Welfare Reform

a modest proposal from Philip Greenspun

Date: December 1996

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America's welfare system degrades the beneficiaries and primarily serves to enrich the administrators. I propose an alternative where welfare recipients remain full citizens of our society.

Our Current System

If I want to get money from the government under the present system, my first task is to convince an administrator that I am helpless, less than a citizen. I must sit in an office, fill out forms, speak to social workers, prove that I can't work, prove that I have no spouse who can work.

Only people who can successful demonstrate incompetence will receive welfare. The side effects of this fact are that

  1. a large number of social workers and bureacrats will be employed to determine whether or not would-be recipients are incompetent
  2. recipients who have successfully convinced a social worker of their inability to work may also succeed in convincing themselves. They will be lost from the workforce and therefore the tax rolls.
In America, we associate competence and intelligence with wealth. We assume that Ross Perot and Bill Gates must be very smart and hard-working because they are very rich. Conversely, a bum must be very stupid and lazy because he is so poor. So we aren't going to trust him to manage money. Instead, assuming that he has successfully demonstrated his incompetence to survive, we'll give him services. Thus, we spend $4000 per Medicaid subscriber but would never give him the $4000, which would suffice to buy a $2000 annual HMO membership plus a lot of other items that the poor person might value more than extra hospital care.

[For a thought-provoking look at just how badly our current system serves the poor and how well it serves the employees of the Poverty Industry, read Travels with Lizbeth.]

Just Give Them Money

A quick glance at the numbers suggests an obvious solution: just give the welfare recipients the money. All of them would be lifted well above the poverty line if they just got the money instead of the services. Nobel Prize-winning economists have pushed for this kind of welfare system for decades to very little avail. So it seems safe to assume that it is unacceptable to those with political power in developed countries. Perhaps it is still possible to have a system better than our current one. Let's step back for a moment and consider what we'd want out of a welfare system.

An Ideal System

What are the properties of an ideal welfare system? How about What does a person need to survive? Food and shelter. What if we just gave food and shelter to any American citizen who asked? You show up at a McDonald's, say "I'm hungry" and the government will give them $2 to feed you. Not every restaurant would be willing to feed you for their $2 government reimbursement, but probably quite a few would be. When you got tired and found yourself without a roof over your head, you'd find the nearest Motel 6 and ask for a "government room". The Feds would reimburse the motel $15 for putting you up.

Not everyone wants to eat $2 meals and sleep in a motel room. If you want to have a house, drive a Lexus, and eat French food, you'll still have to work. But nobody would be forced to live on the streets and eat out of Dumpsters because he couldn't prove to a social worker that he needed help.

Ronald Reagan used to say that he only wanted to help the "truly needy." My system is obviously more open handed than that. A graduate student, a cheap person with a lot of money, and a person who'd lost his wallet would all be likely to avail themselves of these government handouts though under the current system they'd be receiving nothing at all from the Welfare State.

In short, there would be freeloaders.

But under my hare-brained theory, freeloaders help make the system work. A poor person who needs a meal is not standing in a bread line. He is standing in the same line as a cheap businessman in a hurry. He is standing the same line with a physics graduate student. He is staying in the same motel as a traveling family. The existence of freeloaders keeps the poor from becoming a separate class in society.

Freeloaders drive up the cost of the system, but I would expect much less so than the current weight of bureaucracy and case workers. Suppose that fully 20% of the U.S. Population had 2.5 free meals a day (at $2 each) and stayed in a $15 motel room. That's 50 million people times $20/day. A billion dollars/day or $365 billion/year. Congressional Budget Office figures show that our current welfare system cost about $324 billion in 1993. My open-handed system, though, delivers many more services. I'm much happier to pay taxes for the open-handed system because I can see myself as a beneficiary. If I just want to crash for the night when I'm out of town, why spring for a fancy hotel room? If I want a fast meal, why not let Uncle Sam give me back a couple of my tax dollars?

Furthermore, the open-handed system would clean up my neighborhood. There wouldn't be guys sleeping in the streets anymore.


If I'm running a restaurant, it would seem like a good idea to tell the government, "I fed 1000 people today, please give me $2000." One needs a cryptography-based card system that prevents restauranteurs and hoteliers from claiming they fed or housed more people than they did. It would certainly be easy to implement if one gave every citizen a card with a magnetic strip. Somewhat tougher would be preserving anonymity. Big Brother shouldn't know that you had a Big Mac at 1:34 pm on March 14, 1998.


Current government agricultural policies substantially drive up the cost of food. The USDA Food Stamp program is designed to ameliorate the impact of this artificial inflation on the poor. In the absence of a change in agricultural police, my system would become to some extent an increase in welfare for farmers. Were the U.S. to move to a free-market agricultural system by eliminating price supports and import quotas, food costs to restaurants would be lower and presumably they'd be willing to feed citizens for less.

[U.S. citizens are currently limited to eating two foreign peanuts per person per year and one pound of foreign cheese.]


