Common Objections to Welfare (and Why They Fall Short)
I have argued here at at the ELI multiple times that welfare is necessary for a modern economic order that upholds a Christian vision of economic egalitarianism. While I believe this to be true, there are many evangelicals who remain skeptical of welfare as a solution to poverty. My goal here is to briefly summarize and address a few common objections to welfare often raised by Christians.
1) Welfare simply does not reduce poverty.
This argument goes that spending money on welfare programs is useless because since the passage of the Great Society welfare programs, the poverty rate has remained around the same in the US. But this is using the official poverty measure, which is a metric most researchers of poverty find incredibly unhelpful—in part because it is set at a pretty severe threshold, and additionally because it does not count non-cash benefits, which make up far more of the welfare state than they did when the Great Society programs were passed. When using the supplementary poverty measure, the metric far preferred by scholars of poverty, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that poverty has declined dramatically since the mid-1960s—and that if you took away all welfare programs, the poverty rate would be almost exactly the same now as it was then. While there is still a substantial way to go before the US is in line with other prosperous democracies, what’s needed is a more robust and better organized welfare state rather than a smaller one.
Oddly, the Heritage Foundation, in arguing that welfare is ineffective, starts by making the accusation that poverty hasn’t decreased since the passage of War on Poverty programs, but then claims that when non-cash benefits are counted, the poverty rate is closer to 4%. You would think this is a good thing, but they go on to argue that even though this would essentially mean the US has the lowest poverty in the world (which it certainly does not), the welfare state is still a failure. Why would they claim this to be the case?
2) Welfare actually makes poverty worse.
The Heritage Foundation argues that welfare is actually a failure because it actually makes the “root causes” of poverty worse by disincentivizing marriage and work, an argument shared by many Christians I have spoken with. This means generational “cultures of poverty” will set in where marriage will disappear and the will to work will wither as welfare ravages the poor. However, the “disincentive” problem here is not welfare itself, but a contingent feature of one way of designing welfare prograns: means testing. Simply put, means tested programs are where some people are deemed eligible for a program and others are not based on income (and sometimes other factors like family composition). This idea seems reasonable: after all, you want to give welfare cash to families who need it the most. But means testing as a way to go about this creates a few major problems. First of all, there is a huge administrative burden to determine eligibility on families and the government, leading to bureaucratic programs with lots of hoops to jump through in order to receive benefits. Ultimately this means programs are more expensive to run and a lot of people who would be eligible don't get the benefit because they fail to jump through all the hoops. Second, it creates what are known as “welfare cliffs”: situations in which doing something good (like getting a job, getting a raise, or getting married) results in a sharp decrease in benefits, thus penalizing people for doing things that would otherwise be good.
While it’s not at all clear that welfare is the cause of declining marriage and high unemployment among the poor, means testing is one of the biggest design flaws of the current American welfare state. When welfare is imagined as a way to supply universal incomes to non-workers, as I’ve detailed before, welfare cliffs are no longer a problem. Work and marriage are not perversely disincentivized under a well-designed welfare state.
3) Dependence on welfare will lead to government overreach and a loss of freedom.
This argument is essentially an adaptation of libertarian economist F.A. Hayek’s thesis in his book The Road to Serfdom. The claim is that the welfare state will take control of the economy away from individuals, and thus we will become reliant on and subservient to the government, which leads to totalitarianism. But far from being totalitarian, the universal welfare state in the generally Nordic model puts more control, not less, in the hands of individuals: every individual is given the power to obtain the basic necessities of life. When people have the ability to ensure the basics are provided for, they can take more risks, do more for others, and participate in the economy—aside from the fact that justice demands we not let fellow human beings go without these necessities. In fact, this is almost precisely the point Hayek himself makes in The Road to Serfdom:
There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.
Although I would disagree profoundly with Hayek on what makes for human flourishing according to Christian economic egalitarianism, I can certainly say that we agree on this simple baseline: no one should be without the things necessary to their survival, and ensuring this through welfare is no danger to freedom.