Friday, May 13, 2011

The Trouble with Welfare

My most recently published column, "What Would Jesus Cut?" has sparked some interesting debate. One reader reminded me that not only is the welfare state ineffective as well as a violation of the Christian ethic of property. It also contributes to the corruption of character. The welfare state strikes at the heart of the work ethic.

Suppose, for instance, that a person with little experience and few job skills finds low paying gainful employment that allows him to earn $900 per month. In a world without government welfare subsidies, if that person decides not to work after all, his income shrinks to $0. On the other hand, suppose we live in a welfare state when, if he does not work, he will receive a government check for $600. In the first case, a free market, he sacrifices $900 a month by not working. In the second case with the welfare state, the cost of not working is the difference between his foregone income and his welfare check. In this case it is $900 - $600 or $300.

By reducing the opportunity cost of not working, the welfare state encourages idleness. Idleness, it turns out, is one of the most important reason people who earn low incomes. That is the very thing the welfare system is supposed to ameliorate. In fact, welfare subsidies makes things worse.

This does not mean that everyone eligible will quit their jobs and try to live on the dole. It also does not mean that everyone who receives or has received welfare subsidies is lazy. It does imply, however, that some who are on the margin--perhaps those who would be willing to work for $900, but not for $300 have an incentive not to pursue productive labor choose for them what is optimal. Some are willing to pay $300 a month for complete leisure.

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