The Human Cost of Welfare

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 23 September 2016

In the world of international organisations, there is probably none quite like the Mont Pelerin Society. Founded by a small group of academics in 1947, its mission is to keep the idea of classical liberalism alive – not by PR or propaganda but simply through facilitating discussions among members.

Nearly seven decades later, the Society has developed into a global network. Its biennial meetings attract several hundred economists, philosophers, lawyers, historians, and business leaders. Together with three of my colleagues, I am attending this year’s meeting in Miami.

Though the conference itself is a private event, there is one thing I can share. It is a book which was presented by its authors in one of the breakfast sessions: The Human Cost of Welfare by Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers.

Published earlier this year, it is an overview of the failings of the US welfare state. If it was only that, it would hardly be worth mentioning. There have been thousands of articles, papers and books written about the sorry state of welfare in America.

What makes Harvey and Conyers’ book different is that the authors have travelled the country to talk to the people that matter most: welfare recipients. What they wanted to find out was not just what circumstances caused them to go on benefits but also how they felt about their situations.

After more than 100 in-depth interviews with beneficiaries across the US, they could not find one person who was happy to be on benefits. Sure, beneficiaries were grateful about the support they received. But to be on benefit was not their lives’ aspiration.

What beneficiaries actually wanted to do was to regain control over their lives and enjoy the fruits of their achievements – just like everyone else.

The tragedy of the US welfare system is that it often prevents just that. Instead, it traps people. It makes it nearly impossible to move to another state. It punishes people from accepting small jobs by withdrawing their benefits immediately.

In variations, such welfare state failures can be found in many countries. Therefore, the main lesson from the book should apply elsewhere as well: That welfare may sometimes be necessary but that it cannot give life meaning as work does.

For an academic society dedicated to liberty and truth, hearing beneficiaries’ stories rather than only seeing them as anonymous data points, is a good idea. For me, it was one of the highlights of the conference. And it is a book I look forward to reading.

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