We must move toward serious welfare reform not by simply pressuring people to work, but rather by supporting the pursuit of higher-wage employment. The ultimate goal would be to get rid of welfare entirely, or at least reduce it to being a last safety net for those without any other assistance available. If we emphasize training and better employment, we can help winnow out those who are on welfare but are trying not to be.
There are always those who will game the system, and that’s a large part of why I want us to get rid of federal welfare: it’s too easy to cheat. However, in many states there is a push to simply get people off of welfare and into the job market. This makes it incredibly difficult for people on welfare—especially people with dependents—to get a job that makes enough to support themselves since they are pressured to take the first job that comes their way.
Welfare recipients are pushed to apply for jobs frequently and take the first ones that come their way. The issue for many of these people, however, is that they are not qualified for more than minimum wage work. For those who have children, dependents, debt, and other financial strains, a $7.25 an hour job at McDonalds is not going to allow them to even live without assistance, let alone save up and work to pull their family out of poverty.
Some cities like Seattle have chosen to address this problem by artificially inflating the value of low-skill labor. They raise the minimum wage to help these workers out of poverty. Since low-income workers can’t get better jobs, Seattle said, employers must pay them more for their work. Unsurprisingly, this led to decreased earnings according to a University of Washington study because low-wage workers worked fewer hours. Without venturing too far into the minimum wage discussion, we can say that no amount of wage legislation will ever actually increase the value of low-skill work; it can only make it temporarily overpriced.
How do we work to break the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency that has swept up many Americans? I believe that the welfare system needs to encourage its recipients to get credentialed.
The current system in place is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Signed into place in 1996 under Bill Clinton, it has since become known simply as welfare reform. The spirit behind this act was understandable: people should not rely upon welfare as a long-term solution, and the system needs to encourage them to be self-reliant. This is true, and the emphasis on personal responsibility is admirable.
Unfortunately, pushing welfare recipients to find work—any work at all—rather than motivating them to gain credentials means that many will find themselves back on the government dole a year or two later. Many states do not allow you to go to school while receiving assistance.
I do not believe that the government should be paying these people while they go to university or pursue non-technical credentials. That said, the jobs that these low-income people need to get in order to break their cycle of poverty are middle skills jobs. These jobs are those which require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. They make up fifty-four percent of the national job market, and many of them are easily attainable and pay well.
To reiterate my earlier point, I ideally want to see welfare disappear, to be replaced with aid from community and religious organizations. I believe that they have a better grasp of what it means to help the poor in their communities than a bureaucrat or legislator in Washington possibly can. But since welfare is not going away tomorrow, I’d love to see it accomplish its tasks more efficiently today.
If a fourteen-week course is the difference between a ten dollar an hour job and a twenty dollar an hour job, I believe that the welfare system should be encouraging people to take those courses. But many states cannot recommend this training, because the federal government threatens to decrease their funding if they don’t get a certain percentage of welfare recipients employed. This means that the counselors are always pushing welfare recipients to grab the low-hanging fruit and take the first job available.
The irony here is that the states know they’re not getting people out of poverty by getting them into these jobs. They know that if welfare recipients were allowed to take evening courses at a community college, they’d get more gainful employment. But if they don’t push these recipients off the system at the absolutely earliest date, they may see financial consequences.
The welfare system is broken. It’s too large, too unadaptive, too unaware of the local workforce needs of individual communities. We need to scale it down, make it less important, and place its responsibilities in the hands of local organizations and churches. But since this will take time, we should make sure that the system is actually helping those it serves, rather than just checking off boxes out of fear of being cut off of the federal payroll. The welfare system needs to push people to get credentialed in a way that will increase their earnings. That way those in poverty can begin to build wealth rather than returning to the handout line every year. As we decrease the number of people who rely upon the government long-term, it will make the switch to private aid much more feasible.