A recent blog post by Cato budget analyst Tad DeHaven pointed to new policy research on the growth of the American welfare state and its failure to combat poverty.

The research suggests that government programs fail to achieve their anti-poverty objectives when they are captured by special interests, like those of landlords and physicians who are paid to provide benefits to the poor.

In addition to arguing that private charities operating without federal funding are better equipped than the government to deliver a helping hand to Americans who need it most, Mr. DeHaven asks whether the increase in the number of welfare consumers is really “good” for the country. Should officials responsible for administering these programs consider it a victory when more Americans become eligible for these programs?

I think this is a particularly important line of inquiry given the number of Americans who qualify for these entitlement programs and then remain dependent on them for substantial time periods, such as the families who are represented in the current lawsuit challenging the authority of Michigan’s Department of Human Services to remove from its welfare rolls those families that have exceeded the five year federal limit on access to assistance.

Granted, the heart of the controversy in the Michigan suit stems from the fact that the families who would be denied access under federal limits may still qualify for benefits under Michigan’s own state law, but the case highlights the fact that some 11,000 needy families who have been on welfare for a combined total of five years out of the last 16 still need additional assistance and that as many as 35,000 families are eligible for the program and could lose access if the state’s DHS is allowed to enforce the federal time limit.

The numbers would suggest that the government is often an inefficient conduit for providing “good” economic assistance—the kind of temporary assistance that sees Americans through the hard times and brings them to a point where self-sufficiency is again possible. If this notion of purposeful, limited economic assistance for Americans indeed has been lost because of the bureaucracy responsible for the administration of welfare programs, it is to everyone’s benefit that we recover it.

Advocating a return to this conception of welfare’s purpose seems concomitant with a need to emphasize the virtue of self-reliance and its history in the development of American society. I am reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s response to a letter by Georgia populist leader Thomas Watson, which was published in the January 1897 Review of Reviews. Roosevelt wrote:

“Something can be done by good laws; more can be done by honest administration of the laws; but most of all can be done by frowning resolutely upon the preachers of vague discontent; and by upholding the true doctrine of self-reliance, self-help, and self-mastery. This doctrine sets forth many things. Among them is the fact that though a man can occasionally be helped when he stumbles, yet that it is useless to try to carry him when he will not or cannot walk; and worse than useless to try to bring down the work and reward of the thrifty and intelligent to the level of the capacity of the weak, the shiftless, and the idle. It further shows that the maudlin philanthropist and the maudlin sentimentalist are almost as noxious as the demagogue, and that it is even more necessary to temper mercy with justice than justice with mercy.

The worst lesson that can be taught a man is to rely upon others and to whine over his sufferings.

If an American is to amount to anything he must rely upon himself, and not upon the State; he must take pride in his own work, instead of sitting idle to envy the luck of others; he must face life with resolute courage, win victory if he can and accept defeat if he must, without seeking to place on his fellow-men a responsibility which is not theirs.”

These are the words of a president who challenged the notion of limited government in order to establish the foundation for the welfare programs that exist today. Would he praise our current entitlement programs as ensuring a measure of economic justice? I’m inclined to think that he would see the government as providing less of a helping hand and more of iron fist—one that keeps individuals on increasingly bloated welfare rosters because it has no strategy to teach individuals how they might ultimately provide for themselves.