From the perspective of anyone concerned with limiting government and encouraging individual responsibility, the contemporary American welfare state is a disaster. According to a report by the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, welfare programs at the federal level alone cost more than $668 billion annually, spread across at least 126 different programs. Add another $284 of welfare spending at the state and local level, and you’ve got almost $1 trillion dollars of government spending on welfare – over $20,000 for every poor person in the United States.

Not only does the U.S. welfare state spend a lot; it spends it badly. Poor Americans receiving assistance face a bewildering variety of phase-outs and benefit cliffs that combine to create extremely high effective marginal tax rates on their labor. As a result, poor families often find that working more (or having a second adult work) simply doesn’t pay. And still, despite massive expenditures by the welfare state, some 16% of Americans are left living in poverty.

Wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole system and write the poor a check?