Wayne Nall Jr
4/11/13 at 08:53 AM 0 Comments

Lincoln & Obama: Two Views of Welfare

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I recently read a book of speeches and letters by Abraham Lincoln, and one particular letter caught my eye This was a letter Lincoln wrote to his step-brother in 1851 in response to a request for eighty dollars. He refused the request, but gave him a better alternative, namely work! Here's the text of the short letter with my comments following:

Dear Johnston: Your request for eighty dollars I do not think it best to comply with now. At the various times when I have helped you a little you have said to me, "We can get along very well now"; but in a very short time I find you in the same difficulty again. Now, this can only happen by some defect in your conduct. What that defect is, I think I know. You are not lazy, and still you are an idler. I doubt whether, since I saw you, you have done a good whole day's work in any one day. You do not very much dislike to work, and still you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it. This habit of uselessly wasting time is the whole difficulty; it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children, that you should break the habit. It is more important to them, because they have longer to live, and can keep out of an idle habit before they are in it, easier than they can get out after they are in.

You are now in need of some money; and what I propose is, that you shall go to work, "tooth and nail," for somebody who will give you money for it. Let father and your boys take charge of your things at home, prepare for a crop, and make the crop, and you go to work for the best money wages, or in discharge of any debt you owe, that you can get; and, to secure you a fair reward for your labor, I now promise you, that for every dollar you will, between this and the first of May, get for your own labor, either in money or as your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work. In this I do not mean you shall go off to St. Louis, or the lead mines, or the gold mines in California, but I mean for you to go at it for the best wages you can get close to home in Coles County. Now, if you will do this, you will be soon out of debt, and, what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again. But, if I should now clear you out of debt, next year you would be just as deep in as ever. You say you would almost give your place in heaven for seventy or eighty dollars. Then you value your place in heaven very cheap, for I am sure you can, with the offer I make, get the seventy or eighty dollars for four or five months' work. You say if I will furnish you the money you will deed me the land, and, if you don't pay the money back, you will deliver possession. Nonsense! If you can't now live with the land, how will you then live without it? You have always been kind to me, and I do not mean to be unkind to you. On the contrary, if you will but follow my advice, you will find it worth more than eighty times eighty dollars to you.

LINCOLN TO JOHN D. JOHNSTON, JANUARY 2, 1851.

 As I was reading this, I couldn't help but marvel at the difference between our wise 16th president and our very foolish 44th president. While this letter shows how much Lincoln valued hard work, thrift, and integrity, President Obama's presidency is about "What can you do for me?" While he claims to be a great admirer of Lincoln, his attempt last year to gut welfare reform by removing the work requirement is a prime example of how much he and his party often appeal not to "the better angels of our nature" (to quote Lincoln again), but in fact to the "lower urges" of our nature. Like Lincoln, we should help people when they are down by offering them a "hand up" instead of a "hand out".

Actually, both political parties have been complicit in the subsidizing of non-work. In the name of compassion, unemployment benefits have been extended multiple times by Congress. As of this moment, in some states a person out of work could get unemployment benefits for as much as 73 weeks! Now as bad as economic conditions have been, I find it hard to believe that, for those who really want a job, it would take 73 weeks to find some kind of productive work. Rather than an incentive to get back to work, we have given them an incentive to stay out of work.

While I know that there are people out there who are truly needy and ought to be helped, I also know that we have developed a "welfare sub-culture" in our country of people who, like John Johnson 160 years ago, know how to "work the system." This way of life, in which people spend enormous amounts of energy finding ingenious ways to avoid work, often is passed down from generation to generation. And, rather than solving this national problem, our government has aided and abetted it, often by giving out so many benefits to people who don't work that they would have to take a "pay cut" to take a minimum-wage job!

Please don't misunderstand me. I have no disdain for people in this sub-culture, but a great deal of pity for them. Often they are trapped in the "welfare mindset" that keeps them from becoming productive members of our society. But we do them no favor in providing open-ended government programs that are actually not compassionate but harmful both to the recipients and to our society as a whole.


Want to read more? Here are links to a few other posts from my personal website:

TR on Lincoln-The Great Statesman

A Christmas Story-Put It On My Account

Reflections On 30 Years of Marriage-Part 1

A Man Of A Different Spirit


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