Dependency and Votes

Those who regard government “entitlement” programs as sacrosanct, and regard those who want to cut them back as calloused or cruel, picture a world very different from the world of reality.

To listen to some of the defenders of entitlement programs, which are at the heart of the present financial crisis, you might think that anything the government fails to provide is something that people will be deprived of.

In other words, if you cut spending on school lunches, children will go hungry. If you fail to subsidize housing, people will be homeless. If you fail to subsidize prescription drugs, old people will have to eat dog food in order to be able to afford their meds.

This is the vision promoted by many politicians and much of the media. But, in the world of reality, it is not even true for most people who are living below the official poverty line.

Most Americans living below the official poverty line own a car or truck — and government entitlement programs seldom provide cars and trucks. Most people living below the official poverty line also have air conditioning, color television and a microwave oven — and these too are not usually handed out by government entitlement programs.

Cell phones and other electronic devices are by no means unheard of in low-income neighborhoods, where children would supposedly go hungry if there were no school lunch programs. In reality, low-income people are overweight even more often than other Americans.

As for housing and homelessness, housing prices are higher and homelessness a bigger problem in places where there has been massive government intervention, such as liberal bastions like New York City and San Francisco. As for the elderly, 80 percent are homeowners. whose monthly housing costs are less than $400, including property taxes, utilities, and maintenance.

The desperately poor elderly conjured up in political and media rhetoric are — in the world of reality — the wealthiest segment of the American population. The average wealth of older households is nearly three times the wealth of households headed by people in the 35 to 44-year-old bracket, and more than 15 times the wealth of households headed by someone under 35 years of age.

If the wealthiest segment of the population cannot pay their own medical bills, who can? The country as a whole is not any richer because the government pays our medical bills — with money that it takes from us.

What about the truly poor, in whatever age brackets? First of all, even in low-income and high-crime neighborhoods, people are not stealing bread to feed their children. The fraction of the people in such neighborhoods who commit most of the crimes are far more likely to steal luxury products that they can either use or sell to get money to support their parasitic lifestyle.

As for the rest of the poor, Professor Walter Williams of George Mason University long ago showed that you could give the poor enough money to lift them all above the official poverty line for a fraction of what it costs to support a massive welfare state bureaucracy.

We don’t need to send the country into bankruptcy, in the name of the poor, by spending trillions of dollars on people who are not poor, and who could take care of themselves. The poor have been used as human shields behind which the expanding welfare state can advance.

The goal is not to keep the poor from starving but to create dependency, because dependency translates into votes for politicians who play Santa Claus.

We have all heard the old saying about how giving a man a fish feeds him for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Independence makes for a healthier society, but dependency is what gets votes for politicians.

For politicians, giving a man a fish every day of his life is the way to keep getting his vote. “Entitlement” is just a fancy word for dependency.

As for the scary stories politicians tell, in order to keep the entitlement programs going, as long as we keep buying it, they will keep selling it.


Thomas Sowell


Thomas Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, he left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University (1958), he went on to receive his master's in economics from Columbia University (1959) and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago (1968). Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His 28 books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

  • Pat B

    Thomas Sowell is awesome! Great piece!

  • Mouse

    Just a thought re: poorer people being heavier – is this not because healthy foods like fruits and veggies (and everything that would help one achieve and maintain a healthy weight) are expensive and getting more so every day? Therefore, if one is in a low-income family, one resorts to highly processed and high-calorie items to fill one’s belly. These things can definitely contribute to weight gain.

  • Mouse

    Also, the healthy items are expensive for schools (which more than likely want to make some cash and spend as little as possible) prepare and provide. Most poorer students would then buy the unhealthy filler to save money or because it is the only thing available.

    • kathy

      I have worked for the Chicago Public Schools for 20 years. I can tell you from my personal experience that the healthy foods, like bananas and oranges, are thrown in the garbage everyday because the kids won’t eat them! They go through the lines, pick up their trays containing the fruits and throw them right out!! It is not that healthy options are not provided. The kids will not eat them.

