BOOK REVIEW

The Failure of America’s Welfare Bureaucracies

In a speech for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, Ronald Reagan pointed to the burgeoning costs for anti-poverty programs. Americans were being told that “9.3 million families in this country are poverty-stricken on the basis of earning less than 3,000 dollars a year.”  Each year 45 billion dollars was being spent to alleviate this poverty, a figure ten times greater than what it was in “the dark depths of the Depression.”

Reagan then asked his audience to “do a little arithmetic” and divide the amount spent equally among the poor.  The answer was “we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year.”  Voila!  Solution to the poverty problem.

Yet, each poor family received only 600 dollars as direct aid.

“It would seem that someplace there must be some overhead,” said Reagan with perfect timing.

Still, President Lyndon Johnson felt there was a need to declare a “War on Poverty.”

Clearly, government “charity” is not working.  In spite of human welfare spending two and a half times greater in 2009 than in 1977, the poverty rate rose to 11.1 percent in 2009 from 9.3 percent in 1977.  It has never gone lower than 8.7 percent, since the launch of the War on Poverty in 1965, when it stood at 13.9 percent.

Yet, liberals continue to attack conservatives relentlessly for their hard-heartedness whenever they question or criticize such wastefulness.

Why liberals do this is the subject of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion (HarperCollins 2014) by William Voegeli.  Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College and a senior editor of The Claremont Review of Books, uses statistics, humor, and psychological deconstruction to expose the pretensions of the Pity Party.

One of the sources for rebutting their claims is Charles Murray’s 2006 book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, which offered a detailed plan implementing what Reagan had presented as hypothetical–a negative income tax that would eliminate the middle man, the massive welfare bureaucracies.  It’s estimated that if Murray’s plan of giving direct payments of between $5,000 and $10,000 to every citizen (depending on income) and of eliminating every agency (except in public education, transportation, and the U.S. Postal Service) were applied to 2012 figures we would have spent about one-third less than actual federal, state, and local outlays on the welfare state that year.   William F. Buckley, Jr. had proposed a similar scheme at a state level in 1973.

There is the question of whether the experts in the bureaucracies do a better job with the money.

No.  Head Start, the federal preschool program, is a prime example.  A 2010 study by the very same agency that administers the program, the Department of Health and Human Services, showed that Head Start’s positive influence on children’s school readiness dissipated by the time children reached the end of kindergarten and first grade.  According to HHS’s own data, “by the end of the third grade children who had been enrolled in a program were no better off than those in a nonparticipating control group.”

Such facts, however, do not matter to those who present themselves as the fount of benevolence: “Speaking in 2011 at a Head Start center in Pennsylvania, President Obama referred obliquely to the report chronicling the program’s deficiencies. ‘I firmly believe that Head Start is an outstanding program and a critical investment,’ Obama insisted before criticizing Republicans for their plans to cut its budget.”

Yet, Voegeli points out that Obama announced new rules to ensure that for “‘the first time in history that Head Start programs will be truly held accountable for performance in the classroom’ (emphasis added).”

Voegeli wryly adds, “The president did not explain the basis on which, other than its good intentions, a forty-six-year-old program that had never been held accountable for delivering on those intentions could be judged outstanding.”

The motivations for such declarations of success include, of course, the desire to win votes.  But perhaps an even more compelling reason is ego, the satisfaction liberals get from declaring their superiority in the compassion department.

But pity is no way to order a society. It is an emotion based on “accident,” or arbitrariness, not principle.  The Pity Party decides which groups get pity, a method that invites totalitarianism and sometimes suffering when the pity object of the moment pushes aside the usual object.  Voegeli uses the case of immigration, where liberals’ global, supra-national compassion conflicts with their traditional objects of compassion, such as the urban underclass.  When a black conservative, such as Carol Swain, points out that illegal immigrants often take away jobs from black men, she is attacked.  “Hell hath no grievance like a white liberal accused of callousness by a black conservative,” Voegeli quips, in describing the liberal response to the law professor.

When evidence is presented, even evidence that points to the harm programs are doing, it is ignored.  Always, it is the Pity Party’s needs that prevail.

Examples come from classical sources and current events.  Simply presented with little commentary they illustrate the pomposity and self-congratulatory frame of mind of the average liberal.  Compassion, writes Voegeli, “not only helps Democrats win votes but also helps rank-and-file Democrats feel worthy.”

Voegeli finds great self-indicting statements: “‘I am a liberal,’ public radio host Garrison Keillor wrote in 2004, ‘and liberalism is the politics of kindness.’  A more politically formidable analyst than Keillor has seconded that motion.  In a 2013 speech, President Obama quoted the late film critic Roger Ebert: ‘Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. .  . .’”

This is a good game plan for fighting the relentless attack from the Pity Party.  Expose their own absurdities.  Ask them for the fruits of their “charity.”

Such a lively exposé is much welcome at a time when many Republicans are on the defensive.  We don’t need another round of compassionate conservatism.  We need a head-on rebuttal of the logical fallacies, self-aggrandizing delusions, and harmful contradictions of the Pity Party.  This is what William Voegeli gives us in a lively and funny polemic.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically).  She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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