We can no longer afford the welfare state (Part 6)

Ep. 4 – From Cradle to Grave [6/7]. 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):

DISCUSSION

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

LAMPMAN: I think it’s a viable approach to some part of the problems of poverty. It involves, first of all, cash payments rather than in kind payments as I understand it? It involves payments on a non-categorical basis.

MCKENZIE: What do you mean non-categorical?

LAMPMAN: That is to say, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a female-headed family or a male-headed family or whether you’re young or old, you’re sick or well.

MCKENZIE: If your income falls below a certain level you __

LAMPMAN: Pay some guaranteed income level for people based on family size and then it has a take-back rate which is modest, I suppose, by definition. Now, the question is: How many things you want to use that program to replace? How many things you want to replace with such a negative income tax program.

MCKENZIE: Would you replace everything with it __ just __ we clear that point up. Would you virtually wipe out the remaining forms of welfare if you got this program going?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, I would not __ I think its purpose is precisely to provide a transition between where we are now and where we would like to go because while __ because I agree with you, that given that we’ve corrupted the people on welfare and gotten them on there. We do have an obligation not to throw them out in the street and put them in the difficult adjustment you’ve made. We’ve got to ease the __

MCKENZIE: Yeah. Okay. Right.

FRIEDMAN: __ ease it off __

MCKENZIE: Sure. Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: __ and so __ but I would want to replace all __

MCKENZIE: Yeah. Okay.

FRIEDMAN: __ present welfare programs.

MCKENZIE: Let’s get reactions to this and then we’ll come back to you.

SOWELL: Well, I saw some figures recently which said that if you took all the money spent on poverty in the United States and divided it by all the poverty families you’d come out with a figure of $32,000 per family. Now, the average poverty family is apparently not getting the $32,000 and so clearly someone in between the treasury and those families is getting an awful lot of that money and I think if you simply eliminated the middle man, as they say in the commercials, that there’d be an awful lot of benefit both to the poor and to the taxpayers.

DUMPSON: I’m supportive of the negative income tax concept and the objective of it. I’d like to point out, however, that administratively we have another bureaucracy set up. Somebody has to take into account earnings. Someone has to decide when to pay back that which they’re entitled to. There’s a time lag between the paying back __ the earning and the paying back. There are a variety of problems in there that I will be prepared to accept but I want you to know that government intervention is not going to be eliminated.

O’BANNON: The issue that I have is: Where do children come in? What are their rights under a negative income tax? And are we, by building in a negative income tax, in fact subsidizing the illegitimacy that Tom Sowell is so concerned about?

FRIEDMAN: The major reason it is not feasible today to have a negative income tax is because the present welfare bureaucracy would be out of work. They are the major objectors and as Senator Pat __ he’s now a senator, Pat Moynihan demonstrated in his book on the Nixon program, the chief obstacle to getting it enacted was the welfare bureaucracy. So that I don’t believe these administrative problems, if you got it enacted, would be at all serious.

O’BANNON: I think the other assumption under the negative income tax, and it’s one that I’m not sure I can buy, is that everybody has a minimum level of understanding about how to spend money. In other words, how to use the marketplace to satisfy wishes. And I, as an economist, would say, yes, we do. We __ everybody from age four to a hundred knows how to use money to satisfy wants and that’s the __

FRIEDMAN: But they don’t. They don’t. There are all sorts of problems of people who are not going to be able to. But that’s a minority problem. That’s a problem for private activity and private charity. One thing is sure: They’re spending __ they would be spending their own money and that however knowledgeable you are about money __

O’BANNON: They would be spending my money.

FRIEDMAN: They would be spending my money, but it would be one stage less then. Right now, the welfare worker is spending Mr. A’s money to help Mr. C. And there’s a big takeoff in the middle as Tom Sowell said.

SOWELL: The question is not whether the people on welfare or low incomes can all spend their money effectively; the question is: How effectively do they spend it as compared to how effectively the bureaucrats spend it for them. Comparing anything to perfection or to some arbitrary standard settles nothing. The same thing is true in the education area. They’re saying “Would families be able to spend their __ select schools for their kids under a voucher system,” for example. Well, the question is: Could they possibly do much worse than the current bureaucrats are doing in the public school system.

O’BANNON: Oh __

MCKENZIE: We’ve run on education on another program. Bob Lampman.

(Laughing)

LAMPMAN: I want to quibble with something you said, Tom, about half of the money not going to the poor or something. That doesn’t __ shouldn’t leave the viewer to think that all the money is going to the administrators of programs. A lot of what you are talking about goes to non-poor recipients. For example, social security, as a program, pays a roughly half of its benefits to people who otherwise would not be poor. Unemployment insurance pays about two-thirds of its benefits or so to non-poor persons. And those are, in some definitions, welfare or anti-poverty programs and that’s how statisticians come up with this horrendous sounding discrepancy between the total amount of money spent and the total cash benefits that go to the poor.

SOWELL: Well, I think, I think it’s a perfectly valid point though, because supposedly we were not setting up unemployment benefits and social security in order to keep the affluent.

LAMPMAN: Well, this goes back to its big philosophy, debate we might have. I think that it’s easy to oversimplify things and say that all these programs, including the public schools are there to be a help to the poor and poor only.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, but I was saying __

LAMPMAN: But let me mention that the negative income tax has some of its impetus in that it would be a way of confining benefit payments to people who are __

SOWELL: Yes. Yes.

LAMPMAN: __ and it would cut out benefits for an awful lot of people who now have expectations that they’re going to get them, not in the form of public assistance, but in the form of social insurance as we use the term.

SOWELL: Well, in order to be made for not disappointing the expectations on which people have built their lives for one generation, but not of continuing for eternity in order to avoid one generation of transition.

MCKENZIE: What are the other hurdles toward getting underway. Now, you said, I don’t know how seriously, the biggest almost the only hurdle is the welfare bureaucracy.

FRIEDMAN: No. Now, there’d be the biggest immediate group of lobbyists that will lobby against it.

MCKENZIE: Yep.

FRIEDMAN: The biggest hurdle in getting it over at the moment is that there is no way of constructing a sensible negative income tax system that will not hurt some people. There will be some people who will get less money than they are now getting under __ particularly those in the upper income groups. Particularly the affluent who are now being subsidized by the welfare and they, will make it politically difficult for the people to put it into effect. The attempt is to put a negative income tax in effect which costs less money, is easier to administer, and yet which doesn’t pay anybody in the society one dollar less than he’s now getting. There’s no way in which you can construct such a program. But, although it’s not politically feasible now, the force of history is on its side, it’s going to become political __

MCKENZIE: Dr. James Dumpson.

DUMPSON: Let’s not say that the __ give the impression that welfare administrators were against negative income tax, the fat program for example, as Moynihan says, because they would lose their jobs, for example. Many of us were opposed to it because of certain features in that program: A $24 __ $2,400 level for a family of four. We were opposed to that. And if one goes down the Congressional record, those who testified, will be shown to be saying, “Yes, we’re for it conceptually. But we’re against this piece and this piece, if you change that you’ll have our support.”

FRIEDMAN: I was in the same position. I first proposed the negative income tax twenty-five years ago but I testified against the final version of the Nixon plan. Why? Because the welfare bureaucrats had led them to introduce changes in it which converted it from a decent satisfactory negative income tax to one which would have been just as bad as what you have now. Would have been added on top of everything else.

O’BANNON: Cold reality.

FRIEDMAN: It’s political reality __

O’BANNON: That’s right.

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