  • J-Roc

    Mr. Sowell, you make statements with no facts to support them — like the fact, for instance, that there is a dearth of supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, and the convenience stores that dominate the food market in such areas are short on healthy foods and long on fat- and carb-laden (i.e., obesity-causing) ones. And saying that “cell phones are not unheard of” is essentially meaningless. Just saying something is so does not make it so. I wonder what this smug, contemptuous piece is doing in a publication that self-identifies as Catholic.

  • Mark Gordon

    For the Catholics reading this, spend some time working with your local conference of St. Vincent dePaul, then come back and read this article again. What you’ll find is that it doesn’t correspond to reality at all, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to the authentic teaching of the Church. Sadly, a piece like this, by someone completely oblivious to the social teaching of the Church, is far more ‘conserative’ than it is Catholic. But then, that’s the norm for this publication.

    • Brian English

      Sowell is talking about government programs, not St. Vincent de Paul. Show me in the article where Sowell says we should not help the poor through private charity.

      I will never understand why obviously sincere Catholics think it is a great idea that a government that is, at best, passively hostile to our Church has largely taken over providing for the poor. How does that correspond to the authentic teaching of the Church?

  • I received this in a link from a friend and was chagrined by what I read. This mix of unsupported opinion presented as fact loses credence from its basic premise: government programs to help the needy are not our biggest drain. Government subsidies to those who already have plenty are our worst problems. If you have a problem figuring out who has the money, you should get a refund on your tuition money.

    • Brian English

      First, Prof. Sowell has plenty of facts to support his assertions. You do not footnote short articles.

      Second, he is just not talking about the poor. He expressly refers to the very well-off Americans who are receiving Social Security and Medicare.

      Third, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are by far the biggest drains. There cannot be any dispute that we are facing an entitlement crisis.

      Finally, when you refer to subsidies, aren’t you really talking about the people who actually earned the money being allowed to keep more of it?

  • I’m afraid that Prof. Sowell’s assessment does not accurately reflect a sound Christian theological view of the political situation. Here is my response, from a Franciscan view:

    As to the opening line of this article, “Those who regard government “entitlement” programs as sacrosanct, and regard those who want to cut them back as calloused or cruel, picture a world very different from the world of reality.” — I couldn’t agree more.

    The “world very different from the world of reality” is called the “Kingdom of God” and Gospel life, as Sts. Paul and Francis of Assisi remind us, appears illogical to the economy of the world. This is a disappointing post on a site that bills itself as Christian.

    • Cord Hamrick


      You seem to equate the voluntary generosity of Sts. Paul and Francis with the practice of taking a person’s money from them at gunpoint and giving it to a third party.

      We are commanded as Christians to care for the poor; to love them both in their spiritual need and their material need. That is why we do it (especially we politically conservative Christians, who make the bulk of the voluntary contributions to the financing of it): We are commanded to love our neighbor.

      But love gives of itself, and voluntarily. Jesus, who is God, who is Love, gave Himself voluntarily.

      I see no warrant in the gospel and no certain warrant in the social encyclicals for compulsory almsgiving, which like “forced love” is a contradiction in terms. A person who says “I love you” because he has a gun at his back does not love you, and a person who hands you a hundred dollars for the same reason has not given alms.

      The traditional reason for using the compulsory power of the state was that, if the state did not threaten people with guns, they would not give, and the poor would suffer.

      But in fact that was historically not the case; great acts of generosity in the United States, often by very wealthy persons but equally often by lower and middle class families, long predate the Welfare State.

      But the Welfare State does have an unfortunate side-effect; namely, it tends to displace private almsgiving instead of adding to it. “Bad money chases out good,” as they say.

      This is why in Europe the average citizen has never in his life given more than about 1% of his pretax annual income to church and charity, whereas in the United States (where the Welfare State has done comparatively less damage to the culture of voluntary charity) the left-progressives (who favor the Welfare State) average about 3%, and the conservatives (who oppose the Welfare State) average around 6-7%.

