How to Shut Down the Welfare State

Welfare workers are constantly trying to figure out how to make their jobs effective, how to do something to actually combat poverty.  Their jobs are very high-stress, so they often meet after work on Fridays, when happy hours encourage them to philosophize.

If only the clients had to look for work -- no, they're already under such a requirement.  If the government built more public housing so the slumlords didn't grab every increase in benefits -- no, that's been tried.  If food stamps and cash assistance were combined into one check -- no, that resulted in a class action suit, and threatened the criminal economy.  There must be some way the welfare system can actually assist the poor.

Happily, there is an answer: shut it down.  No, don't just suddenly chain the doors of the welfare office closed, as some workers suggest at the end of happy hour.  Do a gradual shutdown that eliminates the system and its whole bureaucracy over a period of eighteen years -- a shutdown that salvages logistical resources and allows people to learn to take care of themselves at a rational pace.

First step: recognize that the entire concept of state and national public assistance is a mistake.  Just like bilingual education, the War on Poverty is a beautiful theory that just doesn't work in reality.  People are better off getting local assistance for verifiable emergencies, but to improve their general lifestyle, they are much better off if left to suffer the consequences of their behavior.

Just as children learn a target language more quickly on the playground with speakers of that language than they do in structured classes, people living in poverty learn to get away from it -- if they want -- much more quickly by suffering its disadvantages than by having those disadvantages artificially relieved.

Second step: decide, nationally, on a date to start shutting down the welfare system.  September 1 would be a good date, fiscally.  The government would announce that it will stop taking welfare applications at midnight, August 31 of that year.  That way no employees will lose their jobs; no recipients will suddenly be dumped in the street; no pregnant persons will be denied medical care; the illegal food stamp economy will not be disrupted.  There just won't be any more applications accepted, so people from then on will have to accept that the nation has decided to rescind the program.  Sorry, it's over.

Third step: the vast pool of welfare bureaucracy employees will provide a human resource pool for all other government agencies.  All their employment paperwork is done -- a little retraining, and they're ready for reassignment.  If they choose not to accept the assignment, they're on their own.

The number of welfare recipients should dwindle at the same rate as the number of welfare workers, providing a nice balance.

Fourth step: because welfare benefits cover the unborn, the last welfare recipient should matriculate out of the system eighteen years and nine months after that August 31 cutoff date, providing a long, relaxed toss of the system onto the ash heap of history.  All the hubbub will occur during the initial decision-making process, so as the system slowly fades out of existence, it will become a sillier and sillier news item until one day, eighteen years and nine months later, a side note to the news will be:

"And finally tonight, the last recipient of public assistance from President Johnson's 'Great Society' stepped out on his own today.  The Great Society, you'll remember, was the last gasp of Communism and only survived so long because it rode the capitalist workhorse.  Johnson gave us two wars, the 'War on Poverty' and the war in Vietnam -- both tragic failures -- but both are now consigned to history."

This would give poor people a chance.

Richard B. Jones is a bilingual probation officer, migrant teacher, and welfare worker living in rural West Texas; he has lived and worked in many places, including China and the Middle East.  His blog is