A Story From My Dad

Let me tell you about my Dad, the greatest man who ever lived. Bear with me because I’ll get to the point shortly.

In the midst of the Great Depression my Dad contracted a disease called osteomyelitis, a bacterial infection of the bone. Today if someone contracts the disease they can usually be treated with antibiotics, but in the 1930’s my Dad had to suffer through a process referred to as “debridement” which has a surgeon opening access to the infected bone where it can be scraped and flushed. He had bones debrided in his leg, his head, his face, his arms, his hip…you get the idea.

When he was eight years old my Dad was in bed for about a year fighting that disease and when he finally recovered his right hip was out of socket. It remained that way until he died at age 74, so his right leg was about four inches shorter than the left requiring a “lift” on all his right shoes.  During his life he had surgery at least 36 times and every step he took from the time he was eight years old until the day he died was painful. He still taught me to play baseball, to hunt and fish, multiplication tables, and how to curse at appropriate times (this was likely unintentional).

He was the toughest, and most gentle, human being I’ve ever known.

The other thing you need to know is that he worked. Hard. He worked in a plant that bottled milk, starting as custodian and machine operator and retiring after almost 40 years as plant superintendent although doctors had offered him disability twenty years earlier. He finally retired because he just couldn’t continue walking on the concrete floor ten hours per day, but even after retirement he went back to the plant on Saturday mornings to answer the phone and take orders because he loved working.

When I was young I remember him telling some of his buddies a story, and that story has influenced my attitudes and my life. One day he had some trucks that needed to be unloaded but he didn’t have enough crew to unload them. He drove up town to the courthouse where he knew unemployed guys hung out, and he offered to pay these guys to come help unload the trucks. They responded that they didn’t need to unload the trucks because their “government check” was due the next day.

So here you had my Dad who was in pain 66 of his 74 years (but who NEVER complained once) offering healthy young men work, but they didn’t want it. This anecdote has always made me question the impact excessive welfare has on society.

I absolutely favor using my taxes to help those who cannot help themselves.

  • People who are severely handicapped either physically or mentally are welcome to my tax dollars because I offer them willingly.
  • I’m more than willing to help fellow citizens who earn too little to pay for healthcare because I believe people should have that access regardless of their income.
  • And I understand the capitalist economy and know that at any given time there are some people who just cannot find jobs, and I want to help these folks through the rough stretches.
  • And I know that a very large number of American jobs pay so little that folks holding those jobs cannot support a family, so I’m more than happy to help them as well.
  • I’m also happy to provide free breakfasts and lunches to kids in schools just because some of those kids come from homes with too little food.

You get the idea. I’m more than willing to help my fellow Americans who need my help. I’m glad I am in a position to pay those taxes.

I’m less enthusiastic about supporting my fellow citizens who are capable of working but are unwilling to do so. People who are capable of working sometimes game the system and consequently give other Americans a negative impression of “welfare” programs.

To be clear, the number of folks abusing the system is almost certainly pretty low, but:

  • According to federal law, to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients must either work, seek work, engage in job training, or volunteer between 20 and 35 hours per week. In 2013, the last year for which data are available, only about 1/3 of adults receiving TANF actually met these standards. In that year more than half of TANF recipients were completely idle.
  • There is fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Some fraud exists in the Medicare program.
  • Fraud is a problem with the Earned Income Tax Credit that gives larger tax refunds to those with lower incomes.

It is estimated that more than 10% of welfare payments either result from fraud or other improper welfare payments. That is more than $70 billion per year.

But I think there is more to this issue than dollars lost. It is time to re-think our notion of welfare and who is eligible to receive it. I’ve known people who were able to get disability benefits while simultaneously working for cash under the table. I’ve had people try to sell me their food stamps for cash. I’ve known couples who avoided marriage because it would impact benefit checks.

Some of our policies result in a culture of dependency. Thankfully this culture is not pervasive, but I believe it is corrosive.

Before my liberal friends start deleting me from Facebook and unsubscribing to my blog, read this from former President Obama:

“I think we should acknowledge that some welfare programs in the past were not well designed and in some cases did encourage dependency.… As somebody who worked in low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen it where people weren’t encouraged to work, weren’t encouraged to upgrade their skills, were just getting a check, and over time their motivation started to diminish. And I think even if you’re progressive you’ve got to acknowledge that some of these things have not been well designed.”

Our social benevolence has actually created a culture of dependency and entitlement rather than one promoting self-reliance and independence. Everyone in a society should contribute to that society according to their ability and some of our policies make it possible to avoid doing so.

I wish people gaming the system had the chance to meet my Dad.

And don’t get me started on my Mom who retired at age 74 and at 89 still volunteers more hours than many Americans work.