      In any event, it is important not to conflate the two. Yes, we are called to works of mercy. And, no, we are not required to wave the sword of the state at our neighbor in order to do so.

      The former is the way of Jesus Christ; the latter is rather more Mohammedian.

  • Esteban

    Sowell’s crisp brilliance is appreciated! A great addition to Crisis Mag!

    I love the commenters above!

    Rent control has reduced the amount of affordable housing in our cities.

    Price controls have led to shortages in every instance.

    Culturally deficient urban areas sick with violence and theft cause their own problems with supermarkets and other businesses.

  • Doxy

    I would not possibly have time or space to take on all the inaccuracies in this post–or the appalling judgmentalism it displays (in direct contradiction to the words of our Lord)–but I would love to know how Dr. Sowell comes to the conclusion that politicians give out subsidies to the poor to stay in office? Does he really think that poor people are lining up at the voting booth to “reward” their purported benefactors?

    According to the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals who are U.S. citizens and who have a family income of less than $50,000/year make up ~30% of the population. Individuals who are U.S. citizens and who have a family income of over $50,000/year make up ~48% of the population.

    Individuals in that latter group vote at rates nearly double those of lower income groups. So it is the higher income groups who who are doing the voting–the very ones who have no immediate, personal *economic* interest in promoting the social safety net.

    Could it be that they understand–much better than Dr. Sowell appears to–that taking care of “the least of these” (does that sound familiar?) is not only good social policy, but also the profoundly moral and humane thing to do?

  • Cord Hamrick


    Taking care of “the least of these” is, as you say, the profoundly moral and humane thing to do.

    This is why Dr. Sowell and others oppose the welfare state, inasmuch as it does so much damage to “the least of these.”

    I know nothing of Dr. Sowell’s own charitable giving, so it is possible that he is an exception to what I am about to say.

    But when debating with conservatives about the welfare state, it is important to keep in mind that in the United States, it is those on the rightward-leaning (or “conservative”) side of the political spectrum who are (usually) most voluntarily generous to the poor.

    As a rule (and with exceptions) the average conservative-leaning person gives in the neighborhood of 6-7% of his pre-tax annual income to church and charity. The comparable figure for left-leaning “progressives” is in the neighborhood of 3%. Also, conservatives habitually tend to volunteer more, give blood more, and the like. This is true across all income levels, and is true both as a percentage of overall income, and in dollar amounts.

    In general, then, if you show me a guy who opposes the expansion of the welfare state and would rather see it reduced or eliminated, I’ll show you a guy who cares twice as much about the poor as his left-leaning neighbors.

    Why, then, does he oppose the welfare state?

    Well, that differs from one conservative to the next.

    But it is usually because he believes that…

    – the welfare state harms the poor (and society overall) more than it helps,

    – that it is corruptive to our political system,

    – that it undermines the culture of private charity,

    – that it tends to divide society along class lines instead of uniting it,

    – that it undermines the role of the Church in society,

    – that it tends to replace, not add to, private almsgiving, community solidarity, assistance by family relations, and the like,

    – that it is an unconstitutional arrogation to the federal government of powers not enumerated and thus never delegated to it

    These are pretty good reasons, pretty well documented. Not all folk agree with all of them, but taken together, if even half of these reasons are correct, then the conservatives have the right idea.

    Their idea is: Give generously out of your own pocket, but scrupulously avoid using the compulsory power of taxation to pick your neighbor’s pocket purely in order to make yourself feel good about your own generosity!

  • Doxy

    Cord: People’s lives and health should not depend on whether you or Dr. Sowell–or even I–feel “generous” today.

    The social safety net protects ALL of us. And it protects those whose beliefs or views do not match with yours–or mine. And that is the way it should be. Individual giving means that there will be strings attached to food and shelter–and that those who live in areas without generous individual givers will go wanting for the most basic necessities of life.

    We are all “the government.” We live in community with one another, even though our community is large. In my view, providing the basic necessities of life for those who cannot is a moral imperative. It is not “picking anyone’s pocket”–taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.

