How the welfare state has grown — and sapped America's economy and culture

"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them." — Thomas Jefferson

My recent column on the challenges associated with the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program elicited numerous and very personal stories from readers about how individual (disabled) recipients depended on the program for daily maintenance. And, many asked, how dare I (and others of my ilk) question such a vital program? Have I no sense of compassion?

My support for SSDI's fundamental mission is clear. I said so in the piece. But what should be equally clear is that the program is in a state of disrepair during a time of rapidly declining trust fund balances.

I note this phenomenon in advance of the extended piece that follows. My purpose is to analyze the considerable carnage inflicted on our country by a too large and too intrusive federal government. A topic well worth revisiting now that a re-elected President Barack Obama has restarted his campaign to expand federal jurisdiction over so many aspects of our lives.

New Deal and Great Society

We begin with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, a seminal movement that forever changed the way Americans interact with the federal government. Henceforth, the federal government would assume many of the social support mechanisms that had been the province of state and local governments, civic and religious institutions and individuals. That even FDR recognized the cultural dangers inherent in such federal intervention was evident in his 1935 State of the Union Address:

"Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. … We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination."

Your irony meter may be on overload, but try to control yourself. At least the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies that sprang forth during FDR's tenure helped pull us out of the Great Depression (although the outbreak of World War II certainly played a major role as well).

Now, spring forward to the second monumental expansion of the federal government in the 20th Century: President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Here the size and depth of the modern welfare state began to take shape during a most fractious time in American history.

It was the mid-1960s, and social unrest was the order of the day. A young and vibrant president had been assassinated. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. An aggressive anti-war movement was beginning to blossom on college campuses. And a sexual revolution was changing American mores — and morals.

Against all this societal turmoil came LBJ's grand plan to conduct a "war" on poverty through a large package of bills that sought to expand the depth and scope of federal power in unprecedented ways. New legislation came fast and furious. Forty programs dedicated to the elimination of poverty, 60 bills aimed at improved public education, and so many of the federal programs that constitute a modern federal safety net: Medicare, Medicaid, Job Corps, Head Start, the National School Lunch Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Food Stamp Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, and the Older Americans Act.

These and other new laws spawned the hiring of tens of thousands of new federal employees. The grand premise: the best and brightest minds in Washington, D.C. knew best how to cure what ailed America. Vast improvements in failing public schools, poverty rates, urban decay and health care for the poor and elderly were the promised deliverables.

Again, a president's high sounding, articulate rhetoric (and well intentioned policies) were pedaled to an American public eager to listen:

"Every dollar spent will result in savings to the country and especially to the local taxpayers in the cost of crime, welfare, of health and of police protection."


"We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls."


"Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity."


"The days of the dole in our country are numbered."

Thus was rekindled what has become a relentless effort to build a European-style welfare state.

Failed promises

Fifty years and $17 trillion later, many of the promised (positive) deliverables failed to arrive. Individual empowerment and self-reliance have faded, but the federal government's growth and influence has exploded. And results on the ground — where it counts — tell a story of ineffectiveness at best and societal devastation at worst.

A brief review of current conditions:

•Food Stamps: The landmark federal nutrition program has been wracked by fraud and inefficiency from Day One. One in seven Americans now qualifies for benefits, up from one in 50 during the early 1970s. A program that began with a half million enrollees (at a cost of $75 million) now serves 48 million recipients (up 20 million since 2007) at a cost of $80.4 billion. Enrollees have increased an average of 11,133 per day under the Obama administration. Interestingly, participation rates continue to increase despite a gradually recovering economy.

•Single motherhood: It's not politically correct to discuss illegitimacy rates these days, and that's part of the problem. You see, the relationship between out-of-wedlock births and poverty is beyond question. And rates have exploded since the '60s. Today, 29 percent of white babies, 53 percent of Hispanic babies and 73 percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers. And 71 percent of all out-of-wedlock babies are born into poverty. Sadly, single parents who are able to rise above difficult circumstances and achieve are the exception and not the rule. Most face daunting odds in their quest to climb out of dire economic conditions.

•Medicare and Medicaid: These health care programs for the elderly and poor are popular pieces of the federal safety net. Yet failure to modernize 1965-era delivery systems has led to fraud, abuse and just plain old malfeasance. Costs are out of control, and cost projections are notoriously inaccurate. Two cases in point:

In 1965, the House Ways and Means Committee projected that the hospital insurance portion of Medicare would cost $9 billion by 1990. The actual cost that year was $67 billion.

In 1967, that same committee calculated the entire Medicare program would cost $12 billion by 1990. The actual cost in 1990 was $98 billion.

Another interesting note: Medicaid spending nearly doubled from 2001-2010. Yet a central thrust of Obamacare is to expand Medicaid coverage: Up to 11 million more low income folks are expected to qualify. And don't worry about the bill; a broke federal government will pick up the entire tab — at least for three years. This despite many of our best physicians dropping out of the programs due to low reimbursement rates.

The irrefutable bottom line on entitlement spending: interest on the debt, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will consume 100 percent of the federal budget by 2025.

•Education: Despite the commitment of billions of federal dollars, high school graduation rates remain unchanged since the early 1960s. Today, three out of 10 students fail to secure a diploma. Secondary school graduation rates for Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans average just over 50 percent. The respected National Bureau of Economic Research says that the "[family plays a powerful role] in shaping educational outcomes" and that "the growing number of disadvantaged families promises to reduce productivity and promote inequality in America." You think?

Space constraints do not allow for discussion of additional measures of societal denigration. Suffice it to say, a culture of dependency and a hugely expensive welfare state have been accompanied by significant spikes in drug use, domestic violence, crime rates and incarceration rates, most notably for young African American youths. This latter group being the most victimized of all demographic groups over the past 50 years.

Big business for big government

One conclusion is inescapable: waging war on poverty is big business for big government. This year's federal budget contains more than 70 federal welfare programs alone. Combined state and federal spending on social programs now approaches $1 trillion per year. Total social welfare spending since passage of the Great Society totals $17 trillion. Yet the nation's poverty rate remains unchanged from 45 years ago. What has changed is the dramatic decomposition of the American family and culture.

If you are at all bothered by the foregoing statistics, or you believe that our over-reaching regulatory state is antithetical to America's creed of individualism and self-reliance, you might begin investigating the voting records of congressmen and senators who continually expand the behemoth that is today's federal government (and all too often are returned to Congress by a complacent and ill-informed electorate).

The Great Society turned out to be considerably less than great; in fact, it crumbled at the twin poisons of dependency and bureaucracy. But America can do better. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, voters will demand an end to profligate spending, preemptive government intervention and counter-cultural values — before it's too late.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is

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