Epic Clash: Conservative Welfare Dogma and The Advance of Civilization


Posted by Bob Lord

Undergirding the 21st Century attack on welfare recipients is the notion, rarely challenged, that the denial of safety net benefits to those who possibly could work is crucial. The recent Cato Institute "study" bemoans its finding that the package of safety net benefits available to some single mothers of two young children has a value greater than the compensation from a minimum wage job. Translation: A mother who is unable to work and has the responsibility of supporting two children should receive no more in beneifits than the compensation of a 19 year-old kid who lives with his parents and spends the lion's share of his minimum wage pay indulging himself. Why? Because we just can't take the chance that people will lose the incentive to work if their kids aren't starving. 

Laura Clawson at Daily Kos recently reported on the implementation of this principle in conservative Kansas: 

Kansas could be kicking 20,000 people off of food stamps starting in October. Able-bodied adults without dependent children will only get three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits every three years before they face a requirement that they work 20 hours a week or participate in a job training program for those hours—regardless of whether a job or job training is available.

The only problem with conservative philosophy on this front is that it completely clashes with the advance of civilization. 

Fast forward to the year 3013. Technology has solved all the world's problems. Virtually all labor is mechanized. Only five percent of the people on the planet do any work, and their work weeks are only one day long. Otherwise, the members of the human race are engaged in leisure activities and self-actualization.

Okay, it may take us until 4013 to reach that level, but it is the direction we're moving. 

If that's the direction we're headed, does it really make sense to obsess over the work ethic of safety net beneficiaries, for whom we provide only the basics of life, just enough to keep them out of poverty?

It may have made sense while our economy operated at or near full employment. But what if we've outgrown that sort of economy on our way to a 3013 economy? If there are people who are seeking work and can't find jobs, it doesn't make much sense to impose consequences on those who don't seek and find work. Even if "no work, no food" succeeded in coercing an erstwhie safety net beneficiary to find work, there would be no benefit to society, because one of the folks actively seeking work would be denied an otherwise available job. If there are ninety jobs available to one hundred people, ten people won't have jobs, no matter how much they want to work. 

Is our economy consistently at or near full employment? Hardly. Take the last decade, but suppose that the housing bubble never occurred. During the years 2003 through 2007, all those construction jobs that were needed to create the glut of housing and office space would not have existed. We would not have been anywhere near full employment. Yes, there would have been more construction activity and hence more jobs in the period subsequent to 2007, but not enough to get us to full employment during that period either.

Is the last decade an aberration? Only if you believe the 40 hour work week also is an aberration and the sweatshops of the 1890's are still the norm. In the 20th century, America was able to make the 40 hour work week standard because we reached a level of productivity that allowed us to achieve a desirable level of output without the labor force working 60 hour weeks. 

Since that time, productivity has continued its upward trajectory towards 3013. But we're still acting as if the economy will require all able-bodied adults to work full-time. Heck, there's even a movement to extend the careers of seniors by delaying their receipt of social security benefits.

At one time, agriculture dominated our economy. Today, it employs one percent of our workers. As the work hours needed to grow food declined over time, our manufacturing and service sectors produced more and more jobs. But manufacturing peaked several decades ago, and not just from offshoring. Mechanization has taken a heavy toll on manufacturing jobs. 

Now, consider the impact of technology will have in the service sector. When I visited Australia last Spring, we went to a restaurant that employed a skeletal wait staff whose sole function was to serve food. At each table there was an Ipad type device that performed the order taking function. If the Darden restaurant company, which operates the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, moved to this technology, how many jobs would be lost? Our neighbors have a robot-like device that vacuums their floors. How will that impact the work hours available in the cleaning industry?

Moving towards 2013 is a really good thing. It's what the advance of civilization is all about. But that advance of civilization and the conservative no work, no food ethic are entirely incompatible. Sooner or later, the no work, no food ethic must give way.

Already, the no work, no food ethic is counter-productive. When many jobs do not pay a living wage, it is a sign the employment market is out of balance. We should be taking steps to remove workers from the job market, not pushing them into it with the threat of starvation.

What's the solution? With each improvement in productivity, there is a loss of jobs but a commensurate increase in profits, as the dollars that previously flowed to workers flows to capital instead. For thirty years, those profits have been used to line the pockets of the super rich. That's not entirely wrong. Innovation must have its rewards. But the share that flows to the top today is overkill. There's just no point in allowing multi-billion dollar fortunes to accumulate.

At the same time, we've reached a level of wealth and income that allows us to make sure all Americans have the basics in life and no Americans live in poverty. The poverty line today is slightly greater than ten percent of our per capita income. Civilization had finally reached a point where a wealthy country can provide adequately for all its citizens.

Providing for all our citizens, whether they are working or not, is something we should embrace and celebrate. Need we concern ourselves with potential workers lacking the incentive to get off the couch while employers face a shortage of workers? That's what conservatives want people to believe, but it's pure malarkey. The idea of a safety net is that it keeps people out of poverty, but goes no further. Will some citizens be content to live just one notch above the povery line? Perhaps, but the vast majority will not. And that vast majority will be available to fill all the jobs out there. Employers may have to pay a bit more to make it worth their while, but that also would be a really good thing. 


  1. I can smell your intellectual dishonesty from here, and it’s putrid. If you cared so much for children, you would want to do everything humanly possible to make sure they receive the nutrition they need when they’re young. The brains of malnourished children never fully develop, destroying their potential permanently. Even if what you say about children on welfare is correct (it actually isn’t),those children could recoup that later in life and measures like early childhoon eductaion could be implemented to ameliorate it in the present.

  2. Welfare destroys people. Children on welfare hear millions of fewer words by the age of three; experience hundreds of thousands of fewer positive interections with adults; experience hundreds of thousands more negative interactions with adults and are hopelessly behind when they enter school. This doesn’t even begin to address the issue of welfare slowing the reentry of adults into the workforce and thus destroying job multiplication effects necessary for a prosperous economy. Expanding these populations may meet your compassion needs but it is incredibly cruel to children and recent high school and college graduates who need jobs.

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