    Jesus did not say “Care for the least among you, but only if they deserve it. And be sure you set yourself up as the judge of whether they deserve it or not.” I seem to recall that he said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42). And then there was that inconvenient thing about giving to Caesar….

  • Cord Hamrick


    People’s lives and health should not depend on whether you or Dr. Sowell–or even I–feel “generous” today.

    Of course they shouldn’t. Neither should the well being of children be dependent on whether their parents feel like being faithful to their wedding vows that day. The fate of the Jews of Germany should not have depended on how Hitler felt about killing them, or how many Christians felt the moral responsibility to hide them. Your safety and mine on the interstates shouldn’t depend on such things as the attention-spans of teenaged drivers.

    Life is full of things that shouldn’t be, and we should alleviate them when we can, and when we can do so by morally licit means, and when doing so doesn’t create problems worse than the one we are trying to solve.

    The argument about the Welfare State is not that human need should or shouldn’t exist. Of course it shouldn’t. It’s a fallen world; a lot of things are that ought not be.

    But inasmuch as the Welfare State doesn’t help but hurts, achieves its dubious effects by morally illicit means, and has bad side-effects elsewhere in society, it also ought not exist.

    Simply restating the need is no argument for the wrong solution after it’s been shown to be wrong; it’s an argument for searching for (or using, once it’s been identified) the right solution. As the Welfare State has already been excluded for the reasons given above, we can now only be productive by looking at superior alternatives.

    We are all “the government.”

    Yes, but the government is a particular side of ourselves; namely, that side of ourselves which uses force against our fellow man to achieve its ends. And it is not morally licit to approach every setback in life with guns drawn. (For some, it is: One faces a murderer or a robber or a rapist with guns drawn.)

    We live in community with one another, even though our community is large.

    Exactly. Since the Welfare State divides and corrupts that community instead of helping it to remain healthy and strong, we should attend to the betterment of that community by dismantling it (in a gradual way to cause as little needless disruption and as much time to gradually adapt as possible).

    In my view, providing the basic necessities of life for those who cannot is a moral imperative.

    In mine also, which is why I give at significant cost to myself. If you feel that moral imperative also, then I assume you, too, tithe (and if you’re especially well-off, I suppose it’s tithe-plus, since “from he to whom much is given, much is expected). We are identical in that regard.

    [Taxes are] not “picking anyone’s pocket”–taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.

    Of course! And not the only one.

    But that doesn’t mean that everything our elected representatives use those taxes for is well-intentioned, or Constitutional, or respectful of human rights, or otherwise lawful, or helpful, or wise, or good for the country overall, or the best possible use of those tax monies, or a better use than their original earners had for them, or morally right.

    The Welfare State isn’t as uniformly well-intentioned as some seem to think, nor is it among the enumerated powers granted to the Federal government by our Constitution, nor is it respectful of human rights, nor is it ultimately helpful to the poor, nor is it wise policy for the country overall, nor an expedient use of tax money, nor in most cases a better use than the original earners would have put to those monies, nor morally right.

    Jesus did not say “Care for the least among you, but only if they deserve it. And be sure you set yourself up as the judge of whether they deserve it or not.” I seem to recall that he said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42).

    Which is why conservatives, who oppose the Welfare State, give so much.

    And then there was that inconvenient thing about giving to Caesar….

    Ah, but the question is “What is Caesar’s?” This quote isn’t relevant to the current argument…unless you want to argue that Jesus meant that every coin with Caesar’s likeness on it (including those used to pay the Temple Tax, or to buy food for one’s family, or for any other reason) was Caesar’s, and was not being put to its proper use unless it was given straight to Caesar. I’m sure you don’t think that.

    In summary, Doxy, all your replies are saying, “But we must give to the poor!” And conservatives answer, “Well, we do…and at double the rates and quantities, statistically speaking, that left-liberals do.” So that argument is a non-starter.

