Truly Helping People or Buying Votes?

Truly Helping People or Buying Votes?

Our federal government provides a great deal of money to a great number of people in America. First of all, there are programs like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, and agriculture price support programs. One need not have a low income to qualify for payments under these programs.

Other government programs do limit eligibility to people with low incomes or other needs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP, or “food stamps”); Supplemental Security Income (SSI, for people with disabilities); Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); housing assistance (primarily renters); Pell grants (college students); WIC (women, infants, and children); the Child Nutrition Program (CNP); and health care through specific parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Many of these programs are administered by the states, with some or all of the funding coming from the federal budget.

Then there are federal tax deductions and credits, which are another way for the government to put money in our pockets. Some of the major deductions are for home mortgage interest payments and charitable contributions. 

And last, but not least, we should mention “stimulus funds,” which apparently people (including our government and its various leaders) can walk along and pick from the trees on which those monies grow. This is especially so when election politics and party one upmanship are involved.

Principled Payments

The leadership principles of integrity, honesty, dignity, and service, along with the governmental principles of limited government and protecting the vulnerable, all should coalesce to control the fundamental political questions of just how much money the national government should pay out to its citizens, and to which citizens those payments should be made.

As we discussed in our prior post regarding Social Security and Medicare reform, the necessary balance between limited government and protecting the vulnerable does not allow the U.S. government to be all things to all people. Further, integrity, honesty, dignity, and a desire to serve are essential principles for leaders who will deal with Americans when it comes to government entitlement programs, welfare, and aid. The principle of service, in particular, focuses on the leaders’ efforts to advance the citizens’ lives—rather than a more selfish motive (e.g., “Look what I did for you—please re-elect me.”) for approving payment programs. Honesty and integrity call for leaders who will be open and candid with the public about which assistance payments are absolutely necessary and the real reasons why.

In addition, our principles—dignity in particular—also lead us to the conclusion that often there are better ways to serve people than by just giving them money. Sure, the other ways may be less popular politically than having U.S. Treasury checks printed with your signature such that recipients are led to believe you are generous. Also, if you try to limit a program, political opponents undoubtedly will say, for example, that you “don’t care about families (or even farmers, as the case may be),” or that you are “taking money away from children (or charities),” or whatever. Special interests and critics always will exist. Nevertheless, the principled approach is to transfer taxpayer funds only to people who truly are better off in the long run for having received it.

To avoid overserving people—beyond the point that it truly helps them—Principle Based Politics comes back to the old “give a man a fish” adage. Our theory is that it actually does some individuals a disservice to assure them you will keep giving them fish indefinitely, if that distracts you from teaching them to fish and disincentivizes them from learning to fish for themselves. And simply giving them fish does do both, beyond the first few days at least.

How does this adage, this theory, apply with government assistance programs? We can best illustrate this with the following table, which begins with the fish example and then gets more concrete.           

If you…

Better to…

Give a man a fish, he can eat for a day

Teach a man to fish, so he can eat for a lifetime

Give people a job to do, they can work for awhile

Teach job skills, so people can work for a lifetime in an area of interest to them

Give money to people who could work, they can spend that money while it lasts

Require them to work, so they get the satisfaction of contributing to society and advancing in a career, in addition to the paycheck

Guarantee retirement income to people who do not contribute through payroll taxes, they can get by on that money

Teach working people to save and help them do that, so they can have financial security in retirement

Pay for medical treatments, some health problems can be alleviated—at least temporarily

Teach and pay for preventive medicine (including good nutrition), so some health problems can be avoided entirely

This illustration is designed to show the types of instances in which the government, by simply giving people money, may not be helping them as much as it otherwise could. Rather than making citizens dependent on aid programs, the better, more principled way often is through education, work requirements, and health enhancement programs. Whenever possible, this is the best approach.   

Reform Never Gets Easier

In his 1996 State of the Union Address, then-President Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” Today, however, federal social programs make up more of America’s GDP than it did 25 years ago, when President Clinton made his speech. In fact, the proportionate domestic spending has increased under ever president—Democrat or Republican—since then.

Especially when the federal government can borrow money at extremely low interest rates, like now, the temptation to borrow and spend—or even tax and spend—can be overpowering. And there are many, many Americans with legitimate needs for government aid. But, if we ever are going to rethink our entitlement, welfare, stimulus, tax deductions and credits, and all other spending programs, the time is now. Once people come to expect receiving government funds, the incentive to “stand on your own two feet” is weakened. Reform will not be any easier later. It will be harder.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

Future political issues to be analyzed under our principle-based method include: taxation, federal deficits and debt, law enforcement, climate change and the environment, health care, and foreign relations.

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