Creating Dependency, One Mouthful at a Time

The number of Americans receiving "free" government benefits has soared, and this expansion seems unstoppable even as the economy recovers (see here and here).  Less obvious than the depressing numbers is how this assistance inculcates a dependency inimical to a free people.  The culprit is not free food, subsidized housing, and all the rest per se, though these certainly do not help.  After all, Americans have always received government help during tough times, but this aid scarcely undermined the spirit of independence.  Nor is the growing national debt the guilty party.  During World War II, for example, government borrowed billions, yet nobody spoke of this liability as breeding hopeless dependency.

The culprit is how these benefits are distributed.  It is their non-contingent, open-ended character that breeds destructive pathologies.  It is these traits that separate today's munificence from past generosity, and this element is all too easy obscured by burgeoning costs.

In a nutshell, receiving a temporary handout that depends on doing something worthwhile is wholly unlike receiving the identical assistance sans any obligation and for however long as the recipient remains legally eligible.    

To illustrate the pernicious character of today's largesse, consider the school free lunch program.  It is only oneof several food programs; others include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (commonly called food stamps), the WIC program for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and NSIP, which provides food for the elderly.  Administrative details aside, all share common traits.

Free school lunches started small shortly after WWII to reduce government surplus milk and cheese.  The program has, predictably, exploded in size and scope, far beyond what population increase would require.  A "mere" 2.9 million youngsters ate free school lunches in 1969; by 2012, that number was up to 18.7 million, and about two-thirds of all school lunches were now "free" (that figure was 15% in 1969).

Like the waistlines of many youngsters, the mission creep is ongoing.  There are free breakfasts, after-school free snacks, and summer meals for those who qualify.  Youngsters in non-profit schools and "migrant" sites are also eligible.  Uncle Sam, obviously, is evolving into Aunt Samantha.

Paralleling mission creep have been user-friendly eligibility requirements.  A youngster qualifies if his family falls below 130% of the poverty line ($24,817 in 2012 for a mother and two children), but -- and this is a big but -- all government benefits except cash welfare benefits are excluded when calculating income.  So Junior eats free even if Mom received food stamps, subsidized housing, and all the rest. 

To appreciate this historical shift, consider how billions of children long grasped how one gets fed.  Children typically see a connection between parental work and what appears on the table, and unemployment means cheap food or no food.  Children may have once heard parents complaining about their jobs, but kvetching never hinted of quitting and permitting the family to go hungry.  Moreover, at least in my family, special-occasion meals entailed telling guests about slaving away in the kitchen and the untold hours shopping to make the meal a success.  And to drive this point home, Junior might have been conscripted to help wash dishes.

Conversely, when income rose, steak may have replaced hamburger, and perhaps the family enjoyed a once-a-month visit to Red Lobster.  In a thousand ways, the work/food link became indelible.

This connection is especially apparent with those personally acquainted with agriculture.  Here even children might pitch in, and the labor/eating link is always on people's minds due to the vagaries of weather, pestilences, civil unrest, and multiple other disruptive factors.  Daily prayers thanking God for His bountifulness are predictably ubiquitous.

Within well-off families, Junior's meals are usually contingent, never guaranteed.  Good school grades may bring a special treat.  Bad behavior, on the other hand, can mean no dessert or being sent to bed famished.  Not finishing one's plate could mean having it again served the next day.  Eating can also bring lectures about the need to finish everything since children in Africa are starving or about the sin of wasting food.   

Charity, including government help, in the past linked getting fed with doing something -- usually some effort at self-improvement.  Myron Magnet in his overview of past charity is explicit.  "[Charity] abhorred the idea of dependency, it aimed to make its beneficiaries self-sufficient[.] ... Traditional American charity, therefore, stressed the attitudes and skills of personal responsibility."  Ironically, even successful beggars know that something more than lamely holding out a hand is necessary.

Even religious people who believe in "the will of God" as the source of their bountifulness must do something -- live the righteous life, pray daily, or sacrifice a goat -- to warrant His generosity.  Refusing to honor Him risks famine, so being religious is a serious "job," and woe to slackers. 

Now compare what transpires in today's school lunch program.  First, the historic connection between earning a living and eating is now reversed.  If an ambitious mom spends extra hours on her job, the entire family may become ineligible for Washington's food programs, including Junior's gratis lunches.  Idleness, not industry, now puts bread on the table.  No wonder that after years on the dole, paid employment is viewed as something for chumps -- it is, and rationally so. 

Nor can the school withhold food for any reason other than a documented change in parental eligibility.  Uncle Sam's bounteousness, unlike Mom's, is non-contingent -- just show up and get fed, guaranteed.  As the Declaration of Independence might put it, free government-supplied food is now an unalienable right (might America now possess a Declaration of Dependence?).  The recipient can sass his teachers, sleep in class, play with his broccoli, and otherwise misbehave in ways that would certainly draw swift parental rebuke, but schools are powerless.  Imagine a cafeteria worker who refused to feed Junior because of his disruptive behavior.  Lunch room monitors who scold youngsters for toying with their veggies risks reprimand or even termination (so, as usual, the bad person becomes the "victim").  This volunteered well-intentioned reproach may even be deemed "abusive."

It should come as no surprise that millions of Americans are hardly shamed by relying on Aunt Samantha for their daily bread.  Dependency is almost the new normal.  Those who cherish the spirit of independence should take heed.  Future entitlement reform requires more than tightening eligibility or cutting benefits.  Restoring contingency is essential: beneficiaries must do something to "earn" government's generosity -- e.g., keeping a tidy house or fixing Junior a healthy lunch.  Without this link, millions will come to believe that Washington is an all-providing God that demands nothing but self-inflicted poverty to bestow His/Her/Its blessings.

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