I won't say that my system is optimal. I won't say that I'm smarter than any of the people running the government. However, I do say that American citizens shouldn't have to go hungry or sleep in the streets. We should question the need to pay bureaucrats to decide whether or not people need help. We should consider replacing social workers and bureaucrats with computers processing reports from restaurants, hotels, and other companies who are actually delivering services to Americans who need them.
Text and pictures are copyright 1990-1996 Philip Greenspun


Reader's Comments

What I like best about your proposal is its social consequences -- no more segregation of the needy. The principle that a certain minimum level of existence should be free is a robust one, the only difficulty is setting the level properly. There is so much waste in the current welfare system and so much to be saved by having a free market in food that a decent level should be achievable. Certain European countries peg the level too high and are dragged down by freeloaders, but everything is (or could be) so cheap in this country that the freeloader burden at your suggested McDonalds/Motel6 level ought to be tolerable. Some smart economists have probably already proven this, if not some studies should be done. A proposal with a similar flavor is to make the New York subways free. They are already heavily subsidized, and all the expense of token booths and clerks, security to protect same, etc., would go away. Usage would increase a lot so that the cost of the overall subsidy per ride might not be much greater. Stations would be more crowded and hence safer (rush hour is a very safe time, subway crime occurs almost entirely in semi-deserted trains and stations). Lots of people on the margin would find it worthwhile to take a low-paying job because the $1000-a-year subway expense would be gone.

-- Joe Shipman, December 26, 1996
Sorry, Phil, you keep telling me to look on your website for work stuff but I invariably end up in the sillier sections like this one; I guess we're both ingesting the same mental diuretic. Even though everything here strikes me as so obvious that I want to ask whether you truly believe people that spend their lives connected to welfare (either on the business side or the business end) haven't actually thought if these things and have experienced they're shortcomings as a daily occurence, I will instead try to add something small and almost constructive.

My assumption is the largely accepted notion that nothing is "given", that the act of "giving" immediately makes the "giver" feel entitled to dictate/lecture/instruct/boss-around the recipient. Like buying stock. You pitch a dime, you can't say much, but doing more entitles you to all kinds of leverage, or so it is believed and works in practice.

Now, the slicker "welfare reform" types want to take everyone's favorite "Free Market" approach, calling handouts "Investment" with mighty strings attached, modelled on everyone's favorite Economic Liberalism (not "feel-wracked-with-guilt-about-starving-children" Liberalism, but "feel-the-good-lessons-the-market-teaches-children-by-starving-them" Liberalism). Apparently this is supposed to give the Untouchable One responsibility, accountability, Dignity which they presumably wouldn't have had without this magnificent benevolence.

But why is "Investment" so damned dignifying? Let's call them all what they are -- Welfare. Investing is Charity, the stock market is the Welfare Agency, and IPOs are Going on the Dole. Maybe after 10 years of reading about Microsoft's Dole Line folks won't feel as sanctimonious when refusing that 50 cents, teaching that bum a lesson of discipline whilst saving the money to buy a Snickers on our much-deserved coffee break.

-- Ken Overton, November 12, 1997

You assume that the cost of food determines prices in restaurants. I think it may be less of an influence than you believe, and thus lowering prices of food would not lower prices of restaurant food. Groceries perhaps, and that would certainly be a good thing for the poor.

-- Reid Ellis, December 17, 1997
I am a freeloader.

I get free healthcare, free schooling for my son and my rubbish is taken away for free. The term freeloader however seems only to be used when someone starts receiving cash. I happen to be in the fortunate position of earning an income, thus paying tax, but I have no idea whether my tax covers the benefits I receive from my fellow citizens.

As you said, Phil, the actual amount required to give people basic dignity is quite small. Certainly quite reasonable when compared with the cost of the services I listed above.

Where I take issue with you Phil, is that you suggest that you know what people need when in hard times - food and shelter. If I were out of work I may have these provided by friends and need instead stamps for job applications and cash for telephone calls. Just give me the 20 dollars per day and I'll decide what to spend it on. Actually just me 10 dollars per day, but let me have it every day whether I'm working or not. Of course, if I am working it will be more than covered by my tax.

Isn't that the Green Party's proposal for Citizens' Basic Income?

(P.S. Please don't ever make me eat at MacDonalds!)

-- James Towell, January 17, 1998

Okay, I'm City Joe McDonald, local franchiser for a big fast-food chain. The government says they'll pay me $2 for each free meal I give away. Currently I sell the "All-American" package for around $2, so that's what I'll give away. The problem is, as soon as I announce that I'm giving away lunch, every human in a 10-mile radius is at my door, asking for their free lunch. No other restaurant manager in the area was stupid enough to fall for this, so all the freeloaders come to my place. The paying customers are fed up with it, so they take their cash (which they were using to buy $4 Classic Meals, which have only 25 cents more food than the $2 All-American meals, and take no more time to prepare and deliver) elsewhere. On second thought, no thanks Uncle Sam.

At the risk of sounding like one of the mythological Radical Right, I ask the question, "Why is it that everyone should have the right to _free_ food and shelter?"

As an economist, I think I'll stick with the "just give 'em the money" approach.

-- Ted Durant, March 3, 1998

I'll commend you, Phil, for offering an alternative to the present system. However, i suspect that your alternative would be subject to the same sort of abuses mentioned. I still see a poverty industry made necessary to determine/prove that the hotels/restaurants REALLY did deliver their shelter/food. Additionally, as was pointed out, its very likely that we'd see businesses that provide the government freebie, and thus attract that clientele, then have trouble attracting paying customers, and this would negate the integration of the poor into society advantage. Finally, I think that the natural history of government handouts is such that they create an enormous increase in demand for themselves, with the only check on supply being, ultimately, how much we can be taxed. yes, it might start out being cheaper than the present system, but as has happened with social security, medicare, welfare, yadda-yadda-yadda, the demand grows quickly till either--taxes/deficits get increased to the breaking point or someone says "hey, resources are limited, we cant give everyone a free lunch, lets only give it to the needy" and now you've got the army of caseworkers means-testing everyone. Besides, I'm still skeptical about carrying a computer card, and the government not being able to trace me/ track me. ,. . . .

