"The poor you will always have with you" — Jesus H. Christ, first century.
Now this wasn't some grim expression of fatalism: this was a call, a reminder that we had certain responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. And for a while, we undertook those responsibilities to the extent that we could, keeping in mind of course that charity does in fact begin at home, and your first responsibility is to your own family.
Then came the twentieth century, and the conflation of God and government: from that point on, those responsibilities were shunted off to the government, accompanied by the feeble explanation that only government is big enough to do what needs to be done. And if what needed to be done was the expenditure of trillions of dollars to no discernible avail, then yes, only government was big enough to do that:On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a State of the Union address to Congress in which he declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." At the time, the poverty rate in America was around 19 percent and falling rapidly. This year, it is reported that the poverty rate is expected to be roughly 15.1 percent and climbing. Between then and now, the federal government spent roughly $12 trillion fighting poverty, and state and local governments added another $3 trillion. Yet the poverty rate never fell below 10.5 percent and is now at the highest level in nearly a decade. Clearly, we have been doing something wrong.
It's the nature of war these days: not to win, exactly, because that implies a loser and losers must be protected by statute, but to keep going until the population finally catches on to the fact that all their time and all their treasure has been squandered by people who, were they not fighting this war, would have to get real jobs instead of Changing The World.
But wasn't it all with the best of intentions?
A long, long time ago, the English discovered the tragic nature of politicized "best intentions" in the most direct imaginable manner. In the early 1800s, England's poor, to receive State support, had to enter a "workhouse." If they had children, the kids had to come with them. There were no exceptions. Workhouse life was anything but luxurious. Its adult residents had to work ten hours per day, six days per week, at monotonous tasks. Its juvenile residents spent a similar fraction of their time in mandatory schooling -- and not the sort that predominates in our time, but rather stern, demanding instruction in the "three Rs," with a solid dose of Bible study as part of the curriculum.
The idea, elucidated in a tract by economist Nassau W. Senior, was to relieve material need in a fashion sufficient to avert large-scale physical suffering, while preserving the incentive to become self-supporting and educating minor dependents in hope of better results for future generations.
And it worked. That is, it held poverty in England down to a low level, deterred multi-generational welfarism, and preserved the social standing of the "working poor," all at a cost we of today would deem trivial. It didn't provide a lot of jobs for bureaucrats, but that particular definition of "worked" wasn't in vogue at the time.
But the meliorists of that time and place were unsatisfied. They shrieked of abuses in several workhouses which had come under the hand of entirely unsuitable managers, and used these to claim that the workhouse system was inherently and intolerably cruel and corrupt. They succeeded in replacing the workhouse system with "outdoor relief:" the first unconditional distribution of public monies directly to indigents in Anglo-American history.
Within a couple of decades, England was near to overrun with "sturdy beggars:" able-bodied men and women who preferred to live on State-mediated charity rather than work for a living. Women who desired to live at public expense actually courted births out of wedlock, for then as now, the size of one's welfare payments depended upon the number of one's dependents.
The bien-pensants of the day argued for ever greater generosity toward "the poor." If there were more poor than before, surely it was only because they lacked money, so give them more! They prevailed far more often than not...and the number of able-bodied paupers swelled still further. (A modern echo of this sort of pseudo-reasoning can be found in this bit of absurdity.)
England had its rational men, of course:
We shall not get rid of pauperism by extending the sphere of State relief...On the contrary, its adoption would increase our pauperism, for as is often said, we can have exactly as many paupers as the country chooses to pay for. [Thomas Mackay, "Methods of Social Reform"]
...but the rational men, on this subject at least, could not reverse the tide. There were (and are) too many incentives toward the expansion of the State's role in charity. Among the most potent and least often discussed of these is the ambition to "do good" at others' expense, whether any good comes of it or not...and the inevitable capture of such bureaucracies by persons more interested in "doing well."
Today, over 70% of the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services is consumed by bureaucrats' salaries, operating expenses, and other overhead. The tens of thousands of government employees who suckle at that teat are doing very well indeed. This cannot be regarded as anything but grand larceny under a charitable veneer. And the poor, whom Christ told us we will always have with us, multiply day by day.