she is quote “subsidized” through this insidious, corrupting program, set of programs, run by the federal government which, in fact, makes her employable and a taxpayer. It’s an interesting notion of trying to get people in a productive mode.

MCKENZIE: Tom Sowell.

SOWELL: It’s incredible the way you start the story in the middle as if there’s a predestined amount of poverty, a predestined amount of unemployment and that the welfare system is not itself in any way responsible for that __

O’BANNON: There is a predestined 20 percent of the bottom half of the population.

SOWELL: I have never __ well, that’s always been true __

(Everyone speaking at once)

O’BANNON: There’s going to be 20 percent at the bottom.

SOWELL: It’s also true that 20 percent of the bottom population doesn’t have to be living on the government and ruled by the government. You mentioned, for example, a female head of household. Many of those, in addition to the grown woman who has all the kids, are teenage pregnancies. There’s not a predestined amount of teenaged pregnancies. I grew up in an era when people, and particularly blacks, were a lot poorer than today, faced a lot more discrimination than today, and in which teenage pregnancy rate was a lot lower than today. I don’t believe there is a predestined amount of teenage pregnancy. A predestined amount of husband desertion. Gutman has done a study of a black family showing that this whole notion that the black family has always been disintegrating, that is nonsense. His studies go up to 1925, the great bulk of black families were intact two-parent families up to 1925 and going all the way back through the era of slavery, so it is now, only within our own time, that we suddenly see this inevitable tragedy which the welfare system says it’s going to rush in to solve.

O’BANNON: We’re talking to Tom about __

SOWELL: To which it is itself a point __

O’BANNON: We’re talking about a very small group. We’re talking about twelve percent of the families are not intact. Are not two-parent families at any one period __

SOWELL: Do you mean __ among welfare recipients __


SOWELL: __ or the public at large?

O’BANNON: Among the public at large. We’re talking about twelve percent of the families; twelve percent.

SOWELL: That’s right.

O’BANNON: That’s a small number. But __

SOWELL: We’ve got to build on welfare.

O’BANNON: We’re still talking about a significant component of the bottom twenty percent that are the bottom twenty percent. Whether they are above the poverty line or below the poverty line; they are still the bottom twenty percent. And the issue is: What is the responsibility of the other eighty percent; if any, towards those others?

SOWELL: There’s no program plan to eliminate there being a bottom twenty percent?

O’BANNON: No. But it intends to raise the bottom twenty percent so __

SOWELL: We’re raising them by having more __ by having more illegitimacy, more unemployment, by having __

O’BANNON: I’m not making them be __ have illegitimate children. I hope that’s clear.

SOWELL: Oh, I_I__ you don’t have to do that. You simply subsidize it.

FRIEDMAN: We, as human beings, don’t have a responsibility; but I hope we have a compassion and an interest in the bottom twenty percent. And I only want to say to you that the capitalist system, the private enterprise system in the 19th century did a far better job of expressing that sense of compassion than the governmental welfare programs are today. The 19th century, the period which people denigrate as the high tide of capitalism was the period of the greatest outpouring of Ella Mosner in charitable activity that the world has ever known. And one of the things I hold against the welfare system, most seriously, is that it has destroyed private charitable arrangements which are far more effective, far more compassionate, far more person-to-person in helping people who are really, for no fault of their own, in disadvantaged situations.

O’BANNON: I have to disagree with you though, because I think that the whole notion of private property was excluded, whole segments of society were excluded from the notion of private property in the 19th century; namely, women, idiots and imbeciles. And so, I don’t go back to the 19th century and hold it up as any paragon that we would want to replicate today.

MCKENZIE: Anyway. I want Milton now to come to your major prescription, which I know you don’t say is on the agenda for tomorrow, but it lies ahead; that is, the negative income tax. And I’m not sure people fully understand how it would work. We can’t, I think, go to the details of it, but I’d like to get a reaction around the panel first of all, is this a viable approach to the enduring problems of poverty? Negative income tax.

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