A Brief History of American Welfare State

By Brian Vanyo

According to deficit forecasts in President Barack Obama’s latest budget, the national debt will surpass $20 trillion by 2016. If this occurs (and it is almost certain to occur), then Obama will add more to the national debt during his presidency than all prior presidents combined, despite collecting projected record-high tax receipts each year of his last term in office. 

Obviously, there is a spending problem in Washington, D.C., and the reason for it is no mystery. The largest expenditure in Obama’s budget — and the largest federal outlay in every budget since 1970 — is an expense item labeled “payments for individuals,” which includes  spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, disability payments, and other federal welfare subsidies. These payments comprised 65 percent of all federal spending in 2012 and are expected to grow to 70 percent in 2016. (By contrast, national defense spending was 19 percent of the federal budget in 2012 and will decrease to only 14 percent in 2016.) 

The federal government has essentially become a wealth redistribution center, for it collects enormous sums of money through taxation ($2.45 trillion total in 2012), and then distributes this money to select people in countless “payments for individuals” ($2.3 trillion spent in 2012). The leftover money isn’t nearly enough to pay for the interest on the national debt, not to mention the other government functions that must also be funded, like national defense. So the federal government borrows more and more money by the day just to keep operating.

This level of spending and borrowing simply cannot be sustained, according to Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. Sitting before the Senate Budget Committee last year to discuss Obama’s 2013 budget, Geithner confessed that the federal government’s level of social welfare spending could not endure for long. He said, “Even if Congress were to enact this budget, we would be left with — in the outer decades as millions of Americans retire — what are still unsustainable commitments in Medicare and Medicaid.” 

These welfare commitments are not just unsustainable; they are also unconstitutional, for the Constitution grants no power to the federal government to redistribute national wealth. James Madison explained that “the government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” 

In spite of the Constitution’s limits, federal welfare spending began in earnest in the 1930s with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. And in the face of many legal challenges, the Roosevelt Administration defended the government’s broad spending authority under the “general welfare” clause in Article I, section 8, which states, “The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; ... .” Basically, Roosevelt argued that any kind of federal spending is permissible under the Constitution as long as it aims to provide for the general welfare. This is not what our founders intended.

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Brian Vanyo is a political columnist, a board member of the Constitution Leadership Initiative and the author of “The American Ideology: Taking Back our Country with the Philosophy of our Founding Fathers.” A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Naval War College and the University of Virginia School of Law, he served in the U.S. Navy and is a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He has also worked as an analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Visit him at brianvanyo.com.

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