Disenfranchise Poor and Rich Welfare Recipients

By Bethell, Tom | The Washington Monthly, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Disenfranchise Poor and Rich Welfare Recipients


Bethell, Tom, The Washington Monthly


In his book On Representative Government, published in 1861, John Stuart Mill said he regarded it "as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise." By "parish relief' he meant what we call welfare. Those who receive welfare should not be allowed to vote, in other words. If I could wave a wand, that is the reform I would now enact.

On what grounds? Mill continued his argument as follows:

He who cannot by his labor suffice for his own support has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others. By becoming dependent on the remaining members of the community for actual subsistence, he abdicates his claim to equal rights with them in other respects.

Recall that Mill was the great progressive of his day. In this same chapter of Representative Government he made a powerful case that the franchise should be extended to women. Yet I doubt if there is a politician in the Western world reactionary enough to embrace Mill's position on welfare recipients. This shows as well as anything just how much the terms of political discourse have moved to the left in the last 130 years. And they continue to do so. What would Mill have made of the Motor Voter bill, recently signed into law? One of its provisions enables those applying for welfare, or receiving it, to register to vote while at the welfare office.

Today there is much talk of "ending welfare as we know it." No doubt Bill Clinton would like to deliver on his campaign promise. But without Mill's reform (which is not going to happen, of course), real reform is not in the cards. We may get tinkering at the edges--perhaps enough to allow Clinton to claim some kind of victory. More money will be made available for training programs--that kind of thing.

How many recall that in 1988 welfare was overhauled along just these lines? "Work requirements" were added with Reagan's blessing. It was such a big deal at the time that when the legislation seemed stymied for a few days, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that "we will have spoiled the next century" if the impasse persisted. It passed, and by 1990 it was apparent that the welfare system had been subtly expanded, in ways few (certainly not Reagan) understood at the time.

Here's another prediction, lifted from Charles Murray's playbook: Without real reform of the welfare system, high rates of illegitimacy will persist and the war zones that are our inner cities will become more dangerous than ever. …

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