FDR Repudiated the Welfare State: ‘a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit’

July 7, 2013

FDRI had no idea that FDR had ever said anything like this.  He sounds like Mark Steyn himself, who first persuaded me that forced redistribution is not only bad for the “makers”, but also for the “takers”—that is, the welfare state is not only bad economics, but more importantly, it also tends to infantilize its recipients; it is corrosive of the very human spirit.

Don’t take my word for it; read FDR’s words for yourself.  Here they are, in context:

A large proportion of these unemployed and their dependents have been forced on the relief rolls. The burden on the Federal Government has grown with great rapidity. We have here a human as well as an economic problem. When humane considerations are concerned, Americans give them precedence. The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of a sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.

The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.

I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves, or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance, and courage and determination.

(Emphasis added.)  The words are hidden, like a diamond in the rough, among statements of more and less totalitarian aspirations and bad economics, in Roosevelt’s State of the Union address of 1935.  The State University of New York at Albany has the whole thing; help yourself to as much context as you’d like.

The Mackinac Center—our neighbors to the north who recently helped make Michigan a right-to-work state—further reflects on FDR’s words.

I was blown away when I saw them.  I can’t believe we have it from FDR’s own mouth:  Government handouts are addictive and very, very bad for you.  (I ran across the quote while reading “The Once and Future Conventional Wisdom: How to restore common sense to the political culture”, Arthur C. Brooks, National Review, December 17th, 2012.)

Here’s an example of the principle as Mark Steyn sometimes puts it:

But forget the money, the deficit, the debt, the big numbers with the 12 zeroes on the end of them. So-called fiscal conservatives often miss the point. The problem isn’t the cost. These programs would still be wrong even if Bill Gates wrote a check to cover them each month. They’re wrong because they deform the relationship between the citizen and the state. Even if there were no financial consequences, the moral and even spiritual consequences would still be fatal.

For a full argument, I recommend his America Alone.  Mark Steyn argues partly by means of the “telling anecdote”.  He’s also an excellent writer, and very funny, for a guy predicting the death of the West.

If you would prefer a personal story from firsthand experience, I recommend Peter Cove’s report in City Journal from the front lines of the war on poverty.  It is very interesting.  “What I Learned in the Poverty War: Work, not welfare, uplifts the poor.”  Excerpt:

Nearly half a century ago, I dropped out of graduate school and enlisted as a foot soldier in America’s War on Poverty. Today, I’m still on the front lines, working to move people out of dependency and into employment. But with an important difference: I’ve become fed up with the useless policies that I once supported, and I’m trying to change the strategy of our bogged-down army.

. . .

It’s almost impossible to describe the excitement that we felt as we crafted plans for new entitlement programs with few budget constraints. . . .

But the government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse.

If you would prefer a different mode of argument—say, if you would like more hard data—I recommend Arthur C. Brooks’s Who Really Cares.  Don’t judge it by the arguably inflammatory title and subtitles on its cover, which I assume were chosen by the publisher, not the author.  Instead, read the author’s introduction, and then decide whether to read the book.

In the coming chapters, I will explain why people give and why people don’t. My explanations are based entirely on data. They are the fruit of years of analysis on the best national and international datasets available on charity, lots of computational horsepower, and the past work of dozens of scholars who have looked at various bits and pieces of the giving puzzle. . . .

These are not the sorts of conclusions I ever thought I would reach when I started looking at charitable giving in graduate school, ten years ago. I have to admit that I probably would have hated what I have to say in this book. . . .

When I started doing research on charity, I expected to find that political liberals—who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did—would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.

I confess the prejudices of my past here to emphasize that the findings in this book—many of which may appear conservative and support a religious, hardworking, family-oriented lifestyle—are faithful to the best available evidence, and contrary to my political and cultural roots. Indeed, the irresistible pull of empirical evidence in this book is what changed the way I see the world. . . .

(Pages 10-13 of the paperback.)

Here is some of what the book says about the evidence that welfare programs hurt the recipients and corrode their character:

The working poor family is more likely to give to every type of charity than the welfare family . . . .

How much does welfare income depress giving? One study of American families in 1999 found that a dollar in welfare income erased an average of 57 cents from its private charitable giving. A 10 percent increase in its average welfare payment lowered its charitable giving by about 1.4 percent. Similarly, an investigation of families in 2001 revealed that families not on welfare were about three times more likely to give and volunteer than families receiving welfare. Holding constant differences in education, age, race, and religion, the study also found that, although an increase in earned income drove giving and volunteering up, an increase in welfare drove giving and volunteering down.

(Page 83 of paperback. Endnotes 12 and 13 on page 220. One study’s citation is Brooks, “Welfare Receipt and Private Charity”, Public Budgeting and Finance 22, no. 3, 2002.)

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7 Responses to “FDR Repudiated the Welfare State: ‘a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit’”


  1. […] Hat tip to Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt e-mail newsletter, who was talking about this, but it applies (as Cooke says) over and over again, all the time, e.g. in the unconscious leaps liberals make when they talk about caring for the poor. […]

    • Paul Says:

      You quote FDR out of context and then tell me to help myself to as much context as I want?? haha, wow. You apparently know very little about FDR.

      You confuse FDR’s criticism of the “dole” for welfare in general. Hence, your argument is a non sequitur. If you were to continue reading the State of the Union address, you would notice that FDR calls for the full employment through govt. intervention since the market could not supply enough jobs. FDR was not against welfare: he was all for creating jobs. However, he was against merely giving people a sum of money alone.

      FDR had a vision of using government power to create social infrastructure of communities that were lacking it. The idea that communities could just pull themselves together is ridiculous, because these communities didn’t become impoverished by any fault of their own. They were pulled down by the expanding capitalist forces. I don’t have time or space to go into how that happened, but there is plenty of scientific literature written on it.

      Here is a quote from FDR’s 1938 address that may clear things up for you:
      “They [opponents of govt. job creation] think that relief for the unemployed by the giving of work is wasteful, and when I pin them down I discover that at heart they are actually in favor of substituting a dole in place of useful work. To that neither I nor, I am confident, the Senators and Representatives in the Congress will ever consent.”

      Feel free to email me to debate this issue if you want.


      • I’m not sure why you think you disagree with me on this; you and I are agreeing that FDR was for government make-work programs but was very much “against merely giving people a sum of money alone,” partly because the latter is so harmful to the recipient.

        Unfortunately, while FDR was (according to your quote) confident that Congress would never consent to a mere dole, Congress has since enacted a lot of exactly that, and the liberals I know are pretty offended by the suggestion that there might be anything wrong with that. They have quite forgotten what FDR emphatically knew.


  2. […] reminds me (again) of Peter Cove’s piece in City Journal, “What I Learned in the Poverty War”; like […]

  3. a12iggymom Says:

    Reblogged this on a12iggymom's Blog and commented:
    Amazing quote….I would not believe it dripped from his lips.


  4. […] FDR.  (If he’s not an authority in a conversation like this, I don’t know who is.)  He called the welfare state “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit”.  (“I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, […]


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