All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Character and Government Policy

How Can Government Policies That Create Disasters Be Called "Benefits"?

Dale Walsh, who resides in Atlanta, is a fomer public school teacher.

While growing up, I assumed that all people valued freedom and therefore did not want intrusive government. Throughout my early schooling I was taught to admire our country’s Founding Fathers, who threw off British tyranny to unleash the most free society the world had ever known. But when I went to college I encountered classmates who contended that ending the welfare state was a bad idea–and unfair for economically disadvantaged people. In class after class my arguments against welfare seemed, at worst, selfish or, at best, quaint. Part of the problem was that I was unable to furnish real-life examples to support the idea that people could be harmed by government largesse.

My opportunity to see government “help” firsthand came when I began teaching high school in the small southeast Georgia town of Waycross. No new industry had moved there since 1969, and poverty was rampant. As a conscientious newcomer, I decided that classroom education would mean nothing to my students unless it made them want to better their lives. It sounded simple, but I soon realized that government “help” could influence people not to want to improve their lot in life.

My first step was to show my students the advantages of self-empowerment. This appeared to be the best approach because adolescents are self-absorbed and an appeal to their self-esteem theoretically could not fail.

They would feel so much better about themselves if they could begin to effect positive change in their lives. In market terms, I aimed to help them see that the only capital they had was themselves. Therefore, their best immediate action would be to invest in their personal capital by focusing on education and developing good work habits.

I lavished encouragement on my students and made daily mention of historical and present-day achievers. To my dismay, my plan failed, As far as I could see, breakfast and lunch were the only scholastic events of interest to them. Sure, teenagers are notorious for irresponsibility, but if one looks deep enough, some evidence of concern for the future normally shows itself. But lack of focus was endemic throughout our school. I could not understand it. These young people were intelligent. Why weren’t they using education as a way out of their poverty? Achievement seemed meaningless to them.

Character Through Hard Work

My own parents had taught me to see life in terms of effort. They were hardy blue-collar people who believed that survival and prosperity required constant struggle. To develop strong character in me they had constantly stressed the importance of hard work. For as long as I could remember, they had required that all my endeavors be performed to the best of my ability. They also made sure I recognized work as the only provider of needs and privileges. “Money doesn’t grow on trees:’ my mother often said. My father responded to poor effort by commenting, “No boss will pay you to do it that way.” In other words, wealth did not just appear out of thin air. It had to be earned by producing something worthwhile. Without realizing it, my parents had used character lessons to teach me the basic tenets of market economics.

My mistake in dealing with my students had been to assume that their world view was the same as my own. It turned out that their perception of the world was vastly different. Unfortunately, their parents had taught them to function in a world that was not shaped by market influences. They had received entirely different lessons on the provision of needs and privileges. For instance, I soon found that 95 percent of our student body received subsidized breakfast and lunch at school. Welfare checks provided income for most of their households. Likewise, the exchange of food stamps for groceries was an everyday occurrence. Federal programs also paid for their medical care.

In fact, government policy had made it unnecessary for my students to learn much about work. It had created a misguided economic system in which income was not based on production of goods and services but rather on “need” (defined as eligibility for government programs). I saw why school had no meaning. Why on earth would a rational person do anything toward self-improvement when such betterment would render one less needy, and therefore, less likely to receive benefits? In other words, my students were a living demonstration that people do become dependent on government assistance.

Faced with this situation, I thought of the arguments my college classmates had made. Could it be that I was just trying to inflict my world view on disadvantaged people? Wasn’t it nice that I could indulge in this noble freemarket philosophy from a position of health and moderate prosperity?

Then the students provided the concrete examples I had been unable to offer in college discussions. The first clue came when the teenagers complained about their “free” lunches (which were really quite good). This ingratitude toward the kitchen was intolerable given that to receive this daily meat these young people merely had to pick up a tray. Common courtesy dictated that even if one received a horrible gift, the giver should at least receive a “thank you.” However, these students had been taught to believe that they were entitled to government gifts. Simply stated, the government owed the benefits to them and furthermore, if something is owed it can even be demanded. To make matters worse, the attitude, demeanor, and character of the recipient had no bearing on whether or not the benefit will be given. As long as the students could demonstrate need, why should they bother with gratitude?

This notion of being owed something had infected all areas of their lives, with disastrous consequences. The benefits received were not earned in any usual sense of the word. Certainly no personal labor had been exchanged for the wealth received. This in turn affected their respect for private property. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. From their point of view, this made perfect sense. If they were entitled to or owed benefits from the government without any work being exchanged, then why should they bother to work for any of their possessions? The concept of ownership implies that something, usually work, has been exchanged for the created or transferred wealth. How could these young people be convinced of the immorality of stealing when everyday they received wealth (government benefits) they had not earned? In other words, if they were owed item A (benefits) without the exchange of labor, then why were they not also owed item B (another individual’s shoes or jacket)?

Community Framework

This clashed with the private-property rights I had been taught as a child. I had learned to respect my own labor and belongings as well as those of others. Furthermore, our community had tended to be wary of threats to any property because destruction of a neighbor’s wealth could lead to the destruction of our own. The whole community frame work was built on personal labor provided to the marketplace for the purpose of wealth creation. My students had not experienced any of this. Neither their wealth nor their neighbor’s had been earned, so neither was valued. The government had taught them that based on their need they were entitled to a living. If society furnishes wealth to people without requiring labor in return how are the recipients to learn respect for private property?

To my students, being entitlement recipients meant they did not have the same obligations as the rest of society. One result of this was a remarkable lack of compassion for their fellow man. The mere thought of being the least bit inconvenienced for the sake of another person was abhorrent to them. The idea that the school would look more presentable if they cleaned up after themselves made no sense to them. In their view, they were owed the subsidized meals and since they were needy it was not fair to ask them to return their dirty tray to the dish room. Likewise, it was an unjust demand to ask them to pick up trash that did not belong to them.

