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I saw a couple of (presumably) unrelated posts on social media this morning with a theme that really struck me as meaningful.

The modern welfare state (American style) is not intended to solve poverty. Recognizing this fact goes a long way to explaining how it continues to thrive despite its apparent statistical failure.  The increase in the welfare state has been matched by an increase in poverty.

Suppose instead, though, that the real beneficiaries of these programs are the ones who are paying for them. This would explain why these programs would enjoy continued support in the face of said failure. In this model, the purpose of welfare is to redirect the poor from disturbing the people who are paying for that welfare.

If I own a store, I don’t want homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk in front of it. Is it because I feel bad for the plight of those poor souls? Maybe a little. But it’s mostly about how the image of my business is affected by the appearance of my surroundings.  Diverting some of the economic activity of my business into paying off those homeless men, so they go away, is a good use of my resources.  Socializing that cost with other taxpayers makes a very effective use of my resources, for my specific business.

In a larger sense, affording the poor an ability to “keep up appearances” despite their circumstances allows us all to move about in a society where, outwardly, poverty no longer exists.   Even when we know it does.

Viewed in this light, the war on poverty isn’t an invention of the ’60s, but a redirection of an age-old war.  Society has always sought to remove the unpleasant face of poverty from our collective sight.  Such was a time when the poor could be isolated, institutionalized, or even imprisoned.   Our modern sensibilities no longer accept such gross violations of human rights.  But as we have allowed the poor to walk among us, we are more and more left uncomfortable with their presence.   Thus we support the social welfare.  Modern programs are focused on maintaining the “dignity” of the recipient, which means allowing them to look an act like they aren’t actually poor.  In this way we can hide them in plain sight, rather than actually having to remove them.

Of course, when I say “we” support social welfare for these reasons, I don’t really mean all of us.   Some, of course, actually don’t support the welfare system.  Others cling to the utopian ideal that the reason that poverty has not yet been eliminated is the lack of resolve (and, naturally, money).  A more common counter from the left is that, while the “war on poverty” may fail to eliminate poverty, it does mitigate the worst of the negative impact of being poor.   Surely there is some success to be seen in a definition of poverty that includes big screen TVs and smart phones?  For others, seeing tax their tax money go to the poor is a form of indulgence – absolving one’s self of blame for being part of a society where such poverty exists.

The Left also has an institutional investment in the war on poverty.  Throwing ever more resources into a welfare state creates jobs.   Specifically, it creates public sector union jobs, populated by workers who pay union dues and vote Democrat.

As I suggested at the beginning of this article, I found this angle, personally, to be very enlightening.   I’ve always been uncomfortable with the argument that the beneficiaries of welfare are so numerous, that they vote themselves “largess out of the public treasury.”   Numerous they may be, but they are also too busy watching Judge Judy on their big screens to wield the political clout that those numbers might suggest.  In defining a genuine benefit for “the rest of us,” this explanation makes sense of the insensible for me.

Of course, there is still a problem.   While the “War On Poverty” may start to look like a success, it is an incredibly expensive one.  As it grows and morphs, as it distorts those markets and structures that it is intended to preserve, it must become ever less efficient.  A system intended to airbrush problems in a margin is not going to work when that margin is the majority, and has begun to assume much of what we define (the middle class) as the system itself.

More reading here and here.