The only way to end poverty is by putting people to work
© Getty Images

If the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are serious about making America great again, they had better confront the sobering reality that work has become less and less normal in the United States. While unemployment rates have slowly dropped, the number of people available for work has remained stubbornly low. The labor participation rate in November was at a historically low 62.8 percent.

And while welfare caseloads have fallen, this has been replaced in large part by a whopping increase in disability payments—a surge from 4 million to 9 million since 1995. There has been a tripling of the share of non-employed prime aged males since 1976. And now we’re witnessing an erosion of the “work principle” that was responsible for welfare reform’s success. Reform is needed.

First, our nation must restore strict work requirements for welfare recipients and expand them to other publicly dependent people. Work must become the go-to policy for reducing poverty. Here is a revolutionary way to achieve this. Let’s start by eliminating all welfare except for those who truly cannot work.

Second, poverty rates have remained virtually unchanged since the war on poverty commenced in the 1960s with more than $22 trillion being spent. This ineffective and unsustainable spending must end.

Third, let’s take that savings and invest it in creating jobs—first, in the private sector and then, as a last resort, in the public one. Conservatives do not like public job creation, but isn't that better than delivering a check without some sort of work requirement? My calculations support the conclusion that by doing this there would be more than enough money to create the necessary jobs.


America can reduce poverty by embracing the successful welfare reforms of the 1990s. It was then that the U.S. reversed a half century old strategy of unlimited welfare benefits and substituted work as the principle answer for reducing poverty. Until then, welfare policy was mostly in the hands of liberals and work was a four-letter word. Education, training and a plethora of “feel good” social programs were the left’s antidote to reducing the welfare rolls.


But by the mid-1990s people began to notice that those did not work. President Clinton, working with Newt Gingrich, finally agreed on a bill to change welfare as we knew it. The rest is a history of a 60 percent reduction in the welfare rolls in a decade after the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. No other social policy in the history of our country had the enormous effect this did.

We have been witnessing an erosion of the work principle that is essential to welfare reform’s success. Progressives in major cities have fought term limits and work requirements for those being supported by the government. The Obama administration has weakened work requirements and put a no work needed sign on those receiving food stamps.

And while early critics of welfare reform, such as former Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y) warned of children and mothers starving in the streets, no such thing happened. Yet there is now an increasing drumbeat to water down welfare to work, and replace it with the failed education and training programs discredited in the past.

Why is benevolence trumping truth? Perhaps, as Arthur Brooks has suggested, conservatives lose arguments to progressives because the former argue facts and the latter compassion. Bleeding hearts beat the bloody facts.

With little empirical evidence, empathy seems so much the preferred emotion dictating new public policy—despite its impotence in crafting solutions. Where has benevolence gotten us? Programs ill-conceived, operated by politically-connected community organizations with little competence or tested strategies to reduce poverty.

We need to learn from past failures and successes. My company has placed more than 800,000 hard to employ people over three decades. We have never found it impossible to find jobs. The private sector must be utilized to secure jobs for people normally excluded from the workforce—welfare recipients, ex-offenders, the physically disabled, the homeless, veterans, and the long-term unemployed.

With the likelihood that under the new administration an expanded public works program is on the horizon, this would help, along with workfare type jobs by municipalities to create the work opportunities that the private sector might not initially be able to fully satisfy.

Policymakers must take what we learned in welfare reform, expand it to all welfare programs, and finance this through the reduction of wasteful and unproductive public programs. This would entail a major rethinking of public policy, but it would make working great again.

Peter Cove is founder of America Works and author of “Poor No More: Rethinking Dependency and the War on Poverty.”

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