Religion & Liberty Online

Noble Work Versus Savage Welfare

welfareIn eleven states in the union, welfare pays more than the average pretax first-year wage for a teacher. In thirty-nines states, it pays more than the starting wage for a secretary. And, in the three most generous states a person on welfare can take home more money than an entry-level computer programmer.

Those are just some of the eye-opening and distressing findings in a new study by Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes of the Cato Institute on the “work versus welfare tradeoff.”

“Welfare benefits continue to outpace the income that most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the balance between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years,” say Tanner and Hughes. “The current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work. Welfare currently pays more than a minimum-wage job in 35 states, even after accounting for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and in 13 states it pays more than $15 per hour.”

The state-by-state estimates are based on a hypothetical family participating in about seven of the 126 federal anti-poverty programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Women, Infants and Children program; Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and receiving help on housing and utilities.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, that translates into a package of $49,175 in Hawaii, $43,099 in the District of Columbia ($43,099), $42,515 in Massachusetts ($42,515), $38,761 in Connecticut, and and $38,728 in New Jersey. The state with the lowest benefits package in 2013 was Mississippi, at $16,984, followed by Tennessee ($17,413), Arkansas ($17,423), Idaho ($17,766), and Texas (18,037).

“If Congress and state legislatures are serious about reducing welfare dependence and rewarding work,” say Tanner and Hughes, “they should consider strengthening welfare work requirements, removing exemptions, and narrowing the definition of work. Moreover, states should consider ways to shrink the gap between the value of welfare and work by reducing current benefit levels and tightening eligibility requirements.”

The issue is not about providing for the truly needy but taking away an incentive to work for those who are able. As J. Michael Beers wrote in an issue of the Acton Institute journal, Religion and Liberty,

My basic critique of the welfare state is that it has ceased to do what “welfare” should do, namely to “do well” by the citizenry, to provide for their good. Of itself, welfare is a good thing. As Pope John Paul II makes the distinction between democratic and savage capitalism, perhaps we, too, should distinguish democratic welfare from savage welfare. . . .

By “savage” welfare, I mean those programs, initiatives and policies enacted all in the name of “welfare” which deny the nobility of work, which savage life within the womb, and assault even the very lives themselves of those for whom this “welfare” is said to be intended. Our current system, wherein welfare is presumed as an entitlement, not only tolerates but rewards unemployment.

The Cato report provides further evidence that we the current system has become a form of “savage welfare,” providing a disincentive to engage in the nobility of work. That is the primary reason why welfare reform is a moral duty. It’s counterproductive to provide people with “entitlements” when doing so hinders their opportunities for human flourishing.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).