-- Karl --, April 8, 1998
TANSTAAFL - There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

No matter what system you devise, providing social benefits for the homeless (or any other specific group of welfare recepients you might select) will always be subject to criticism from conservatives for having poor controls and wasting money or from liberals for not providing enough.

Unfortunately, the only way to truly address the "welfare problem" may be to focus our attention and resources on preventing individuals from reaching that point in the first place. That means more money on the front end, for education, job training, and expansion of socio-economic opportunity. Yes, we could never completely eliminate all of those in need, but perhaps we can reduce the overall population so that the limited resources made available for welfare programs could be more effectively spent to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves.

-- Tom Skiba, April 27, 1998

I think there's something terribly ironic about Ted Durant's comment that "the natural history of government handouts is such that they create an enormous increase in demand for themselves, with the only check on supply being, ultimately, how much we can be taxed." What if the *primary* government handout involved in 'poverty relief' programs is *not* benefits given to officially poor people, but rather *jobs for supposed 'anti-poverty' workers*? Phil's essay would seem to support this conclusion.

If jobs running 'anti-poverty' programs are the main government giveaway in these programs, the logical basis for economic analysis of these programs and their limits to growth changes.

It is no wonder that Phil's proposed program, or something rather like it, is not being implemented as we speak. It would interfere with the real political giveaway program, which seems to be a program of somewhat low-paying jobs for people with college degrees and other official qualifications as 'anti-poverty' workers. These real beneficiaries either believe that their jobs are socially useful (perhaps through considerable rationalization; certainly with the support of years of indoctrination by co-workers, supervisors, and educators) or they enjoy the 'benefits' they derive from their jobs, or they combine both motives. These primary beneficiaries are politically much more powerful and sympathetic than a bunch of poor people who can't even afford to buy themselves baths, nice-looking clothes, and a meaningful amount of political organization. So it's no wonder that the primary beneficiaries get most of the money.

Entire university departments and programs would appear to have gained as one of their major purposes, a role as obstacles that must be negotiated before a would-be primary beneficiary can get the necessary credentials to even try to get an 'anti-poverty' job. This probably helps to keep the 'anti-poverty' government job program handouts somewhat under control. Of course these educational institutions gain from the government jobs program, which program helps to create the appearance that a college education actually has some kind of direct economic value to the educatee.

With the enormous real and perceived benefits received by the primary beneficiaries and their educating/certifying institutions, including all the presumed experts on poverty and poverty alleviation, it's little wonder that Phil's program hasn't been tried out in any big way.

But imagine if Phil's program were tried out. The common belief among 18-year-olds that a psychology or sociology degree in and of itself gives its holder a meaningful chance at some kind of supposedly professional job might hopefully be weakened or destroyed. The resources formerly spent to produce the government 'anti-poverty' jobs might now go to different employers. Non-governmental employers might be willing to use hiring criteria that are less bureaucratic than the 'anti-poverty' jobs program's mandatory college diploma requirements. Demand for college degrees might drop. Resources used to provide 'college educations' might be freed up or reallocated. Maybe even the tuition at MIT would drop a bit. :-)

I suspect I'm mostly just regurgitating a crude version of what economists like to call 'public choice theory,' so it's no wonder that I'm shy.

-- anonymous anonymous, July 17, 1998

I agree with Phil. The cost of managing welfare and many other government programs is absurd. As and example, Car and Driver once calculated that it would be cheaper for society to give a new car to every poor person who couldn't fix their smog polluting old car than it was to manage the complex smog controls that all of us are paying for and that the government is managing.

I would somehow like to link the 'giveaways' with some electronic crosschecking that verified your income. For example, you wipped out your debit card and it would go up to an account maintained by your bank or some other entity. If you were truly needy, it would transfer limits up to some predetermined value from a public account.

If we could work out the issue of privacy, this would solve the freeloader problem and would also reduce the stigma of being on public assistance. This system could also be used to pay for rent, etc... There'd would be some limits, ie: no premium cable, no condo in Boston ;-) no dinners at the Ritz Carlton overlooking the sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Niguel :-(

Privacy would most definitely be a problem, but it could be handled if everyone had a checking account and if the tranfer of public funds was handled behind the scenes.


-- tony esporma, February 25, 1999

Something overlooked in Phil's proposed Welfare Reform is the ability for criminals to use these services to move themselves across the country and the government paying for it, the establishment of a black-market for the ID cards used for these services and willingness or requirement for restaurants and hotels/motels to participate. Also, who will verify that the services were received? Sounds like as big a problem as the current system if not more so.

-- G. Davis, March 16, 1999
It doesn't sound as though you really know much about social workers and what they do. You seem to confuse social workers with eligibility workers in income transfer programs like General Assistance, or TANF. If you're going to broad-brush an entire profession, you ought to find out a bit about it. Most social workers are working on critical issues such as child welfare, chemical dependency treatment, family violence, community development. Even most of those peole working in income tranfer programs came there originally because they thought they could help people and advance the cause of social justice.

The american "poverty industry" doesn't exist only to employ a bunch of middle-class professionals -- that's too easy, too pat, too cynical. The average U.S. taxpayer does not believe in giving poor people money or in providing them with the resources necessary to change their economic circumstances. Until that attitude changes, the current system will stay the same. Free meals and free shelter won't change that.

