By: Jaren Martineau

Federal Welfare programs have expanded remarkably over the past century. Significant expansion began during the era of the New Deal. Another significant period of expansion happened under President Lyndon B. Johnson. This expansion, often termed the “War on Poverty”, was a series of laws put into effect in 1960’s. The stated purpose of these programs was “to relieve the symptom of poverty, . . . to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” [1] But has the federal War on Poverty and other federal welfare programs been able to achieve these goals?

Alternatives to Federal Welfare

In examining this question one might wonder what other programs or methods, other than federal welfare, exist for helping the poor and the needy? In early American society, a French historian and political scientist named Alexis De Tocqueville came to observe and document social and political conditions in the newly formed United States. He observed:

“Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; . . . Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.” [2]

Although in early American history there were efforts by local governments to aid the poor, as Tocqueville observed, private associations played an extensive role in solving the societal problems of that time. Even today private associations, such as religious organizations and other non-profit organizations make a substantial contribution to serve the needs of the community. In fact, according to the Catholic Health Association of the United States, “[e]very day, one in six patients in the U.S. is cared for in a Catholic hospital.” [3] Although the figures reported are worldwide, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints reports that it has spent approximately $1.2 billion dollars on welfare and humanitarian aid over the past 30 years and that its volunteers have provided approximately 25 million hours of labor in a single year. [4] The Boy Scouts of America reports that it has collected and donated approximately 45 million pounds of food for local food banks and pantries just in the Baltimore region alone. [5] It is clear that private associations have and still do play a significant role in meeting the needs of the poor in society.

Private or Public Welfare

An obvious question that comes to mind after observing that charity is handled by both public and private institutions is: does it matter which entity provides it? Is private or public welfare more beneficial? Opinions vary strongly to these questions. Some argue that the scope of need in the United States is much too large for private charity alone to handle. [6] Others argue that increased government taxation for welfare spending takes away dollars that would otherwise end up in the hands of private charitable associations due to a “crowd-out” effect. [7] Both governments and private associations are made up of organizations of human beings. It would seem reasonable that both forms of institutions would tend to suffer from the same limitations and frailties that are common of humanity (fraud, inefficiency, ineptness). Public welfare systems do, however, suffer from additional limitations. When government runs an institution, it must do so subject to political pressures and to constitutional limits. The interplay between voters and politicians can dramatically shift how public welfare institutions are run and operate. The Constitution also requires due process and application of the principles of equal protection to their programs. Although these Constitutional protections exist for worthy purposes to appropriately promote fairness and equality in relation to government, they reduce the flexibility of public welfare programs. Furthermore, there are also advocacy efforts to establish public welfare benefits as a Constitutional right. [8] If this were to become a reality it would further establish the “crowd-out” effect and further reduce the flexibility that is necessary in order to customize effective welfare programs that not only help those in need, but also to help those individuals to transition into a place of self-reliance where such need will no longer be needed.

Private associations, however, have are free to organize their institutions as they believe is the most appropriate and beneficial. They may supplement or cut off benefits when necessary or may give out aid to people who are similarly situated in different amounts and using different methods depending on the uniqueness of the situation. This flexibility may be necessary in order to address the criticism of the War on Poverty, that “[w]e may have reduced the discomfort of poverty, but we have failed to truly lift people out of poverty.” [9]

Public Welfare and Families

For many people, the first line of defense against poverty is his or her own family. It is when children are reared that they get to see and ultimately mirror, the habits of their caretakers. Children learn the first lessons about self-reliance in their own home. It is here that a child can learn frugality, healthy habits, the importance of work, and the value of education. The family is integral not only for the development of self-reliance in children, but also in obtaining aid when there is a need. In fact, there has been substantial research into the benefits of growing up in a home with two married parents. Children raised in these homes are more likely to grow into adults with higher levels of education, stronger cognitive abilities, higher incomes, and even more likely to enter into their own successful marriages. [10]

It is unfortunate, knowing what we know about the benefits of a healthy family life, to discover that some public welfare programs appear to negatively impact, or are associated with, perverse incentives for a married family life. For example, several federal welfare programs create what has been termed a “marriage penalty” which makes it less economically feasible or appealing to enter into or to remain in a committed marital relationship. [11] In fact, a report titled, Marriage, Penalizedshows that “[a]lmost one-third of Americans aged 18 to 60 report that they personally know someone who has not married for fear of losing means-tested benefits.” [12]

Private associations, on the other hand, appear to be much better suited to avoid these kinds of inflexible programs that are difficult to change without lobbying and politics. Private associations are free to help or encourage marriage based upon the unique religious beliefs of the individual, while public welfare programs would generally have First Amendment limitations that would prevent direct support or involvement of any particular religious belief. [13]


Although federal public welfare has expanded significantly over the past century, we should ask if it has achieved its intended purposes. There is certainly a role for public welfare, but we should carefully consider the benefits and the power that private associations have to provide for the poor and needy. If we can identify and explore the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, it may be more likely that as a society we can find ways to manage our governments in ways that encourage private associations to help those in need in ways that government is unable or forbidden to.


  1. Lyndon B. Johnson, Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, January 8, 1964,
  2. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 5, 896. Available online at:
  3. Catholic Health Association of the United States, Facts-Statistics: Catholic Healthcare in the United States, January 2018,
  4. Morgan Jones, LDS Church welfare, humanitarian efforts average $40 million per year, apostle says, July 12, 2006, Deseret News,
  5. Boy Scouts of America, Baltimore Council, Scouting for Food 2018,
  6. Alfred Lubrano, Private charity no match for federal poverty aid, experts say, May 20, 2013, The Seattle Times,
  7. Gary Galles, Why the Cost of Government Is Higher Than You Think, May 28, 2014, Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles,
  8. Erwin Chemerinsky, Making the Case for a Constitutional Right to Minimum Entitlements, 44, Mercer Law Review(1993), 525,
  9. Michael Tanner, Less Welfare, More Charity, August 20, 2014, National Review,
  10. K. Howard & R. Reeves, The marriage effect: Money or parenting?, September 4, 2014, Brookings,
  11. Robert Rector, How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What to Do About It, November 17, 2014, The Heritage Foundation,
  12. W.B. Wilcox, A. Rachidi, J. Price, Marriage, Penalized: Does Social-Welfare Policy Affect Family Formation?, July 26, 2016, AEI and Institute for Family Studies,
  13. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).