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Welfare and work

First steps on a long and winding road

Welfare and work

(Krieg Barrie)

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.

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  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 04/25/2018 09:45 am

    In the Seattle area it is amazing to see how many homeless people live at nice hotels and in subsidized apartments.  Government has moved the experience of living on the street into hotels.  Some breakfast buffets are overrun by the homeless.  And young families who work hard, struggling to pay bills, have drug dealers and mental patients as neighbors.  Domestic abuse, violence, drugs and a constant police presence now become part of nice neighborhoods.  Evicting them is nearly impossible.   Is this the answer?

  • Kiwi's picture
    Posted: Wed, 04/25/2018 09:50 am

    A few caveats that people who champion these plans would do well to note... Most people who push this legislation have jobs that actually pay for health insurance and pay enough to raise a family.  I descended into poverty by getting married.  My husband worked hard, often 80 hours a week, but never made enough to be able to afford healthcare or lift us above the poverty line.  During that time, we lived in a mouldy little trailer and went without healthcare. The children went on Medicaid when one of my sons was diagnosed with severe autism and epilepsy.  I cared for him and the other children full time. When my husband had a massive heart attack five years ago, he could no longer work, and is now at home on oxygen while I work 2 days a week at a physically demanding job to supplement my husband's VA disability pension.  The regular 16 hours a week I work would not qualify me for Medicaid under these rules.  Yet whenever I am mandated to work overtime, we lose  Medicaid for making too much money.  Healthcare premiums alone are higher than my paycheck  - it is completely unaffordable.  So when caregivers like me are forced to leave their disabled husbands and children behind and go to work - they lose their healthcare, and their disabled family members are left uncared for.  Most jobs simply don't pay enough to support a family, let alone support health insurance. Caregivers are never mentioned in these plans - yet we work hard 24/7, unpaid, and also save the government by educating our children at home and not dumping them into government schools.  If I had to work full time and put my children in government schools, it would cost the government at least $110,000 per year.

  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Thu, 04/26/2018 12:13 pm

    I agree that enabling people not to work is bad, but I've yet to hear of a good model that accommodates the complexities of poverty. For instance, this requirement to work or undertake 20 hours a week of work training--it sounds good on paper, but from the observations of many of my peers who have looked for work in the past few years, employers "have trouble filling available jobs" because they don't care about training. They care about experience. I've had friends so frustrated to have education and sometimes interships in a field that's supposedly in demand, but everywhere they find a job opening would rather let the position go unfilled for years than hire someone with less than four years' experience (ignoring the probability that someone with the qualifications they're looking for could get much higher pay than they can offer).

    Again, reform should be pursued, but with small, carefully considered steps so as not to sweep the rug from the many who really are trying.

  • E Cole
    Posted: Sun, 05/13/2018 01:00 am

    I don’t disagree at all with the point of this article but, as usual, the devil is in the details. I have seen articles in other publications that address the subject with very different numbers and I suspect the problem is with definitions.  I don’t know what it means when we are told that welfare among “able-bodied” adults is at a record high. Who decides what able-bodied means? Are you saying that only physical disabilities matter and that those with psychological or emotional problems shouldn’t receive help?

    I am sure there is abuse in every welfare program but it makes me uneasy when we start wringing our hands about saving money at the expense of the poor as if it is our righeous duty to cut costs, when we just legislated huge tax breaks that will primarily benefit the wealthy. I live in a rural area where poverty is very real, and many people have less than a high school education. In a few hours I will be sitting in church a few rows in front of a woman who gets assistance because her husband left her. Sure, “marriage is great” –but what about those who don’t have that option or who are abandoned by their spouses? This woman has two children not yet old enough for school, and a third who would need daycare after he gets out of school. Yes, she is able-bodied. Does she work? Probably not, according to the statistics used for articles advocating work requirements. But I know her and I can tell you that she works very hard (and anyone who has cared for toddlers would likely agree).  There is also a man who will come into church a little bit late and will sit on the back row and leave quickly after the benediction because he isn’t a social person. He gets assistance as well. He served our country in the military and since coming home, he has struggled emotionally and probably has undiagnosed mental illness. Is he able-bodied? I realize that work requirements theoretically come with exemptions, but when people are throwing around numbers to justify a position we seldom know where those numbers come from or what they really mean.

    My point is that we need to remember that these are real people. They have real problems. Sure, some people are gaming the system, and since Republicans are running the table they can probably get away with using that as an excuse to make changes. But even if those changes sound good and are wrapped in good intentions,  they will likely leave some broken and hurting people with no way to get by.

    Finally I will just mention that many conservatives ridiculed Democrats for discussing a program that would guarantee jobs for those wanting to work. Isn't that concept something that just might offer some middle ground to those wishing to impose work requirements on the poor? Just a thought.