-- Stacy Sterling, March 25, 1999

Interesting essay, Phil. While the details of the solution are probably best open for more discussion, the overall gestalt of your suggestion -- and the reasons for it -- are valid.

I have had a good deal of experience with the homeless. My perspective on this might be a little different as a result.

First, a simply staggering number of homeless are invisible. You don't see them. I lived in an RV for awhile and used to park behind the businesses in the industrial section of town. At about 3am I could step out and see cars everywhere, small and large, filled with entire families often, of homeless. By morning they would have vanished. The economy I was living in at the time -- Ventura County in mid-southern coastal California -- was such that anything short of two full time jobs making at least a couple dollars more than minimum wage per hour would not support a family even in poverty, except on paper.

I also met many homeless people who told me they didn't work because there was no point. It was a matter of despair. Humans require some kind of HOPE to give them a reason to get up every day and put up with the BS of daily life. These people had no hope of things improving for them. They had no real job skills. The best they could do was minimum wage. Minimum wage wasn't enough to even support them minimally in a decent life, working full time. Most of them had tried that for much of their lives. Now, why should they try, they felt? Rather than feel like literally slaves, working all the time and *still* being poor, they would rather not work at all, and say, screw society, at least I am my own man. (Or woman.)

In the end, problems with education and with the economy are highly correlated with homeless in my opinion.

But to the point of solutions: if the government spent half the money on basic skills job training as it does on the bureaucracy of distributing food, training, et al., some of this problem could be mitigated.

I agree in general with the concept of providing food and shelter when needed, without massive bureaucracy involved. One year, for example, the American Cancer Society only spent 3% of their received donations (total funding) on anything useful. The rest went to overhead. That ought to be a good example of the disaster that bureaucracy makes of good intentions via paperwork.

Years ago in Seattle I was 8 months pregnant, sick as a dog, and had to apply for state assistance. They gave me medical coverage and food stamps. They told me they did not provide housing (the waiting list is about 9 years long and you have to be disabled or something). But if I received any money to help me pay rent, even as loans I had to pay back, they would take away my food stamps and maybe my medical. The completely asinine logic of this approach, which brought me very close to sleeping in a cardboard box with an infant in the rain (my landlord actually allowed me to get over six months behind in rent, and I simply didn't volunteer to the state that friends and family sent me small amounts of money), totally revised my opinion about the welfare system. Here'd I'd made a lot of money most of my career and paid into the system with my taxes, and watched huge segments of society live on welfare birth to death, but I -- a hard working type simply having a bad time -- was between a rock and a hard place.

Whatever the answers may be, it is clear the present system isn't working very well, and that like all bureaucracy, it kills initiative, it kills motivation and ambition, and it rewards a lack of those things. Whatever can be done to change that would be a good thing.


-- PJ Gaenir, May 9, 1999

The problem with Mr. Greenspun's idea is the same problem that infects all such ideas, to wit, the belief that the answer to our problems can be found in a system.

All systems, good or bad, reflect the attitudes, beliefs, and values of the people who build, operate, or work with them. Our welfare system fails to provide even the most fundamental necessities to most of our impoverished fellow beings, and for what little help it does provide, it demands an enormous sacrifice of dignity in return. I am referring here, of course, to poor-person welfare, not to the vast sums of money we happily give to rich people, by far the larger part of our tax burden.

Such a system exists because in truth we can't be bothered. We are far too busy trying to acquire wealth to worry about the homeless, the disenfranchised, or the mentally ill among us. What little "welfare" we dole out (among the lowest in the "first world") serves mostly to assuage our guilty consciences. If we could only find the perfect system, we could happily hoard wealth to our heart's content without having to worry about those pesky beggars tugging at our few remaining heart strings.

The "welfare system" is only part of a larger system, of course. The best game in town is called "capitalism." This is a system whereby a small group of people get to take a cut from the fruits of the labor of others simply because they "own." A curious concept this, and one very difficult to understand. Why do we take for granted that things can be "owned"? Why do we permit it? I doubt that most of us have ever given it a thought, but pretend for a moment that you had to explain to an alien race why we permit some people to "own" billions of dollars worth of assets while billions of people go hungry.

Open your eyes and you will see that our problems in this world are nothing more than the physical manifestation of the problems in our hearts. We cannot build a system that will make us better humans. We must make ourselves better humans first. Then, if a system is needed at all, it will reveal itself to our new eyes, to our new hearts.

To change the world all we have to do is change our hearts. We know what to do. It's just so damn hard, and so much easier to project the blame outward and design another system to tame the wild beast. But the beast is within us.

That is why Mr. Greenspun could insert into his welfare reform theory a link to an article boasting about his purchase of a quarter million dollar condo. It's the reason Mr. Greenspun can whine about how much money Bill Gates controls and then turn around and brag about his fancy camera, the cool (and expensive) car he rented, his 2000 albums, and so on ad nauseum.

Phil Greenspun is a pathetic hypocrite, it's true. But look closely at him and you will see a bit of yourself. Certainly you are better than he in some respects, but no doubt he is better than you in others. The truth is, we are all pathetic hypocrites. And that is exactly the point.

The world in which we live is the world we built for ourselves. Each of us does his or her part. So let us forget about changing "the system" and get to work changing ourselves.

As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Then again, perhaps another cliché better captures the moral of this essay: Physician, heal thyself!

-- Charles F. Munat, June 13, 1999
The problem with Mr. Munat's idea is the same problem that infects all such ideas, to wit, the belief that millions of years of evolution can be over-ridden.

