How the welfare state has grown — and sapped America's economy and culture

Despite claims by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to the contrary, the New Deal and Great Society have produced a nation of dependence

April 07, 2013|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them." — Thomas Jefferson

My recent column on the challenges associated with the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program elicited numerous and very personal stories from readers about how individual (disabled) recipients depended on the program for daily maintenance. And, many asked, how dare I (and others of my ilk) question such a vital program? Have I no sense of compassion?

My support for SSDI's fundamental mission is clear. I said so in the piece. But what should be equally clear is that the program is in a state of disrepair during a time of rapidly declining trust fund balances.

I note this phenomenon in advance of the extended piece that follows. My purpose is to analyze the considerable carnage inflicted on our country by a too large and too intrusive federal government. A topic well worth revisiting now that a re-elected President Barack Obama has restarted his campaign to expand federal jurisdiction over so many aspects of our lives.

New Deal and Great Society

We begin with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, a seminal movement that forever changed the way Americans interact with the federal government. Henceforth, the federal government would assume many of the social support mechanisms that had been the province of state and local governments, civic and religious institutions and individuals. That even FDR recognized the cultural dangers inherent in such federal intervention was evident in his 1935 State of the Union Address:

"Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. … We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination."

Your irony meter may be on overload, but try to control yourself. At least the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies that sprang forth during FDR's tenure helped pull us out of the Great Depression (although the outbreak of World War II certainly played a major role as well).

Now, spring forward to the second monumental expansion of the federal government in the 20th Century: President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Here the size and depth of the modern welfare state began to take shape during a most fractious time in American history.

It was the mid-1960s, and social unrest was the order of the day. A young and vibrant president had been assassinated. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. An aggressive anti-war movement was beginning to blossom on college campuses. And a sexual revolution was changing American mores — and morals.

Against all this societal turmoil came LBJ's grand plan to conduct a "war" on poverty through a large package of bills that sought to expand the depth and scope of federal power in unprecedented ways. New legislation came fast and furious. Forty programs dedicated to the elimination of poverty, 60 bills aimed at improved public education, and so many of the federal programs that constitute a modern federal safety net: Medicare, Medicaid, Job Corps, Head Start, the National School Lunch Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Food Stamp Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, and the Older Americans Act.

These and other new laws spawned the hiring of tens of thousands of new federal employees. The grand premise: the best and brightest minds in Washington, D.C. knew best how to cure what ailed America. Vast improvements in failing public schools, poverty rates, urban decay and health care for the poor and elderly were the promised deliverables.

Again, a president's high sounding, articulate rhetoric (and well intentioned policies) were pedaled to an American public eager to listen:

"Every dollar spent will result in savings to the country and especially to the local taxpayers in the cost of crime, welfare, of health and of police protection."


"We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls."


"Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity."


"The days of the dole in our country are numbered."

Thus was rekindled what has become a relentless effort to build a European-style welfare state.

Failed promises

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