Why the Welfare State Fails So Spectacularly—and How to Fix It

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Why the Welfare State Fails So Spectacularly—and How to Fix It

In trying to reduce unemployment, government handouts boost it. In trying to alleviate single parenthood, welfare checks encourage it. The reason for this failure is clear—and preventable.

What happens when you give someone a paycheck just for occupying space and consuming oxygen? He becomes allergic to rain.

Recently, the owner of a marketing firm in Britain decided to offer jobs to seven people claiming government benefits. The first day of work, not one of the new employees showed up. None even called to say they couldn’t make it.

The company called all of them to ask where they were. Some of them, recognizing the number, refused to answer. When they were finally reached, five of the seven frankly admitted they would rather remain on welfare than work.

One said he didn’t want to have to pay the train fare. Another called after lunch and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I overslept.” Four said they couldn’t make it to work because it was raining.

Ridiculous excuses for not getting out the door to work aren’t a modern phenomenon, as Proverbs 22:13 and 26:13 show. However, the modern welfare state is doing an unparalleled job of swelling the ranks of sluggards.

Welfare is intended to help the down-and-out. What it does instead is reward and entrench bad behavior. It creates broken people.

The fundamental reason for this is quite remarkable—even awesome—if only people would acknowledge it. And it points to the solution to this enormous problem.

“People keep saying there are not enough jobs in the UK but the real problem is that there are not enough determined or ambitious people,” the employer, Carl Cooper, told the Daily Mail. “The benefit system is too generous and encourages the unemployed to stay unemployed and just breeds more laziness.”

Exactly right. The same is true anywhere that benefits are unwisely awarded with too little concern paid to actual need.

Amazingly, the people Mr. Cooper hired, despite failing to come to work, will not lose their handouts. They’re okay as long as they keep applying for a certain number of jobs each week and show up to any job interviews offered. Also, they must accept a job on offer unless work conditions wouldn’t “fit their circumstances.” Like, for example, if going to work would mean having to brave droplets of water descending pell-mell from the skies.

Indiscriminate welfare doesn’t help—it handicaps. Checks paid out to soothe the sting of unemployment can create professional parasites. The sad fact is, the demand for jobless benefits expands to meet the supply of these public funds, which are supposedly intended to reduce joblessness. Handouts for broken families create more broken families, which are proven breeding grounds for future criminals.

In Anglo-America today, shame in dependency on government money is simply gone; more and more people feel public provision is a natural-born right. In Britain, 2.6 million people are paid by the state for being sick and incapable; over half a million of them are thought to be able to work, but unwilling.

A hundred thousand of those on the sick benefit are between ages 16 and 24. Three fourths of these youngsters are suspected of faking their sicknesses. And 20 percent of them have been receiving this money for at least five years. Unsurprisingly, the nation is also suffering an exploding epidemic of 16-to-24-year-olds who aren’t going to school and aren’t working—and a simultaneous epidemic of youth antisocial and even criminal behavior.

The results of these well-intentioned programs are demonstrably bad. It was a simple acknowledgement of this reality that inspired welfare reform in the U.S., which was certainly a step in a good direction. However, even those who admit that these programs don’t work would do well to recognize the reason for that failure.

Here it is: Such endeavors fail because they disregard the wisdom of the Bible.

The scriptural command is that if someone doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Giving someone unmerited welfare may look righteous, but it inevitably turns into more of a curse than a blessing. It feeds a shiftless mob while bankrupting our nations.

God knows the poor will always be with us. He addresses the problem with genuine compassion—and perfect wisdom. We ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Have you ever looked at the laws God gave to ancient Israel on this subject? They are downright inspiring. Policymakers today should reflect deeply on the commonsense simplicity in these statutes, particularly given the wreckage resulting from our flawed current practices.

God provided for the poor—and encouraged them to return to earning their daily bread—in simple, ingenious ways. With few exceptions, these individuals were dealt with not nationally, but locally, through laws requiring specific acts of charity from family and community.

For example, landowners were commanded not to take every last head of grain and ripe fruit for themselves: They were to leave the corners of their fields or orchards unreaped, and any grain that dropped during reaping untouched, to be reserved for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10). Those who had fallen on hard times were legally permitted to take what food they needed from their neighbors’ fields. They couldn’t harvest and transport food away from the field—but were welcome to fill an empty belly. A day laborer in a field could eat whatever he needed (Deuteronomy 23:24-25).

Yes, in God’s view, it is wrong for us to use every last cent of our income on ourselves. God wants us to give to the poor. However, He didn’t command that His people set up soup kitchens, supply handouts or issue unemployment checks—simply giving something for nothing. The poor had to get out and work. If you wanted a meal, you were welcome to it—but you had to go into the field and pick it yourself.

God’s law forbade people from profiting off selling food to the poor. Those in need were permitted to buy food “at cost” (Leviticus 25:35-37). God also commanded that those in genuine need be given interest-free loans aimed at helping them back onto their feet (Exodus 22:25). What a contrast to predatory lenders who entrap needy people with payday loans and other high-interest arrangements. God forbade taking advantage of the poor by extracting difficult concessions like extortionary collateral (verses 26-27). He demanded that rich lenders treat poor borrowers respectfully, never using blackmail or threats of violence to enforce repayment, but always showing kindness that would invite borrowers’ goodwill (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).

Such laws have several advantages that benefit everybody. Based on the overarching principle of treating others as we want to be treated, they engender a spirit of generosity and compassion toward the less fortunate. They keep those with plenty personally mindful of those in want without unduly burdening them. (In fact, God promised to bless those who provided for the poor in this way—Deuteronomy 24:19.)

They also benefit the recipient. Think about the person who receives a check from a faceless bureaucracy. He does not feel grateful—he feels entitled. He feels no obligation to pay anything back. And eventually, he comes to spurn gainful employment in favor of undeserved handouts that facilitate his own sloth. By contrast, think of the one who has a direct connection to the person giving him charity. That personal link encourages gratitude and accountability, besides naturally preventing fraud and waste.

In addition, these practices prevent a lot of poverty. The way creditors operate today, debt is like quicksand, sucking its victims in deeper and deeper. In a godly system, if someone begins to go under, several benefits begin to kick in that prevent him from sinking any further—and that help him back onto his feet. Following these principles wouldn’t eradicate poverty, but it would eliminate the worst of its oppressive nature and prevent the poor from slipping through the cracks in society.

Moreover, these laws provide for the poor without government subsidies or welfare programs, keeping the burden of welfare off the state. This creates a much healthier situation—for the poor, for the wealthy, and for the government.

Ignoring these timeless biblical principles is bringing curses upon countless people today. Our welfare programs breed dependency, laziness, fraud and sexual immorality. God’s laws, by contrast, encourage hard work, personal accountability, compassion, generosity, and community and family cohesion. They reduce poverty and build prosperity.

Unemployed moochers who won’t venture out in the rain unwittingly prove the ageless relevance of the Bible’s wisdom. God’s spiritual law is not “done away.” It remains inescapably binding on all men today.