“This is painful for a liberal to admit,” writes liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in soul-crushing dependency.”
Kristof is writing from Breathitt County, Ky., deep in the Appalachian mountains, about mothers whose Supplemental Security Income benefits will decrease if their children learn to read. Kristof notes that 55% of children qualifying for SSI benefits do so because of “fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation,” far more than four decades ago when SSI was just a new program.
Evidently SSI administrators decided to be more generous to parents of such children. But, as Kristof notes, giving parents an incentive to keep children from learning to read works against the children’s long-term interest.
Entitlements that encourage parents to keep their children uneducated aren’t the only area where social policy has negative impact. For example, programs like Social Security and Medicare have removed the impetus for Americans to save for their retirement. Why put away money for your declining years when the government has programs available to take care of you?
Charity, too, has fallen victim to the entitlement state. Where churches and other private organizations were once the primary instruments through which humanity chose took care of one another, they’ve been replaced by state programs.
These, of course, were not the intentions of the designers of any of these policies. I don’t think anybody intended for parents to keep their kids dumb in order to keep the welfare faucets on. I don’t think anyone intended for Americans to stop saving for themselves, or taking direct action to help their fellow human beings. Yet, that has been the outcome of these policies.
It often seems as though we’re eternally pursuing some utopia through government policy. What we achieve is usually something worse than the original problem.