The more we spend on the poor, the harder it seems for them to attain decent, productive lives in loving families. The federal government has spent $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs since the beginning of the War on Poverty in 1965, but the poverty rate is nearly the same today as in 1969, fluctuating between roughly 11 and 15 percent over that time period.
As I argue in a new essay on “Poverty and Welfare in the American Founding,” these results are bound to continue unless we rethink welfare policy from the perspective of our Founders. Neither the contemporary left nor right in America properly understands their approach.
The left often claims the Founders were indifferent to the poor—suggesting that New Deal America ended callousness and indifference. Indeed, high school and college textbooks frequently espouse this narrative. Many on the right think the Founders advocated only for charitable donations as the means of poverty relief.
Neither is correct. America always has had laws providing for the poor. The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin believed government has an obligation to help the poor. Both thought welfare policies should support children, the disabled, widows and others who could not work. But any aid policy, they insisted, would include work-requirements for the able-bodied.
Rather than making welfare a generational inheritance, Franklin thought it should assist the poor in overcoming poverty as expediently as possible:
“I am for doing good to the poor.…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
As always, read the whole thing.