Lost in the campaigns: welfare reform

House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign MORE’s repeated efforts to reform America’s welfare system have been drowned out by the cacophony of current political warfare. However, Ryan and some of his colleagues have long felt that conservative or libertarian responses to poverty could provide far better solutions than the $700 billion federal programs we have now.

Our welfare programs have done much to alleviate poverty in America and have kept millions from destitution. But we have come to realize that our welfare programs can also, inadvertently, do actual harm as well. Some of the most serious problems would be addressed by Ryan’s proposals but some would not. Here are a few of those issues.

The System Perpetuates Disabilities

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Most people would agree that when an illiterate boy in Appalachia attends a free literacy class, that is a good thing. Yet what can happen next is shocking when his parents deliberately pull him out of class. Why would they do that?

They pull him out because a child who can’t read is classified as disabled — thereby entitling his parent to a monthly payment of $700. As one Alabama welfare recipient told NPR reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt in 2013, “You want a child who can pull a check.” In fact, 1.3 million children are now drawing disability payments for their families for illiteracy and other reasons. This number has more than quadrupled since 1990.

There are many such flaws in America’s disability programs that work against persons with disabilities — often by keeping them out of the workforce and out of the public eye. This runs directly counter to the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which seeks to empower them to join the workforce.

Welfare Rewards Childbearing

Virtually all welfare programs pay substantially more if you have children. This worked for Joleen, a single mother we interviewed in Chicago. Before children, she only got food stamps. But “Ever since my first baby,” she noted, “I’ve been on Medicaid, WIC, Section 8 housing, and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families].” Then she had a second child, and “Now, with two kids, we’re all covered.” Even the most effective of our welfare programs — the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides virtually no benefits to those without children.

Along with rewarding childbearing, our welfare system also discourages marriage. This was affirmed by Sam, a single mother of two we interviewed in Washington, who said, of her boyfriend: “Whenever we looked at the numbers, it just didn’t make sense for us to marry…the whole system seems tilted towards single parents.” The welfare system’s powerful incentives for childbearing are a contributing factor in the continuing growth in the number of single-parent households.

Welfare Discourages Work

One of the cruel paradoxes of our welfare system is that it keeps people from working. After we interviewed more than 100 welfare recipients around the country, it was clear that they are not happy with the system, in part because it discourages work, and, in fact, forms a dependency trap. 

When a recipient’s income reaches a certain threshold, benefit payments are cut off — thereby creating a “benefits cliff.” As a result, welfare recipients are punished financially for getting jobs. As one mother in Georgia put it, “The minute I do any work, they say, ‘Oh no, no, no. Now we have to reduce your welfare because you made a little money.’”

By threatening a reduction in welfare benefits when a recipient starts to earn money — our welfare programs, tragically, even induce a fear of work.

Welfare Isn’t Just For the Poor Anymore

Many people assume that welfare — however flawed — at least goes to the poor. Yet according to National Affairs authors Daniel Armour and Sonia Sousa, “Today, more than half of the benefits allocated through programs we think of as ‘anti-poverty’ efforts actually go to people above the poverty line as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.” 

How did this happen? In response to the 2008 financial crisis, Congress expanded eligibility requirements, which then remained in place. This led to an expansion of our welfare state which now serves, according to Armour and Sousa “to make life more comfortable for the middle class.”

Welfare Increases Poverty

Perhaps the ultimate irony of our welfare system is that it does not lift people out of poverty — it keeps them there.

Even though one in five Americans is now on at least one welfare program, most of that assistance is minimal. And the rules imposed on recipients make earning money a risk, rather than a reward. 

As Rebecca, a young woman we met in Georgia put it, “They give you just enough to get by, and then they keep you there. No, you can’t save any money or you’ll no longer qualify for benefits. No, you can’t get a job because you’ll be cut from the roll. The system is designed to get you down and keep you down.”

In many ways, we Americans are as illiterate as the boy from Appalachia when it comes to knowing where our $700 billion in welfare money goes. The system needs reorientation so that it rewards work instead of discouraging it.

Phil Harvey is the chief sponsor of the DKT Liberty Project, an advocacy group that raises awareness about liberty and freedom. Lisa Conyers is director of policy studies for the DKT Liberty Project, where she works on topics like welfare policy, inequality, and civil liberties.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.