Fifty years ago, when the idea still seemed novel and overly intrusive, conservatives sometimes complained that the welfare state aimed to take care of Americans “from the cradle to the grave.” These days, however, the government is taking care of many Americans even after they reach the grave.
The Washington Post reports that “in the past few years, Social Security has paid $133 million to beneficiaries who [are] deceased.” In addition, the federal retirement system has paid more than $400 million to retirees who have passed away. And one federal aid program spent nearly $4 million to pay heating and air-conditioning bills for more 11,000 dead people.
As far as we know, however, the feds haven’t paid for phone calls made by the dead.
This wouldn’t be our federal government if it didn’t screw up both coming and going. Thus, the Post reports that the feds falsely list as dead at least 750 new people per month. And, adds the Post, “once you are on this list, it’s not easy to get off.”
In fairness, it can’t be easy to keep track of all American deaths with complete accuracy (but neither can it be easy to invent 750 deaths per month). After all, approximately 2.5 million Americans die each year.
But having researched the matter, the Post’s David Fahrenthold concludes that payments to the dead at the current order of magnitude could be avoided. “For government watchdogs,” he writes, “these are some of the most fixable — and therefore the most maddening — mistakes that the government makes.”
The government, Fahrenthold finds, has simply neglected to fix the problem mainly because the money being doled out to the dead is other peoples’ money. But this is probably not the sole explanation. The feds had plenty of incentive to design a workable Obamacare website, yet lacked the competence to do so.
The same problems — lack of concern and lack of competence — plague the welfare state throughout its cradle-to-grave jurisdiction. Which suggests to me that this jurisdiction should be rolled back.
UPDATE: A prominent reader reminds me that the “cradle to grave” phrase appears originally to have been used in Great Britain by proponents, not critics, of the welfare state. It was a promise, not a warning.
Barry Goldwater picked up the phrase and used it as a warning. For example, in a 1960 appearance on Meet The Press, he said: “You cannot take care of people from the cradle to the grave and expect them to be strong, solid people and expect the republic to survive.”
That warning stayed in the back of mind, but it was more than 30 years until I took it to heart.