By Leslee Kulba- Earlier this month, the House Ways and Means Committee published findings from a review of policy implemented twenty years ago to reform federal welfare programs. They concluded the cash welfare program helped millions of single parents into a position to provide for their children; but “the rest of the welfare system is in desperate need of repair.” As evidence, they cited an ever-increasing number of Americans, that have been added to the welfare rolls. At the time of the report, estimates for the increase ran in the “tens of millions.”
The US population is now estimated at 325 million. 46.7 million are officially considered to be living in poverty. Over the years, the federal government has spent $22 trillion, or more than the current national debt, fighting poverty. That said, statistics indicate children born into poverty have no greater hope of climbing out than they did fifty years ago. Literature published by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s A Better Way initiative says existing welfare initiatives are, “rigged to replace work, not encourage work. The system traps families in a cycle of poverty, shuffling them from program to program instead of helping them break free altogether.”
Back in 1996, it was clear that feeding single moms a fish was feeding them for only a day. The number of welfare checks issued continued to grow with little to show in terms of alleviating intergenerational poverty. Because it made more economic sense, both in terms of comfort and leisure time, to collect a check from the government than to put up with the woes of the workplace in exchange for chicken feed; federal welfare had become a “poverty trap.” Welfare reform therefore set up Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which required recipients to either hold down a job or demonstrate serious efforts aimed at getting one. The hypothesis to be tested was that people need the dignity of earning their own success. And the results were stellar.
While proponents of traditional families will see this as further degrading the institution, the legislators claimed among successes a fifteen percent increase in employment rates for single moms. Childhood poverty in female-headed households dropped from around 55 percent to somewhere around 45 percent. Restated for emphasis, about half of single moms “aren’t making it,” compared to about ten percent of two-parent households. Most importantly, though, the number of TANF enrollees decreased by over 60 percent. As a cautionary note, “a new and refined measure of poverty” was used to arrive at these conclusions.
Going up, though, was the number of prime workforce-age adults without children going on the dole. To address this, the legislators set out to restructure the eighty-some other federal welfare programs to include labor requirements like those of TANF. The new wave of welfare reform will have four prongs.
The first accepts that money thrown at people does not stick. Some people raised in intergenerational welfare families have a damaged work ethic. New programs will therefore teach the value of contributing to society and getting paid as trade for labor. Recipients would then hopefully gain a sense of confidence and belonging that work can bring. They can also begin climbing the ladder out of the poverty trap, rung by rung, to self-sufficiency and perhaps beyond to where they can help others, either through charity or even more optimistically and long-term, creating jobs through their own innovation.
A second guiding principle would work to remove perverse incentives in the current system. Government is replete with programs and wars on things that perpetuate their raison d’etre while expanding jobs for bureaucrats, thus justifying administrative hierarchy. It is well known that in many states people can live much more comfortably on the dole than they can with an entry-level job. What’s more, states are reticent to get people off the welfare rolls because that would stem the flow of federal funds that help balance their budgets. “Our welfare system should ensure everyone is better off when someone leaves welfare for work,” say the legislators.
The third refocusing addresses a point Ryan has articulated well since his election. Like many government programs, welfare has been judged in terms of inputs instead of outputs. Thus, the more people sign up, the more it is cheered as a success among bureaucrats. And the more money it blows through, the more it can justify for the next budget cycle. Welfare programs, like healthcare, should be judged instead in terms of outputs: how many people the program is curing, or getting legs to stand on their own, without the system and with low rates of recidivism. A truly good welfare program would work itself out of its job, with the exception of providing small safety nets for disasters and miscalculations that will always happen.
The final prong is the old waste, fraud, and abuse line. Reforms will once again try to reduce unnecessary complexity in the application process, that hopefully will not be introduced with glitchy software this time. Untold millions of dollars are known to go to ineligible recipients, and surely funds find illicit homes via routes that outsmart watchdogs. Abuse of the system deprives the truly needy of limited resources while rankling taxpayers who aspire to have the fruits of their labor plowed into causes worthier than welfare fraud.
The program promises not to increase welfare spending at all, but to more intentionally focus available funds. It accepts that charity is more than pinning money on poor people. It is lifting people out of the depressing degradation of dependency and helping them live with honor as they discover talents and refine skills to support themselves and contribute to the economy.
A fact sheet summarizes the reforms. Today, it says, “Washington looks at your needs in isolation, whether it is food, housing, energy, or child care. It doesn’t see how your needs interact. It doesn’t adapt to you. It just pushes you along the conveyor belt. It is one-size-fits-all, all the way.” The reforms, however, would “attack poverty right at its roots. Instead of starting with welfare, we start with work. Instead of expanding government, we expand opportunity. Instead of letting people languish, we get them on the ladder of opportunity and help them climb that ladder so they can make the most of their lives.”