Even as a contentious Supreme Court nomination deepens political rifts, Democrats seek to grab Republican House seats by playing to the center
Some Washington acronyms, like HHS and HUD, are well-known, but I’ll be surprised if any readers recognize a new kid on the block, RPA-POEM. That’s the acronym for “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” the executive order Donald Trump signed on April 10.
RPA-POEM ordered the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and six others to review programs such as Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, and others. The departments are then supposed to propose new regulations that will require most recipients to work or enter a serious job-training program.
The order could be useful precisely because the last big Republican push for welfare reform, in 1995 and 1996, declared victory prematurely. The 1996 welfare reform law included work requirements but dealt with only one program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Congress left alone more than 70 others.
One result: While unemployment is low just about everywhere in the United States, welfare enrollment among able-bodied adults is at a record high. It’s troubling that while organizations across America have trouble filling available jobs, about 16 million able-bodied adults receive food stamps—actually, a food credit card—through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Fifteen million of them do not work.
We’re not doing welfare recipients a favor when we sustain them materially while allowing them to avoid work.
The RPA-POEM executive order is full of generalities that I can put into a ditty: Escape the mob, get a job. Marriage is great, don’t wait. Get help to those in need, not those who smoke weed. Reduce personal dependence, give states independence. Learn from Kansas and Maine, don’t be insane. Their work requirements led to individual empowerment.
Much of that makes sense. Little of it can be done by executive order as long as the federal bureaucracy is filled with people who see required work as punishment for the poor—and know how to interpret regulations in ways that maximize alternatives to work and exceptions to requirements. Opponents of change can mobilize liberal judges to halt imposition of new standards. They will enlist liberal academics to produce studies claiming that change will hurt children. Delay after delay will maintain the status quo until 2021, at which point welfare defenders hope and expect Democrats to be in charge again.
Legislation is more likely to produce real change. As President Trump issued his order, Republicans in the House of Representatives promoted legislation that would affect all adults able to work: They would have to work or participate in work training for at least 20 hours per week. Exceptions would include seniors, pregnant women, those taking care of children under 6 years old, or people with disabilities.
Those stipulations make sense not primarily as a way to save billions of dollars, although they would have that effect, but millions of lives. As poverty-fighter James Whitford has observed, we’re not doing welfare recipients a favor when we sustain them materially while allowing them to avoid work. It’s child abuse to leave a baby just staring at the ceiling all day—see the joy infants find with crib activity centers. It’s adult abuse to leave a grown-up groaning or tittering at a TV hour after hour.
And yet, it will be a battle to get even simple changes through Congress—and to sustain them through several elections. Many of our legislators think any work requirement is onerous. Christians should recognize that God gave Adam physical and intellectual work—tending the garden, naming the animals—before the Fall. Since then work has been harder, but we’re still bonded to it by our nature, as men and women are bonded by marriage. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Once a year I put a note in this column about our once-a-year World Journalism Institute mid-career course. We don’t advertise it widely because it’s for readers who love WORLD and want to be part of it. Dates for next year’s 10th annual course: Jan. 3-9. Place: My living room in Austin, Texas. Teachers: Marvin and Susan Olasky. Class limit: 10 people ages 30-70. For some, it’s a route to part-time writing for WORLD. For others, it’s like a fantasy baseball camp: You’ll be a real reporter for a week. For more information and to apply, please go to worldji.com.