When I met her, she was high and barely conscious of the screaming two year old beside her. The dirty apartment, spare of furniture and barely lit, housed eight children and one adult. Two of the children, eight and ten year old girls, wanted me to meet their mother. They lived around the corner from my inner-city Washington, DC apartment and after helping me with my groceries one night, the girls became my constant companions.

Their mother’s addiction, chronic unemployment, irresponsibility (only two of the children shared a father), and apathy admittedly angered me. Taxpayers paid for her housing, food stamps, welfare checks, and other benefits, leaving her to languish obese and drugged while others worked. Worse, her poor choices impoverished the childhoods of her precious girls.   

Only later in life did I begin to see the full tragedy of the situation and I could direct my anger toward its proper target—the politicians that created the situation. You see, when their mom—we’ll call her Shirley—was a child, she didn’t dream of becoming a welfare mom. She didn’t see herself living in a dirty house with fatherless children, living off others and seeking relief from a crack pipe. Shirley once dreamt of a bright future. It wasn’t just a series of poor choices that destroyed those dreams; Shirley had help. Under the guise of compassion, the government enabled that road to nowhere.

Ironically, the politicians complicit in her demise are living out their own dreams. They have the big home, the successful career, the supportive spouse, the happy children, and of course, the power and prestige of winning elected office. Even the bureaucrats who cut the welfare checks have the dignity that comes from holding a job, an earned paycheck, and the satisfaction of providing for a family. The same cannot be said for welfare recipients.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, once said, “It cannot too often be stated that the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it.”

The true cost of welfare appears lost on President Obama. Before the election, he weakened the work requirements for welfare recipients. Last week he scolded reformers in his inaugural speech. Entitlements, he said, “[D]o not make us a nation of takers.” He appeared to be calling out by name American Enterprise Institute’s Nicolas Eberstadt whose recently published book, A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic, bears that exact phrase.

Eberstadt’s book chronicles the rise of government programs that now pay out some $2.3 trillion annually. Half of all Americans receive a government benefit and more than a third receive a means-tested benefit like food stamps, housing, or welfare checks. The short book is worth reading as is his Wall Street Journal article responding to the President’s inaugural baiting. (You can also listen to my radio interview of Eberstadt.)  Eberstadt writes, “The moral hazard embedded in the explosion of social-welfare programs is plain. Transfers funded by other people's money tend to foster a pernicious ‘something for nothing’ mentality…”

I’ve seen with my own eyes how the pernicious mentality destroys initiative, self-respect, and even a mother’s instincts to care for her own children. The cost far surpasses the $2.3 trillion cited by Eberstadt, for you cannot put a price on a child’s life.