Mr. Greenspun's solution is (at the very least) interesting, since it proposes a goal and a means by which it can be reached, neither of which require a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. Lacking this fundamental change, Mr. Greenspun's suggestion becomes (at least remotely) more probable.

The ownership of "things" is by no means a human concept. It is an instinct responsible for the survival of countless species, which fight for territory, food, and the welfare of their offspring out of some sense of "ownership." As humans, we are certainly more material than this, no longer vying solely for food and shelter, but also for CD players, cars, cameras, or shiny metal things; but the instinct is the same. We want more "stuff" because it makes us feel safer, stronger, or even (dare I say it) happier.

As you say, all systems reflect the beliefs of the people who design and implement them, but this is not necessarily a Bad Thing(tm), unless your core assumption is that humans are inherently evil (which it may well be). But as humans we do have a few talents which seperate us from the other creatures of earth, wrestling for control: we're really good at organizing things, building things, and designing systems (usually the systems we design fail miserably, as in this case, the United States welfare system, but very few animals seem to be offering better suggestions).

What Mr. Greenspun proposes, then, is but an alternative system, and an interesting one, though the devil is certainly in the details. It is unproductive to dismiss any suggestion such as this out-of-hand, simply because it is a "system". We are systematic creatures, and always will be.

Addressing Mr. Greenspun's original suggestion, and moving in a totally different direction, I think worrying about "Big Brother" tracking my McDonald's eating habits would be the least of my concerns, were I homeless. Certainly, the privacy of citizens should be protected as much as possible, but in some sense if you're benefiting from a public program such as Mr. Greenspun suggests, you yield that right of privacy in favor of survival. As you say, Mr. Greenspun, people need "food and shelter" to survive, not privacy. Therefore, I rather like the idea of using an identification card system to meter the usage of this benefit (both by corporations, and by citizens), to ensure that it is not abused.

-- Brian Crowder, July 7, 1999

You are wrong. It is wrong to steal from my family to give the money to someone else. Those who want to help the poor should. They should NOT steal money from me, under threat of gunpoint's arrest by the U.S. Government, and give my family's money to others. If you get welfare of any kind from the Government, you are taking money from others. You have no moral right to do that.

-- Greg Perry, December 31, 1999
I honestly think your idea of just giving welfare to whoever asks for it is just plain silly. The USA would quickly become the destination for every hungry/homeless person in the hemisphere. Word would quickly spread that the USA was the place to come for freebies. I can see undercover organizations springing up all over the world to ship thousands of illegal immigrants to the USA to take advantage of this generous offer. Personally, I agree with the person who said that we should regard welfare as redistributing wealth; taking it from one person to give to another. The more welfare we give, the poorer the rest of us become. And if the receipients start to exceed the givers, it becomes very burdensome indeed. Thus, any welfare system needs to have as its prime component a method of reducing the need/desire for it.

-- David McSparron, March 1, 2000
The idea of giving to whoever needs it is a brilliant idea. The creation of an underclass has already happened here in the US, and this process can be seen repeating itself in the UK. A major part of keeping people away from just 'taking' what they need through crime, might be to ensure that they just plain 'have what they need'. I'm sure the same argument can be extended to drugs, which would at a stroke 'contain' the spiralling crime attributed to getting the money to pay for drugs. Unfortunately this will probably never happen, as people and government often feel happier trying to control a problem rather than solving it.

-- Jonathan Watmough, March 2, 2000
Greg Perry says that 'They should NOT steal money from me, under threat of gunpoint's arrest by the U.S. Government, and give my family's money to others.', and then talks about morals.

I find it interesting that he feels no compunction to people who are genuinely suffering. Feeling that it is morally wrong for an agency to help the needy is an extremely odd viewpoint, even if they are using your money. What happened to kindness? Looking out for people? Maybe people aren't as lucky as you or I, but we're all in this together. Why not help? Sounds like hippy bs, but come on. We all like money, but some people have none and are at the end of the road.

-- Konrad Bloor, April 25, 2000

Konrad Bloor said on April 25, 2000:

Why not help?

I would love to, except the afore-mentioned agency has all the money that I would have used to help, and I resent that they are pissing away most of it on themselves than the people they putatively help. I'm a consultant. I travel a lot for my work, generally about 40 weeks out of each year I take a weekly trip to a client site, then back home. I get paid enough so that my Federal (national, I see Konrad is posting from the U.K.) income tax alone is greater than the median gross income of America. The side effect of all this is I really don't have time to properly do lots of the various chores around the 14 acre property I live on.

Oh sure, I do keep it up, but not as much as I would like. I would rather just hire someone else to do the work, like keeping the grass and garden trimmed and tidy, and do various odd fixer-upper jobs. However, enough national, state and local taxes are stripped out of my income that after putting away for retirement, I cannot cost justify hiring people to take care of my mundane affairs. If my income taxes were half of what they are now, I would have enough to pay for the part-time employment of three people: maid, gardener, and mail sorter. As it is, I am barely able to justify maid service alone.

This is not idle "but we're all in this together" prattle, either. An older gent lives about a half mile down the road from my property. Recovering alcoholic and drug user. I paid him US$300 to do some yard work for a couple of days. But to hire him for the year would cost me US$6,000. I'm sorry, but after paying my income tax bill, no matter how much altruism I have it won't induce me to slit my own financial throat. To hire this man would jeapordize my retirement funding goals. I want to be able to retire and help others later, than be the suckers you want us to be, not ever retire and need help myself in the future.

