Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Welfare of the Community

Government grants pit the right to freedom against the right to a minimum level of well-being

By Joseph Westfall

Joseph Westfall

When Congress and the president negotiated over welfare reform in 1996, a key element of the debate was whether government aid should continue to be an entitlement, a grant the poor receive solely by virtue of being poor.

Ultimately, the bill that passed last August changed welfare from an entitlement to a block-grant program for states; states are now free to set their own eligibility criteria and may limit access to welfare in various ways, including limits on the length of time a family may receive assistance.

Still, the basic ethical issues behind the debate persist. Is society responsible for the well-being of the poor? If so, at what cost to the rest of the community? Are the poor to be held in any way responsible for themselves? How far must poverty go before society is morally bound to act?

Welfare is an investment by society in human beings. Money spent and taxes levied become a form of human interaction, making welfare different from farm subsidies or improvement to the nation's infrastructure.

In 1995, the main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, cost the federal government more than $17 billion. This money was collected from taxpayers and redistributed to those demonstrating economic need.

Many people see this as the role of a just society: to provide its members with their basic needs. Yet many others find taxing productive workers to subsidize the less productive tantamount to theft. They argue that people are free to provide for themselves and should be held responsible for their actions if they do not.

The Argument Against Social Welfare
The cornerstone of the argument against social welfare is best summarized by Charles Murray in Losing Ground:

[The welfare] program, however unintentionally, must be constructed in such a way that it increases the net value of being in the condition that it seeks to change—either by increasing the rewards or by reducing the penalties.

In this way, the U.S. welfare system actually makes poverty more attractive—perhaps even to those who would otherwise have been motivated to work and support themselves.

As Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich writes in his essay "Renewing America," "The welfare system has sapped the spirit of the poor and made it harder to climb the first rungs of the economic ladder."

Such a system not only leads welfare recipients to become satisfied with lives of "subsidized idleness," but it also places an unfair burden on the workers who must pay for the program, Gingrich continues. Why should working taxpayers be forced to take fiscal responsibility for those who do not take responsibility for themselves?

As individuals, we are each responsible for our own actions and their consequences. If people's actions result in a drop in their well-being, that is their personal responsibility, and they should take the brunt of the repercussions. As Gingrich sees it, "If 'society' is responsible for everything, then no one is personally responsible for anything.... Without personal responsibility there cannot be freedom. It is just that simple."

For Gingrich and other welfare opponents, everyone possesses a right to freedom. In other words, people have a justifiable claim to be left alone by others. To require people to finance the "laziness" of their fellows is to take that freedom away from them by making them accountable for the well-being of other, less responsible members of society. In this view, people bear less responsibility for others than they do for themselves.

The Argument for Social Welfare
But freedom, argue welfare proponents, means nothing if people do not have the ability to exercise it. To do that, they need a minimum level of well-being.

This position proceeds from a conviction that people have dignity based on their ability to choose. As a minimal condition for making these choices, people must have all of their basic needs met. For example, a homeless person's job choices might be constrained by the lack of an address for correspondence or even a place to take a shower.

Welfare, proponents say, does not decrease people's motivation to work, as Gingrich argues. Rather, it gives them the opportunity to participate more productively in their society.

As in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, basic needs are typically understood as "food, clothing, housing, and medical care." All people have a right to such goods, the argument continues, and should be provided with them if they do not already possess them.

In this view, government is responsible for organizing the redistribution of the goods necessary to satisfy all society members' basic needs or of the money to purchase these goods—hence, the social welfare system. The argument for welfare maintains that the satisfaction of basic needs is of greater moral importance than an individual's right to spend earnings as he or she freely chooses. The issue, welfare proponents claim, is not merely a clashing of societal rights but a matter of life and death, malnutrition and nourishment, disease and health, ignorance and education.

Philosopher Peter Singer writes, "[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." For Singer, social welfare is not only a "good thing to do," it is a moral imperative.

Different Views of Human Nature
So far, the issue of social welfare has been couched in ethical terms of rights and responsibilities. But the opposing views also reflect different responses to the self-interested nature of human beings.

Those formulating the argument against welfare fear that, given the opportunity, people will do just what pleases them and no more. In a welfare state, people can receive sustenance without working; this is too great a temptation, and many people—being motivated by self-interest—will choose not to work.

"You will never be disappointed if you presume people will act out of self-interest," respond welfare proponents, "but you will never understand people if you think that's all that motivates them." Proponents argue that when human beings are given the chance to express themselves fully, they are, by nature, interested in the well-being of society and all its members. They will not only work but will also offer assistance to the needy, bringing the poor to an economic level where they can begin to act in a similar respect toward others.

Joseph Westfall is a research assistant at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. In September, he will be a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Boston College.

Further Reading

Gingrich, Newt. "Renewing America." Newsweek (July 10, 1995).

Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950Æ1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." In Manuel Velasquez and Cynthia Rostankowski, eds., Ethics: Theory and Practice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also in Ethics: Theory and Practice. A link to the Declaration is available in the ethical links section of the Ethics Connection (