The moral case against welfare

January 30, 1995|By Michael Levin

WELFARE SHOULD end, but not for the usual reasons. The right has long held, and the left is coming reluctantly to agree, that welfare creates a culture of dependency, sapping the initiative of its recipients. In the slums right now, a generation of children raised without fathers on Aid to Families with Dependent Children is being encouraged by welfare to produce the next generation.

Welfare no doubt has this effect. Lack of ambition is no burden if ambition is not needed for survival. What is wrong with welfare is not the damage it does to recipients but its moral outrageousness.

Let us try, for once, to see welfare not from the perspective of its recipients but from the perspective of those who finance it. By what right can someone who works for a living, who has his own family to worry about, be required to support somebody else or, what is worse, somebody else's illegitimate child? And forced the taxpayer is. Should he deduct from his tax payment the proportion the government will use for welfare, he is given a jail sentence, not a lecture on charity.

I am willing to grant that everyone is obliged to help the unfortunate, and that indifference to this obligation is a character defect. But compassion and charity are not the issue. The issue is forcible fulfillment of of charity, or someone's idea of what this duty entails. Let those who feel obligated to support the abandoned children of strangers do so. But leave others to wrestle with their consciences as they see fit.

As soon as anyone voices a wish to eliminate welfare, a sort of hostage situation is created, wherein welfare advocates raise the prospect of illegitimate children born to poor women. It is asked what will happen to these misbegotten children if "we" do not care for them; with the implication that it will be "our" fault if they starve.

Let us imagine an unmarried woman so uninformed and improvident that, without giving thought to how she might be supported were she to become pregnant, consents to intercourse and does bear a child.

If the conservative's deus ex machina, "charity," does not arrive on schedule, the child starves. But responsibility for assuring that the child does not starve presumably resides with whoever is responsible for the child. The mother is responsible, and so is the father; by all means let us make the father support his offspring.

But I am not responsible. I didn't impregnate the woman or force her to have sex. Why then should I be forced to take care of the baby?

"How can you be so concerned with 'responsibility' and laying blame when a child is starving?" you might ask.

The answer is that I have to be concerned or else I'm going to continue to help support that child as well as my own.

When "welfare reform" is undertaken for the wrong reasons, the reforms inevitably go in the wrong direction. The most appalling revelation about the plan submitted by Bill Clinton to "end welfare as we know it" is that its cost exceeds that of the welfare we know! The Clintonites make no bones of their enthusiasm for job training, child care and other new entitlements to encourage independence. In practice, this means that instead of merely having to support the illegitimate child of a stranger, the taxpayer will have to support day care and the stranger's vocational training as well.

Welfare rests on a fallacy and a myth. The fallacy is what logicians call composition, reasoning from properties of the parts of a whole to properties of the whole. I am responsible for my

children, you for yours; in this sense we are all responsible for our children. But then this "we" is surreptitiously interpreted to mean all of us collectively, so that "our" children become all children taken together. Suddenly America must take care of "its" children, and then, only a little less suddenly, everyone who can pay is paying for everybody's children.

Reinforcing this fallacy is the myth that We Are All In This Together, that we all share each other's fate. We don't. We are separate persons, families, clans and groups, pursuing our various ends. We can and should cooperate, and sometimes, not always, offer help in adversity. But we are all individually responsible for our fates, a responsibility that cannot be undone by forcing some people to pay for the heedlessness of others.

Michael Levin is a philosophy professor at City College of New York.

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