A general side effect of a wealthy society is that the more successful members will always find a more profitable use of their time than to putter around the house or run daily chores, and will opt to hire out work for the more mundane (to them) tasks. You don't need "hippy bs" to have this effect. You sure as hell don't need questions like "What happened to kindness? Looking out for people?". The fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and so much energy available to each individual practically guarantees this effect. But government intervention distorts this to the point where it convinces people like you that only more intervention can bring about good.

And don't even think of throwing up that crap argument of "but poor people need jobs that impart self-esteem and menial labor won't cut it" in my face. Do the arithmetic on what I paid that gardener, and would have paid him for the year except the government butted in. The hourly rate is more than twice the minimum wage, and I was providing all the equipment and supplies as well (and being on a multi-acre property, I went out and got professional-grade equipment and supplies that people base entire service businesses upon). After correcting for inflation, it is still more than what I earned as a beginning Unix sysadmin ten years ago. It's manual labor, but nothing is undignified about it; the dignity is solely derived from how you treat and think about those who perform the work. Why am I willing to pay so much? Because being able to trust this guy while I was away held a lot of value for me. Paying for half as much meant I would end up with non-talent that required I stick around and personally oversee the work.

In the meantime, I hire the older gent every other month to do some "catch-up" work around the yard for a couple of days. I always keep about my person a US$5 gift certificate for a locally-popular family cafeteria. When I see a homeless person, I give them the certificate; it is enough to buy a decent, hot meal. They can't use it to purchase drugs or alcohol, nor can they trade it for cash like they could with food stamps. If they want, they can order the food to go and don't have to sit in the cafeteria if it makes them uncomfortable. If I wind up in the local university campus area for the day, and I see a homeless teenager (they hang out a lot over in that area) when I go to grab a bite to eat, I invite them to come with me to order whatever they want at the counter and to talk over the meal or leave to eat in private as they please. Yes, I believe in the "just give them money/resources" solution, but I want it to be my resources on my terms.

The answer does involve the government, inasmuch as a measure of how much it keeps its dirty paws off of the answer.

-- Anthony Yen, May 9, 2000
Looks like they've finally implemented Philip's master plan...

-- Steve Bliss, May 22, 2000
Your proposal does little for the large numbers of poor people who are crazy, criminal, or otherwise incapable of managing their daily lives.

You seem to think that poor people are just like you, only with less money. They are not.

-- Brian Gulino, July 11, 2000

Phil, this commentary has probably been up for quite a while, but I just stumbled upon it. I am in total disagreement. I too, believe there should be a safety net for the indigent - those who worked but didn't save or save very much. For those who were only a paycheck (or less) away from the streets, I've been an advocate of serious training programs, training these people in a new skill & helping them become productive members of our society again. This would be a much saner method of spending the taxpayers money, as this program yields true benefits. For those who decide not to work, they are often best left to their own design. You can't mandate productivity. You can't instill initiative. Those who choose not to work haven't a right to a handout. With your philosophy, if I'm a millionaire, what is to prevent me from approaching the imperialist federal government and saying "I don't work & I am hungry - feed me" - nothing! Would I not have the same rights as a homeless person under this system? This isn't a matter of shunning the less fortunate, or fueling class warfare. It is a matter of personal responsibility. And in a truly free society, I am free to become a rich as I can, or as poor as I desire. Decades ago, our society was charitable enough to help salvage many of the indigent - and it is truly difficult not to visit any city today and NOT find a soup kichen or a salvation army location. Obviously, my solutions has holes in dealing with the mentally unstable, but I would rather we place the burden on people who CAN work, are trainable thus creating an investment for our society, and use some funding for maintaining the lives of those who are not mentally capable of functioning in our society. For me, the analogy of 'give the man a fish, he eats today - teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime' has merit here. Just my two cents.

-- Mark Mitchell, September 9, 2000
Just giving money to people on the street wouldn't accomplish a whole lot. Most of the people on the street would take the money and buy a bottle of booze or drugs.

Implementing a "McDonalds Welfare" system would just incourage every freeloader and cheapskate in the neighborhood to take advantage of the program to the detrement of those that really need it.

Why not get government out of it completely? The government can't do anything without massive bungling and cost overruns, so why trust them with welfare? I suggest we all make contributions to private charities that don't waste most of the money given to them, such as the Salvation Army.

-- Jerry Gardner, November 17, 2000

You can get around the privacy problems by mandating that records may be used only for verification purposes, and are to be deleted immediately after a verification has been made. (Though I personally believe Brin's Transparent society would be a good thing.

-- Lion Kimbro, December 19, 2000
I have listened for years to middle-class citizens bash poor folks and welfare recipients. My response has been, "If you think living on welfare is so great, why don't you try it?" The fact is that if you want anything in this country worth having, you'll have to work for it. The second point I have tried to make, without success, is that the real taxpayer rip-offs are certain corporations. The magnitude of the fraud perpetrated on the American people is really beyond belief.

Nevertheless, I have thought for years the best solution is direct payments to individuals. The welfare system eats up 80% of the resources that could go to the individual. And what do these poor folks do with your money once they get it? They spend it the local grocery, liquor store, Target, K-Mart, and give it to the landlord. In other words, 100% of it goes back into the local economy. I have never met a welfare recipient with a decent stock portfolio.

You're on the right track, buddy, and it surprises me to see how many of your website visitors basically agree. Now if we could just get some insane politician to start telling the truth....