    The current discussion is about the goodness and morality of forcible wealth transfers, which are categorically different things from almsgiving, and are mandated neither in Scripture or the Church’s teaching. Such things have a long tradition among governments, of course…but so did slavery, so did torture, so did forcible conversions. But as we gradually, with many missteps, purge our governmental traditions of these pagan and immoral things, the Church begins to include in her developed doctrines prohibitions against them. The Welfare State has not entered this category yet, but its time, I think, will come.

  • Graham Combs

    Thomas Sowell’s wife is, as he has said on a number of occasions, a practicing Catholic. He, I believe, is not. I lived in New York City for nearly 18 years, and it is a city (and, sadly, soon to be the whole country) in which almost every aspect of life is regulated. There are gay high schools, but fewer and fewer Catholic and other religious schools. Smoking is banned, so is school choice for all practical purposes. City hall, as well as the borough halls, are dominated by the various “rights” group, all of whom are anti-Catholic. Abortion and STDs are at record rates among, to borrow the New York Times description “adolescent women 12 to 25.” The city is as toxic a place as one could imagine to raise children. But by all means, mandate “healthy food.” A recent poll reported that 36 percent of young people plan to leave the city when they are economically able to do so. It is a city with all the demographic future of the European Union and the People’s Republic of China. By the way, Dr. Sowell always has the numbers to back up his “claims.” I would also suggest reading anything by Dr. Arthur Brooks. One of his numbers is that Americans send 300 billion dollars abroad in humanitarian aid (exluding the waste known as foreign aid). Obamacare depends upon the decline of Catholic hospitals — hence his praise for Sr. Carol Kean, a Catholic hospital administrator who supported health care “reform” and will gladly hand over her hospitals to federal regulation, including forcing Catholic nurses and doctors to perform them. Anyone who has had dealings with Leftists knows that they are never restrained from practicing internal discipline. If only the Church did the same with these nuns and priests and bishops who supported this president’s election and have yet to acknowledge their mistake.

    • Cord Hamrick


      Yes, Dr. Sowell always seems intimately familiar with the Christian tradition and aware of (and generally in agreement with) Catholic thought, yet he seems to have been rather coy about identifying his own beliefs. I suspect he is one of those folk who have no animus against Christianity generally or the Catholic faith specifically, but who have not yet firmly decided where he fits.

      Several of Dr. Sowell’s books bear intimately upon these kinds of conversations (A Conflict of Visions, Vision of the Annointed, Basic Economics, and Knowledge and Decisions especially). And I second your recommendation of Arthur Brooks’ work; those familiar with his book Who Really Cares? and the associated studies will recognize my statistics for the way conservatives’ charitable generosity and volunteerism far outstrips that of left-liberals as coming from him.

  • Tony Esolen

    Repeat after me three times, class: The Catholic Church does not teach that help to the poor is solely a matter of the transfer of money or goods. In fact, the Church teaches quite the contrary.

    On “community”: Scale matters. Scale matters. Scale matters! It is why Aristotle said that a true polis could be no bigger than it would be if everyone knew everyone else by name, by family, or by reputation. The welfare state destroys communities, and thus destroys something essential to the human good.

    How does the welfare state destroy communities? How does it kill them? Let me count the ways. It kills them by removing the prime responsibility for the community’s welfare from the people who live there to the State. It kills them by substituting a wholly monetary and impersonal transaction for a genuine human bond. It kills them by substituting a sense of entitlement for gratitude and a sense of responsibility, to do well with what someone you know has sacrificed to give to you. It kills them by treating them as wards, mandating for them the single most important thing that any generation does, and that is to educate their children. It kills them by encouraging the breakdown of the family – and it encourages this breakdown in turn in several deadly ways. It kills them by dividing one generation from the next.

    If you actually read Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals on social well-being, you’ll soon find you’re in the company of someone who would find the modern welfare state to be a moral sewer, degrading and corrupting everyone, not only the poor. He would characterize what we live in as worse than poverty: squalor.

    Dr. Sowell grew up in Harlem, when the people were poorer on the whole than people there are now. But they were not squalid. They had intact families. The welfare state had not yet managed to destroy them.