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Workfare push suffers from a flawed premise

If there is one thing Americans can surely agree on it’s that work is good. Holding a well-paying job is the ticket to the American dream. This isn’t just some dated middle class value, some vestige of days long past. It’s still true today. Even in neighborhoods decimated by poverty in the 21st century, people aspire to better themselves, not to cash a barely subsistence level check and face a hopeless future.

That’s only one reason why (and not necessarily even the most important reason why) the executive order signed this week by President Donald Trump calling on federal agencies to expand work requirements in social safety net programs is unlikely to accomplish what it purports to attempt. Instead, The Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility executive order is more like the polar opposite of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt — trying to remake the world through expanded government bureaucracy and stricter regulations. It is doomed to failure (in the sense of improving people’s lives) not because the goal is wrong but because it makes false assumptions about the very nature of poverty and government assistance programs.

Any self-respecting social worker in Baltimore could spot those mistakes immediately. Programs like food stamps, formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are stocked not by able-bodied adults who refuse to seek work but by people who are already holding a job. The average monthly benefit for the individual is $134, and it’s a highly efficient program. About 93 percent of the $70 billion spent annually on SNAP goes to food for roughly 40 million low-income Americans with just 6.8 percent going to state and federal administrative costs. And SNAP participation has been falling for a half-decade, roughly tracking the economic recovery.

Add a “job training” requirement, as the House GOP version of the Farm Bill introduced Thursday does, and you will likely reduce participation — as has been documented by recent efforts at “workfare” by states like Maine or Kansas — but not because you are fighting hunger more effectively. More likely you’ve just made it more difficult for people to participate and so they will drop out. Some improvements in jobs numbers in Maine, or anywhere else for that matter, are baked into the results because of economic growth since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, you will add substantially to the bureaucracy. Someone has to judge whether an applicant is showing up for a workfare job or qualified job training. Someone has to make asset tests or enforce time limits.

Even if the goal is simply to save taxpayers money, the workfare scheme is suspect. Further restricting eligibility for food stamps or Medicaid isn’t preparing people to enter the workforce or, more pertinently, advance in the workforce to a job that pays well enough to afford to be off government assistance. It’s not a handout, but then it’s not a hand up either. Maine certainly dropped its welfare caseload, but to what end? Studies have shown a majority of people in Maine who were dropped from the SNAP rolls for not having a job still did not have a job one year later. Chronic problems worsened by poverty like drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, homelessness or physical disability aren't magically corrected by denying someone a hot meal or decent medical care. And they are all costly in the long-term.

The truth is if you are serious about getting people back to work — or into better paying jobs — the most effective strategies generally cost more whether it’s from taxpayers or religious groups or charitable foundations. Helping with child care costs, with transportation or with tuition can be the difference between someone stuck in West Baltimore with no prospects or securing a real job — or jobs — that might lift that individual out of poverty.

Of course, the reality of concentrated poverty is probably meaningless to people who prefer to embrace the worst stereotypes of city life and assume the fictional “welfare queen” described by Ronald Reagan decades ago is out there taking advantage of the gullible and soft-hearted. They’ll point to the welfare reform efforts of the Bill Clinton era as one step in the right direction and posit that this will simply be another. The truth is that poverty has gotten worse during the intervening 22 years since President Clinton signed off on those reforms, not better. Why? Because the real story is that it was never about welfare being too easy or lucrative, it was about a decent job proving too difficult and unavailable to low-income Americans for a host of reasons. That’s the problem in need of fixing.

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