Welfare Recipients Give Up Rights
by Joe Cobb
"The Reporter" Long Beach, California (July 27, 2007)


When you take benefits from the government, do you also give up some of your rights?

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled you do.

As candidates and congressmen offer "free" health care, "free" public education and "free" assistance to the need, the truth that nothing is free needs to be told.

In San Diego, an aggressive program of welfare fraud investigation conducted by the district attorney's office involves unannounced, surprise home searches. Deputy district attorney Luis Aragon told The New York Times, "Doesn't the government have the right to some level of verification?...Either you say yes to everybody or you have some verification."

If the government is going to provide "free" benefits to someone, some criteria are needed for this entitlement. San Diego wants to enforce the rules. But the investigators have found not only evidence of welfare fraud, they have picked up evidence that is turned over to the police for drug crime enforcement. They have removed children from some homes when they suspected mistreatment or child abuse.

The federal appeals court found nothing in the San Diego enforcement program that violates personal rights because "people are free to opt out by giving up their welfare benefits." The San Diego program of surprise home inspections is a logical extension of a U.. Supreme Court decision, Wyman v. James, cited by the appeals court, that home visits scheduled by social workers are constitutional on the basis of "rehabilitation" for welfare recipients. Surprise home visits are now also okay in the 9th Circuit.

"Free" public education provides another example. Recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Morse v. Frederick, that a high school student outside of school on a public street did not have the free speech to advocate legalization of marijuana, and that his principal had the right to expel him from school. The court was careful to say this decision was not about free speech in general but only about punishing the specific speech Chief Justice Roberts and the school principal disapprove of (changing the marijuana law).

The rights of a citizen to protection from government power are nullified if the government can buy them back by paying "free" benefits. These constitutional rights include the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the right to vote. Yet you give up the right to privacy if you draw welfare, you give up your right against self-incrimination when you file an income tax return, and in California some cities make you give up the right to vote against property tax increases when you apply for a building permit.

But this is how "welfare rights" work. A "welfare right" is a specific license for someone to get a "free" benefit, but someone else has to provide that benefit. In rural areas of Canada, where medical care is a "right," doctors are assigned like soldiers for tours of duty.

We now understand from the recent federal court cases that the beneficiaries of the "free" benefits don't have the right to refuse the government's terms of service either. When all health benefits are "free," will fatties and smokers be denied treatment for heart attacks and strokes because they have opted out of a healthy lifestyle? Will "rehabilitation" be enforced to control diet and smoking? Will elderly people be told that an extra year of life is not worth its cost to the taxpayers?

Even Social Security pensions, surely one of the most benign government benefits, are the basis for national identification numbers and the growing problem of identity theft. When the immigration laws are amended, your privilege to keep a legal job will depend on having a number in the government's computer system.

In the San Diego welfare rights case, one of the dissenting judges, Harry Pregerson, wrote: "The government does not search through the closets and medicine cabinets of farmers receiving subsidies.

They do not dig through the laundry baskets and garbage pails of real estate developers or radio broadcasters." Only the poor, he said, must "give up their rights of privacy in exchange for essential public assistance."

The judge in his compassion has never heard about the 1930s case where the farmer was jailed for growing his own corn to feed his own cattle because it violated a federal farm acreage control program.

Real estate developers and radio broadcasters may be next.

------ Joe Cobb was chief economist for the United States Senate, prior to holding the prestigious John M. Olin Senior Fellowship at the Heritage Foundation (1993-96), Cobb is a past president of the National Association of Business Economists, National Capital Chapter.

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Last revision: August 14, 2009 08:07 AM
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