I can hardly give a speech about presidents without citing a witty remark from an old friend of mine from Tennessee, humorist Tom Anderson. He once said, back in the 1970s, "Franklin Roosevelt proved a man could be president a lifetime; Harry Truman proved any man could be president; Dwight Eisenhower proved we really didn't need one; and every president since proved that it was dangerous to have one." Funny, but there's a kernel of truth there!

Here's a quotation from an American president. Who do you think it was?

"The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that 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. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America."

Those were not the words of a 19th century president. They came from the lips of our 32nd chief executive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 4, 1935. A moment later, he declared, "The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief."

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We all know that it didn't. Indeed, 30 years later Lyndon Johnson would take "this business of relief" to new and expensive heights in an official "War on Poverty." Another 30 years and more than $5 trillion in federal welfare later, a Democratic president in 1996 would sign a bill into law that ended the federal entitlement to welfare. As Ronald Reagan, a far wiser man, observed long before it dawned on Bill Clinton, "We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won."

What Reagan instinctively knew, Bill Clinton finally admitted and FDR preached but didn't practice was that government poverty programs are themselves poverty-stricken. We have paid an awful price in lives and treasure to learn some things that the vast majority of Americans of the 19th century — and the chief executives they elected — could have plainly told us: Government welfare or "relief" programs encouraged idleness, broke up families, produced intergenerational dependency and hopelessness, cost taxpayers a fortune and yielded harmful cultural pathologies that may take generations to cure.

The failure of the dole was so complete that one journalist a decade ago posed a question to which just about everybody knows the answer and the lesson it implies. "Ask yourself," wrote John Fund of The Wall Street Journal, "If you had a financial windfall and wanted to help the poor, would you even think about giving time or a check to the government?"

The pre-eminent beneficiaries of the whole 20th century experiment in federal poverty-fighting were not those whom the programs ostensibly were intended to help. Rather, those beneficiaries were primarily two other groups:

  1. Politicians who got elected and re-elected as champions of the needy and downtrodden. Some were sincere and well-meaning. Others were cynical, ill-informed, short-sighted and opportunistic. All were deluded into traveling paths down which not a single administration of the 19th century ever ventured — the use of the public treasury for widespread handouts to the needy.

    The problem was neatly summarized once again by Tom Anderson, whose vignette on recent presidents I cited earlier. Anderson said the "welfare state" got its name because, "The politicians get well, while everybody else pays the fare."
  2. The bureaucracy — the armies of professional poverty fighters whose jobs and empires always seemed secure regardless of the actual effects of the programs they administered. Economist Walter Williams put it well when he described this as "feeding the sparrows through the horses." Williams also famously observed, "A lot of people went to Washington (D.C.) to do good, and apparently have done very well."