The focus on being needy had the additional unfortunate consequence of teaching them to be helpless. My students’ typical response to difficulty was to quit. If an assignment was the least bit taxing they would just give up and turn in nothing. When told they were acting like quitters, they were unfazed. In my parents’ work-focused household, quitting meant one was guilty of cowardice, laziness, or unwillingness to accept responsibility. Quitting had no such meaning for my students. This was frustrating, but it made sense. Once again their actions were in total agreement with their life experience. Quitting in life (for example, drunkenness, drug addiction, poor money management, abandonment of one’s family, not going to work) resulted in the receipt of government benefits. After all, quitting demonstrated need, not ability. Government policy had a pattern of actively rewarding wrong, unhealthy, imprudent, and unprofitable behavior, so there was no reason to bother trying. Cash was available for failure, evenfor being “disabled” by enslaving one’s life to drugs. (No one in his right mind would ever give cash to drug users, but the Social Security Administration issues disability checks to them and to drunks.)

Government policy even subsidized negligent parenting. Usually parents would be quite upset if their child failed a class, for it would mean time wasted retaking the class and money wasted if the class was made up in summer school. Neither of these considerations ever entered the thinking of parents in our school. Extra time in school was just an opportunity to receive extra benefits. If the child attended summer school, no financial hardship ever reached the parent, because the government paid surnmer-school tuition.

Government subsidy of parental neglect went even further. Parents of an unmanageable child could receive disability checks for him. In the community these were known as “crazy checks.” Mothers would qualify their children by deliberately making them irritable or excited before taking them to the Social Security office; sometimes they would even give the children candy and soft drinks in an attempt to make them “hyper.” Once in this program, a status was created that later qualified the child for special programs and treatment in school. (This had disastrous effects on school discipline, for children in special education could not be expelled from school. Our school had 10 to 15 percent of the student body in special education.)


There were even programs guaranteed to make the entire process self-perpetuating. Teenage girls saw their mothers receiving benefits for having babies because additional children created more need. By becoming pregnant the teenager herself could receive benefits. How does one inspire a 15-year-old girl to delay becoming a mother so she can devote herself to school and later have a decent job and self-respect? What argument can sway her when all she has to do to receive immediate income is to prove to the government that she has conceived a child? Ready examples of sisters, close friends, cousins, or aunts receiving benefits only made the wrong decision easier. Children of children were ignored and neglected, and the whole cycle was ready to begin again. How can such a government policy for disaster be called a “benefif”?

Another terrible consequence of the entitlement culture was that time was no longer precious to my students. The idea that they might make something of their lives did Dot matter to them. This explains why they were unconcerned about receiving low grades. An F has no meaning in itself. Students trying to make something of themselves fear an F because of its consequences. In the short term, time is wasted. In the long term, doors are possibly closed forever. But wasted time and opportunities are only significant if achievement is valued. Another year of school to my students only meant another year of receiving “free” breakfast and lunch from the government. They did not see the time involved as being wasted or lost because for them time had no value. Furthermore, crime was also not a problem because at worst it would result in prison. As they frequently stated, “What’s so bad about prison? It’s air conditioned and you get free food.” Such emptiness from a 14-year-old is frightening, but it was a common view.

This entire phenomenon can be expressed in market terms. Normally, people see each human life as valuable; they realize each life is different and can only last a given amount of time. In other words, human life is scarce. This combination of value and limited time usually fosters a sense of urgency in using one’s life as efficiently as possible. The shortness of life motivates people to accomplish as much as possible, and so all areas of life become important. Good grades are just the beginning. Following school, wise choices must be made regarding a mate, a career, and the manner in which one raises one’s children.

I then realized that the welfare state had addressed the problem of poverty in material terms. Note that government policy treats people as physical beings only. Merely supplying food and shelter does not address the humanity of the recipient. To fully meet the needs of a human being, the provider of physical necessities must consider the effect on the recipient’s character. At each instance where difficulty would have built my students’ characters, the government had intervened to destroy character and therefore them as human beings.

Some might argue that the government has no business being concerned with what is proper character, but this argument misses a key point. It is one thing for “benefits” to cause a person not to learn the rewards of hard work. It is something else when the “benefits” actively assist people in destroying their lives. It might be asked how society should respond to need? Does not human compassion prescribe that we as individuals buffer another’s hardship? Yes, but with all of the recipient’s being in mind. Help in the present is of little use if it prevents a person from achieving success in the future. To actively encourage the continuation of need and to remove the incentive to end the cycle of dependence-that is enslaving, dehumanizing, and immoral The cost in individual lives is just too high to think otherwise. The emphasis on qualifying for government programs takes away the recipient’s dreams and future. It teaches him to live in failure by not encouraging him to succeed.

A further concern is that all these individual examples of poverty affect society as a whole. Consider the values necessary for a nation to grow: respect for private property, honest labor, and one’s fellow man. We know these as the principles of freedom and the foundation of judicious government. History has demonstrated that without these convictions, a nation cannot be prosperous and free. Unfortunately, government agencies have been indoctrinating millions of people to live in total disregard of these principles. The results can be seen in the ruined lives of my students and their families. These individual examples compound to affect our nation’s character.

It had been easy for my college classmates to argue that poor people need government help. Now I know firsthand that limited government is not only good political theory, but also a practical way to protect the poor from government “benefits.” Unfortunately, it is possible for people to forgo achievement for the sake of mere existence. Government welfare policy cheapens human life when it encourages such a way of life.