The Message of Welfare: ‘No, You Can’t’

So, you didn’t win last week’s Powerball? I didn’t either, which is why I’m writing blog posts instead of designing a helipad for my new private island. 

I was surprised to see even my most cynical friends succumbing to lottery fever in a bad way. Though usually shrewd with their finances, they couldn’t resist throwing a few bucks at a gas station attendant for that infinitesimal shot at half a billion dollars.

I resisted the Powerball’s allure, mostly because (1) I understand math, and (2) I’m lazy. But another reason to frown on lotteries is the counterintuitive fact that unearned wealth usually makes the recipient less happy. We’ve all read the hard-luck stories of lottery winners who strike it rich only to lose their homes, spouses and health a few years later. But there are now several scholarly studies to back up the devastating effects of not earning your success.

Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, named the effect learned helplessness. “We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being,” Seligman told the New York Times. “It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”

To the contrary, earned success — regardless of income level — has proven links to happiness. A University of Chicago survey revealed that people who say they feel “very successful” or “completely successful” in their professional lives are twice as likely to say they’re very happy than those who feel “somewhat successful.” It didn’t matter if they earned $25,000 or $250,000 — only that they earned.

Ultimately, this is the greatest crime of the American welfare state. Not the dwindling dollars and cents on a balance sheet but the dimming spark in the eyes of the men, woman and children who have abandoned the hope of working toward their own success. That hope has been replaced with a government check — a bimonthly message from Washington, D.C. that says, “no, you can’t.”

Nearly all Americans are eager to help the least fortunate, if not with ever more byzantine bureaucracies then with acts of personal charity. But how long will Americans retain their giving heart if the state continues to punish them for doing the right thing?

Pennsylvania’s secretary of public welfare recently exposed a shocking fact about our accelerating welfare state. Once you add in the various welfare programs, a single mom is financially better off earning just $29,000 at a job than earning $69,000. How is this possible? The lower salary makes her eligible for all kinds of government programs that just aren’t available at the higher salary. Washington is telling her that the less she does, the more she’ll be rewarded.

We are edging ever closer to a social tipping point. If getting money you didn’t earn leads to learned helplessness, imagine the damage inflicted by the strong financial encouragement not to work at all? It can’t be long until many hard-working Americans realize that it actually hurts them and their children to strive for greater professional success.

Traditionally in America, a great way to get ahead was to attend night school, pull extra hours on the weekend, and study your craft in the off-hours. It worked for me and millions of others. But the new lesson from our government is that the surest pathway to success is to stop trying so hard and just enjoy the ride.

Even blue-state welfare officials are realizing that government social programs simply don’t add up. An important step, but all of us must understand that this problem ultimately isn’t one of math, but of morality. The only way to fix the balance sheets of Washington and the lives of struggling Americans is to replace food stamps with earned paychecks.

Follow me on Twitter at @ExJon.