The Individual, Common and General Welfare

August 29, 2021

by Stephen Stofka

In the short version of Monopoly, the property deeds are shuffled and dealt out to the players. Some think that God does the same with our talents and circumstances and that it our duty to play with what we are given. They argue that the proper role of government is to provide for the common welfare, like defense, police, schools and infrastructure. Some take a more secular view, arguing that the hands dealt are largely the result of past policies and practices, the good, bad and quite ugly. Given this history, government has a duty to correct these inequities. They argue that government should take an active role in improving individual welfare to raise the general welfare. Moderates argue that a mixture of individual and common welfare programs will best improve the general welfare but they disagree on priorities.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, federal assistance for education, welfare and housing has increased 3 times since 1960 as a percent of GDP. During that period, health care spending at the federal level has increased 9 times; at the state and local level it has increased 3 times. To help offset these increases, federal spending on defense has declined by 67%. What distinguishes all these increases in spending is that they are targeted toward individual welfare in the hopes that an improvement in individual welfare will raise the level of general welfare.

State spending on the common welfare like education and transportation have both declined 25%. After several decades of this shift in strategy, our schools, roads, water and sewer systems are in bad repair because state revenues as a percent of GDP have changed little in the past fifty years while spending on individual welfare has increased. The $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill being debated in Washington targets that neglected common infrastructure.

The spending mix of families has changed as well. In 1964, 33 cents of every family’s expenses was spent on food. Today, it is only 13 cents, a drop of 67%. Despite that decrease in food spending, 1 out of 12 families relies on food stamps, the SNAP program, to help feed their families. Why is that? In the past four decades housing costs as a percent of GDP have gone up 30% (CRS, 2021). Since housing is the largest monthly expense for most families, this sizeable increase has significantly lowered individual welfare. Government programs help alleviate that stress.

During the Depression, a shared suffering prompted a shift in the role of government from public projects, the common welfare, to individual welfare. Many New Deal programs incorporated both elements in their design. Electric generating projects like the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were built by men who sent part of their government paychecks to their families to help with food and housing expenses. A contribution to the common welfare helped relieve individual suffering. During that era, the Roosevelt administration and Democratic Congress initiated the Social Security program, requiring working Americans to contribute to a common fund which would be used to pay benefits to contributors when they retired. Those payroll tax contributions were the price of admission to the benefits of the program.

At that time, only states, local communities and private charities administered welfare programs. These were benefits paid to families based on their need, not an admission fee of contributions to the program. In the 1960s, the Johnson administration and Democratic Congress ushered in the Great Society programs that firmly established a precedent that raising individual welfare increased the general welfare. In the late 1970s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter fought this expansive role of government but his sentiments were countered by the liberal wing of his party, particularly the powerful House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a strong believer in the government’s power to correct social problems (Cuomo, 2021).

Conservatives argue that federal programs designed to increase individual welfare exceed the boundaries set out in Article 1, Section 8. Such programs may weaken the supports provided by family, church and local community (O’Neil, 2021, 106). They do not incentivize people to change their behavior. The programs encourage people to cast their vote for those politicians who promise more benefits, making the voting process a transaction, not a civic endorsement of a voter’s values. At a fundraiser in the closing weeks of the 2012 Presidential Election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney commented that the 47% of Americans who paid no income tax were the base constituency of the Democratic Party (Moorhead, 2012). His implication that half of Americans were moochers was a blow to his campaign.

Liberals argue that the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution implies a government duty to improve individual welfare. They counter that many people in poor communities do not have informal support networks to lean on. Many people did not choose their circumstances and their decisions, whether prudent or ill-advised, are not based on gaining access to a government program. Farmers, business owners and executives also vote for government programs like subsidies, lower taxes, and less regulation. All voters are motivated in part by their self-interest.

How do individual, common and general welfares interact? What is meant by the general welfare? What does it consist of? Shortly after the Constitution was presented to the states for ratification, anti-Federalists argued that “providing for the … general welfare” imposed few constraints on the federal government’s ability to tax the people to fund that general welfare (Debates). Americans continue to argue the merits of these programs and the role of government in their lives.

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Notes:

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Congressional Research Service (CRS). (2021, May 3). Introduction to U.S. Economy: Housing market. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/IF11327.pdf

Cuomo, M. M. (2001, March 11). The Last Liberal. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/11/reviews/010311.11cuomot.html

Debates. “Centinel,” the pen name of Samuel Bryan, and “Brutus” were among several anti-Federalists who protested the insertion of the “general welfare” clause in the Constitution.  See Centinel I and Brutus V editorials.

Moorhead, M. (2012, September 18). PolitiFact – Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2012/sep/18/mitt-romney/romney-says-47-percent-americans-pay-no-income-tax/

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