-- Gary Olson, December 27, 2000

Information Technology has the unintended consequence of creating a new class of almost unemployable persons, many of whom can work. Now, using the Internet, hiring corporations can very easily access past work and other records. Many now easily accessible records employers now use to screen out applicants. Any worker can now easily suffer the fate of being screened out universally, for any of many possible reasons. Examples: Geting fired for alleged misconduct (rightly or wrongly) or for poor performance (even if caused by extenuating circumstances such as a prolonged mild flulike illness), financial problems resulting in bad credit, a criminal arrest (whether conviction results or not), on the job injury and a Worker's Compensation claim, a positive drug test result (whether true or false), high medical expenses, and (worst of all) incorrect and erroneous adverse information. This problem will become much more severe when the next recession occurs, when there are many more applicants than job openings. These people can be compelled to become "freeloaders", through no fault of their own, or for a single serious mistake. The argument that "means testing" is needed for any government giveaway is valid, otherwise the demand could become overwhelming. Fortunately, the "means testing" in most cases can be handled by the existing Unemployment Insurance bureaucracy: To pass the "means test", the recipient must actively be seeking work, with allowances for medical limitations, disabilities, and existing low-pay work; but no more. On a separate topic: The Americans With Disabilities Act has miserably failed. Unemployment for the handicapped remains very high. Since the A.D.A. is an "in kind tax" on business, corporations should be able to "opt out" and instead pay a stiff monetary tax for the right to discriminate against the handicapped. This tax money would fund extended unemployment benefits for persons who have medical problems severe enough to make finding work difficult or impossible. Most states have vocational rehabilitation departments that can make the determination whether a person is handicapped or not. And, unlike welfare or disability payment programs, there is no loss of dignity; the person doesn't have to claim to be unable to work, but only to need reasonable accommodation to be able to work.
Attachment: EEOC-conspiracy-post.txt

-- Robert rIGGS, February 7, 2001
It is surprising to me how many people make comments on the welfare system without understanding what is currently happening in our welfare to work system. I have worked in welfare for 14 years and can tell you that the system has improved immensely, even though there is still much room for improvement. It is a complex system. Legislators make laws that we have to implement but don't think about how we are going to implement them. Under welfare reform, which is called TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families)we help adults who have care, custody and control of minor children get jobs so they can stop being dependent upon welfare. It is working for the vast majority of welfare recipients. Currently welfare to work requires able bodied adult to participate in welfare to work activities for about 32 hours per week. These activities include work, job training, remedial education, vocational training, community service or behavioral health counseling.Behavioral health counseling includes help for those who have mental or emotional health problems, substance abuse, domestic abuse or those who just need encouragement because they have low self esteem. We also offer supportive services to provide payments for childcare and transportation or other ancillary costs such as workshoes to start a new construction job, etc. We provide homeless assistance. We also make referrals to community-based organizations, such as local Family Resource Centers, Goodwill, Salvation Army,Community Resource Centers, and local church groups who want to help our recipients. In most cases the clients who come into these community-based organizations are our recipients. They receive help such as counseling, food, clothes, household items, utility assistance and housing assistance. There are many services out there for those who need it. A large number of recipients who still receive welfare may never get off of the sytem because they are disabled or have substance abuse issues that they can't kick. You seem to think that social workers are not necessary. In many cases a recipients social worker is their best friend because they have no one else to help them. No family, no friends, and no one to care. They need advise, moral support and information, and referrals to those who can help them. They need follow up to make sure that the recipient is capable of doing what they need to do to help themselves. In some cases, the recipient is not mentally capable of taking care of themselves or their family. We make referrals to social security for low income folks who are permanently disabled and we help them get through the process by being an advocate with the social security office for them because otherwise they would never be granted SSI as they should. The social worker is a helper and offers guidance. Do you think someone working at McDonalds or at Motel 6 can offer this level of help? I think not. I appreciate your comments about how we can make things better in the welfare system, but before you can discuss making things better you need to understand what is happening in the current system.

-- Ava Williams, July 9, 2001

Sorry, I do not see any way to justify forcefully confiscating one person's wealth and redistributing it to someone else. That person's personal property is his (or hers). America is the single most charitable country in the entire world, both collectively (government aid agencies) as well as independent charities. If I volunteer to give some of my property (money) to help any organization (and I do!), that's fine. But you have no right to take it from me forcefully, although the government obviously feels otherwise. Your need does not create for me an obligation to give you some of my stuff. Sorry.

-- Andrew Johnston, November 25, 2001
The very same little glass vase hand-made in Mexico sells for $0.79 at Wal-Mart and $19.95 at a trendy boutique. The demand in the target market primarily drives the price, not the cost of production. Likewise, as someone stated previously, just because you offer to reimburse McDonald's $2 for the free meals doesn't mean they'll bite. Why not? Even if it's free, the demand won't be there in any numbers to be profitable. Let's assume that the production of the meal only costs $1. All the people who did pay $4 are now paying $2 (via the government program). If my math is correct, McDonald's just took a 67% cut in net profits on this product from their largest customer base.

