Friday, May 30, 2014

An Epiphany I had About Early American Government and the Welfare they Gave to the Poor.

While away from a computer for several days, I did have an epiphany, one of those things that ties a lot of things together.

The Tea Party keeps waxing nostalgic about the America of small government that in one form or another lasted from the founding days of the Republic into the early twentieth century.

They like to point out that the Government at this time did not provide welfare, and people who had no job and no food had to somehow 'make it on their own.'

Only that's not quite right. They gave them welfare, in a different form. Via the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 and later the Homestead Act of 1862, they would (after clearing the Native Americans off the land and mostly stuffing them onto small tracts of undesireable land or packing them off to Oklahoma) offer them land (160 acres, in plots all tracted out into ranges and townships) on which they could establish a farm and feed themselves and their family. Eventually, they even opened up Oklahoma, which had been set aside for the Native Americans who they had driven off their land elsewhere, but even that ended by 1907, when Oklahoma became a state.  But for the first century and a quarter of the time that the nation was in existence, the phrase 'go west, young man' was a part of the lexicon, and the government had land in abundance to give away as 'government welfare' to anyone who would move there and work it  (though they did so very reluctantly, it should be noted, for African Americans, for whom the promise of 'forty acres and a mule' never materialized and forced most of them to work as sharecroppers, especially in the South, but that's a different discussion.)

Now I also can anticipate what some Tea Party supporters will say. They won't disagree with me (since history records that this is exactly what happened) but will instead pull out the 'Cliven Bundy' card and complain about how much land the government still owns, especially in the West (after all, the Northwest Ordinance gave out parcels of land in what is now the eastern third of the U.S. and the Homestead Act more or less focused in the same way on what is now the middle third, but no similar act was every passed, at least on a significant scale, for the West.)  And it is true that even today the majority of the land in the West is owned by the Federal Government (though anyone who argues that the Federal Government somehow doesn't legally own it is wrong, since the Federal Government paid for most of it for $20 million (the combined purchase price of the Mexican Cession and Gadsden Purchase) and obtained the rest by an international treaty with Britain over the Oregon territory in 1845.)

But, they will argue, if in fact the Federal Government owns the land, why not just give it away in a similar manner to what was done before?

First, it's because a lot of it is not land you could farm on. The places you could farm on, have virtually all been transferred to private ownership already, but most of the rest doesn't make good farm land.  Around here, and around a lot of the rest of the southwest, it is too hot, too dry and the land too unsustainable to be able to farm, except perhaps in small areas that have consistent water like river valleys.  We are already outstripping our water supply, and it's hard to see how thousands more farmers would (if we had them) do anything beyond drain the scarce resource faster.  In fact, as the jet stream moves northward, we have already seen reports that precipitation in the Colorado River basin could decrease by 15-20% annually.  Yeah, I know, some skeptics of government welfare probably don't believe that either, but the science is sound and denying that a hungry lion is coming towards you won't prevent it from eating you when it gets there.  But even without it, we are losing the water battle in the southwest, and most of the land the federal government does own is either marginally useful as grazing land (which they already allow ranchers to graze on it for $1.35/cow per month, a fraction of what private grazing rights run)  or it is part of a national park, national forest or national monument. Cattle ranches (and I know several ranchers) will always be an activity that at least in the west requires thousands of acres, so even making people on welfare into cattle ranchers would result in a relatively small number of them being given this land, because ranches in general are so large and the cowhands who work on it now, would still be working on it then.

 Keep in mind regarding national parks, forests and monuments, that we do allow some kinds of economic activity in these areas (such as logging in national forests) but these are areas that are preserved for all of us to share. Do you really want the government to throw open Yellowstone  or Yosemite to people who would come in and just turn it into a bunch of farms?

But beyond that, even if they did do that, DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE that the people that they would want to get the land would be a bunch of welfare recipients from New York or Chicago?  Of course not. They expect it to be some kind of  'patriotic Americans' (probably meaning them) though in reality it would likely be a bunch of multinational corporations.   And frankly, compared to the value of the kind of land needed to farm or ranch on, the value of public assistance is much less.

So in conclusion, the people who argue that the small, federalist government in the days of the founding fathers didn't give welfare to people who needed to feed themselves is false. They did understand the need to do so and that it was the duty of the government to help provide for people, they just used a different kind of currency.


Mark said...

Not even the same thing Eli. Giving land was giving a person a means to support themselves, and was not direct support by giving sustenance. Giving land was positive motivation for a person to support their self. Giving land was also in the interest of the government, it produced taxpayers and did not increase reliance on government. I am in full support of the types of safety nets of primarily temporary assistance that we have in our modern welfare system including food stamps and cash assistance, especially for single moms. But democrats refuse to see admit any problems and republicans can't see any return on the investment we are making in welfare. But we are facing challenges because there are abuses and the system we have created provides rewards for negative production and can set up generations of people not being self reliant. Along with supporting the person who didn't find a job, we need to give job finders a $5000 bonus to help get them over the hump, get caught up on bills and to get on their feet after the safety net stops helping. We need more programs with positive motivations built in like the land programs you mentioned. Whoopy Goldberg said it the other day on the View, that when she was a welfare mom, she was afraid to make too much money because her welfare (food stamps, etc) could be taken away. We should have provided her with a bonus check for $5000 or so to lift her over the hump of making the transition off welfare. Now that would be a program comparable to the land programs you mentioned.

Eli Blake said...

It is true that they gave people the means to support themselves (and if we had an big supply of arable land with a good water supply still available, then that would be a good way to go) but in fact we do not.

It is true that there is fraud in the welfare system, but as I've pointed out numerous times the best way to deal with it is to aggressively investigate and prosecute fraud. I'd be all for a mandatory prison sentence and/or a fine of 3-5 times the amount of the crime for either a person who intentionally files for welfare benefits that they don't deserve, or for any vendor who intentionally accepts food stamps fraudulently (though the replacement of actual food stamps with EBT cards has cut down on a lot of the fraud so it's not true that we've done nothing about the problem.)

Simply cutting the budget for these programs does nothing to stop fraud and abuse.

That said, while it could be argued that both in the early days of the Republic and today there are better options than giving people cash, my main goal here was to point out that it is not true that the government in those days didn't help people who needed it. They did.