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James Shott / Sep. 6, 2016

Welfare in Perspective

The goal should be to reduce both poverty and welfare spending.

Americans, it is said, are the most generous people in the world. We give to our friends and neighbors and fellow countrymen when they need help, of course, but we also help those who live thousands of miles away in other countries.

We’re quick to provide a “hand up” to Americans in need, to help them over rough spots and get them back on their feet so that they can then care for themselves. There are those who, for various reasons, are unable to help themselves, and we don’t mind continuing to provide assistance for them.

The hand up is sometimes called a “safety net,” a device to save those truly in need from falling into permanent despair. But for many the safety net has turned into a hammock, no longer a device to help out in an emergency or time of trouble, but an easy way of life for those who would rather let others provide for them than provide for themselves.

This is sometimes a matter of availing themselves of a good opportunity, while at other times it is a matter of culture: Far too many Americans have been taught through actual experience that it is not so difficult to live off the government and charitable interests.

A friend taught a class in the 1980s in a junior high school whose student body had a not-so-good reputation for academic achievement. He told the story about his first six-week grading period, using a grading system that was designed to reward honest effort as much as a grasp of the subject matter to get a passing grade. Of the 37 students in his class, half failed; only a few earned decent grades.

When he asked them how they were going to survive after they grew up and were on their own, if they were unable to get a passing grade in a class designed to guarantee passing if you just made an honest effort, one of the students said: “Well, Mr. Smith, I’m going to do like my parents: be on welfare.” That career choice surprised him, and so did the agreement of many of the other students.

This situation, mirrored in towns and cities across the nation, is the result not of the “hand up” efforts of caring Americans, but of hammock-like government welfare programs, which give much but demand little.

Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in his January 1964 State of the Union address. “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” Johnson stated. He should have said “unconstitutional.”

His stated goal was not to prop up living standards artificially through an ever-expanding welfare state, but instead to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” Ultimately, he claimed to want “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” A noble goal, as so many government initiatives are, at least at first.

But the truth is much more sinister. As with his pledge that the Civil Rights Act would “have those n—ers voting Democratic for the next 200 years,” his work on welfare was meant to create, not solve, dependency.

Twenty years ago, another president pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” On Aug. 22, 1996, Bill Clinton filled a campaign promise by signing welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, into law.

This time there were new wrinkles: After two years of receiving benefits, welfare recipients would be required to work, and incentives were removed that encouraged having children out of wedlock and breaking up families in order to receive benefits. There was also a five-year lifetime limit on total time of receiving benefits without working.

How have these programs worked out? Familyfacts.org reported in 2012, “Total federal and state welfare spending has increased more than 16-fold since 1964. Even since the 1996 welfare reform replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, spending has increased by 76 percent and by more than 20 percent since 2008.”

Barack Obama, the Washington Examiner reports, “took the Great Recession as an opportunity to get as many households as possible into the food stamp program, an important part of his stimulus package. One result was that the number of able-bodied adults with no children who receive food assistance doubled.”

Because the value of food stamps and welfare payments are looked at as income, the overall poverty rate has not changed much since the War on Poverty began. However, both the number of Americans on welfare and total welfare spending have soared.

The goal should be to reduce both poverty and welfare spending. Two states, Kansas and Maine, have implemented a requirement for able-bodied childless adults to work for food-stamp benefits, and the results are impressive.

In Maine, 80% of those affected by the requirement left the food stamp program, and in Kansas, the total of those affected dropped 75% very quickly, and 60% had work within a year, according to the Examiner.

When it was easy to stay home and collect food benefits, many were happy to do so. But when required to work, these recipients quickly got out of the hammock and went to work, abandoning government support.

Even people content to do as little as possible will do what they must. That’s something Democrats are well aware of when crafting policy.

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