Now, just for the heck of it, let's pretend that there are actually enough homeless people in the city to compensate for the tremendous loss in profits. Let's pretend that if ALL the homeless people in the city claimed their free burgers, it would actually be enough to compensate for the drop in profits (it wouldn't, but let's pretend). How are these homeless people going to get there? The family car? Probably not, since they likely don't have a family, and a car is even less likely. Perhaps the random drifting homeless individual would benefit from the free burgers, but what about the single mom trying to raise 4 kids, including two babies she can't leave alone for fear of child welfare finding out? How do you handle the logistics of getting that food for the whole family? Mom could, perhaps, send the oldest son on a borrowed bike to get food for the whole family. You can imagine, now, these eldest sons descending upon McDonald's, requesting 6 meals each. It doesn't take too long for the one person in a ghetto area with reliable transportation to figure out how one could profit from such a venture. Thus, unless certain homeless individuals still have transportation to actually get food, they'll have little choice but to buy it at the prices charged by the people with the transportation. After this fiasco, even food stamps start to look pretty good.

Oh, and "There wouldn't be guys sleeping in the streets anymore?" I hope the cab ride to the Motel 6 every day will be government subsidized too, because that's too far to walk.

Nobel prize winning economists have much to offer welfare reform, but the whole solution shouldn't be left to them. Macroeconomics is very clean in situations like this because one does not have to deal with the real logistical dynamics of what goes on. But a clean, elegant idea that doesn't make one get their hands dirty does not necessarily equal a solution for the homeless.

-- Van Goodwin, January 11, 2002

I'm familiar with the Marxist/anarchist maxim that, "Property is theft," and understand and occasionally sympathize with the arguments that underly it. But I'm completely blown away by the several posters here who seem to feel (generally quite strongly) that, "Taxation is theft." I don't get this line of thought at all, at least not under a democratic form of government such as we claim here in the US.

I presume that most people recognize that they benefit to a greater or lesser degree from the programs, infrastructure, laws, etc. provided by the government, and that the things we agree we need (via voting) we need to pay for (via taxes). (It might be interesting to try to run a government on charitable contributions [public broadcasting, anyone?]; for now pretty much everyplace uses taxes, though.)

Futher, I don't get how people can be surprised or horrified at the concept of redistribution of wealth, especially under a mostly capitalist economic system. Do people not see that the instability that the positive feedback produces must be moderated somehow? (To clarify the engineeringish jargon: people who have money are in the best position to make money - thus the rich tend to get richer and the poor poorer - especially as the rich have a heavy hand in making the rules of the marketplace. A good way to counter this trend, in a democracy, is to vote, as the more poor voters, presumably, the more the tax system can be weilded to correct the imbalance of wealth.) It generally seems to me that the alternative to tax-based redistribution of wealth is revolution-based redistribution of wealth, which, depending on the form of the revolution, might be fairly properly regarded as theft...

-- Alex Broadhead, October 4, 2002

> The existence of freeloaders keeps the poor from becoming a separate class in society.

For this absolutely telling and central truth I'll forgive you anything you post about Britain.

-- dave heasman, June 4, 2003

I like your nonjudgmental attitude. Just give the people what they want! Give them the choice to do whatever they want with it. And if drugs were legalized the money - while perhaps ending up keeping a few brains happily out-of-it on occasion - would not end up in the hands of organized crime, but instead be recirculated into commerce. Drug users would quickly find that if they want to have a home, food AND their drugs, they'll have to learn to make more money on their own than the welfare they get. That would be a motivating experience. Seriously.

One of the worst things about mental-incompetence welfare is that if you earn any funds at a job while on it, you get that docked from your check. Thus there's not only no motivation to get your act together with regards to jobs, there's absolutely no good reason to besides it being "the good thing to do". Doing good things is all good and well, but if getting a job's just going to mean working for hours for no further reward than seeing your check come from your boss instead of social security...and what's more, seeing it get taxed, where your social security check wasn't. Only a dedicated devotee of morality would find this abstract karma reward enough motivation. What should be done instead is some sort of scaled level of extra money you can make for yourself if you DO find a job while getting the payments. Maybe a loan that gets partially paid back later, but allows you to get SOME reward for your striving to help yourself NOW.

-- Demitria Thraam, July 3, 2003

A proposal which seems to be gaining interest lately is FairTax (www.FairTax.org), which would replace virtually all federal personal taxes with an across-the-board national sales tax of approximately 23%. It includes a monthly pre-rebate of 23% of the poverty level (payable to everyone with a Social Security card), to refund tax paid on necessities. The result is that someone with no income would still be able to get approximately $188 a month. For a frugal shopper, this could be an income boost. Note that someone who tends to impulse-buy is likely going to waste money anyway.

-- Scott M, August 14, 2006

Scott M.:

Indirect taxes such as sales taxes discriminate against the needy. The rich have a much smaller marginal propensity to consume than the needy - the rich will park most of their money in the bank or some index fund, while the poor must fork out most of their money for basic expenditure such as food and shelter. IMO, the best solution remains a negative income tax, which Philip Greenspun alluded to (it's the solution advocated by many Nobel Prize-winning economists, including Milton Friedman).

I used to be one of those who didn't really believe in redistribution of income, but now having studied a little economics, I think it makes sense. The poverty cycle is a real thing, and it can only be moderated by some redistribution of wealth. There can be fewer unfair things in this world than being unable to realise your full potential simply because you had the misfortune of being born into a family that could not afford to feed, clothe or educate you.

It has occurred to me before that it might be possible to empirically prove the need for some government intervention to address the problem of poverty by applying the concept of externalities. If we consider it a negative externality imposed on a child born into a family that cannot afford to pay the costs of realising his earning potential, then under basic economic principles, it is warranted for the government to step in and assist the child in self-development.

-- John Lee, January 13, 2007
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