For over thirty years the issue of fairness has driven the dramatic expansion of welfare and social subsidy programs. Ironically, this pursuit of fairness has resulted in one of the least fair support systems that could ever be imagined. Neither those receiving nor those financing welfare programs have benefited to any significant extent.
It is time to impart true fairness to the welfare system by promoting personal independence while providing temporary assistance. Good intentions are no longer sufficient; we must be honest in our assessments of what has been tried before, and base future efforts on the principle that individuals, not the government, hold the greatest promise for self-fulfillment.
UNFAIR TO BENEFIT RECIPIENTS
A welfare system that promotes government control of families creates a trap that is difficult to escape. Persons familiar with the current welfare system have seen that education has lost its value to many persons on prolonged public assistance, and crime has become seemingly more acceptable when values like self-sufficiency and personal responsibility have been weakened. The current welfare system has taken the natural incentives for personal accomplishment and replaced it with incentives to be creative in order to exact maximum benefits from the government.
UNFAIR TO WORKING CITIZENS
On the other hand, taxpayers feel that hard-earned tax dollars should be spent to decrease, rather than increase, financial dependence upon government. It is estimated that over 75 assistance programs combine to provide almost $4.5 billion in federal and state benefits in Georgia–all at taxpayers’ expense.
Lower and middle income families with working parents, in particular, are penalized by the existing system. Although only a few dollars away from welfare eligibility themselves, they help pay the bills for others. It is not uncommon for these families to spend only half as much on food as families receiving food stamps. Moreover, many of these families pay rent that costs more per unit than the housing provided to welfare recipients.
There are five areas that need to be addressed if we are to address issues of fairness in the welfare system. Each of these areas will be discussed in greater detail in upcoming commentaries.
1) Restructure assistance rules and reimbursements. Welfare benefits should encourage personal responsibility. Eligibility requirements need to include developing a realistic plan for a recipient to leave welfare, rather than mere declarations of financial desperation. This could be accomplished by replacing the current “poverty line” standards of measurement for eligibility with individualized temporary assistance determinations.
2) Minimize opportunities for fraud. Illegal bartering of food stamp coupons has become a major component of expanding welfare costs, and obviously does nothing to enhance the well being of poor persons. Under the rules of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local and state governments have very little authority to develop alternatives to the current food stamp program. Electronic scanners at grocery stores have the potential to easily recognize and classify foods that are eligible for payment with food assistance dollars.
3) Re-evaluate qualifications for disability payments. Loopholes and looseness in disability definitions allow children with marginal learning disabilities to collect regular financial subsidies. Though learning disabilities are often serious, the emphasis should be on educational programs, not ongoing financial assistance. Granting so-called “crazy money” to children who act in an antisocial way, often not related to a real disability, is bad public policy. Besides, undermining the notion of individual responsibility by stretching disability definitions to the point of absurdity may also deny many truly disabled persons the assistance they need.
4) Develop incentives for the private sector to meet the needs of the unemployed. A top priority of most AFDC mothers is access to adequate health care and day care. Since many entry-level jobs offer low wages and limited fringe benefits, these mothers often choose not to work in order to keep government benefits. Under the current system, this decision is simply a wise financial decision. Temporary health care and child care vouchers that could be provided through employers would eliminate these disincentives to work.
5) Increase child support collections. It is estimated that half of the children on welfare in Georgia are not receiving court-ordered child support payments. The courts and Legislature need to take steps to produce a less confrontational process and develop practical guidelines for the establishment and collection of child support awards.
State governments have developed many different solutions to problems that exist under the current welfare system. But states need to look even closer at new ways to accomplish its goals of providing assistance while encouraging, even demanding, individual and family independence. What better place to evaluate fairness than in neighborhoods and communities across the country?
With the help of the federal government, states and local communities can and will become effective forces in attaining true welfare reform. The federal government has already recognized this potential in recent years by providing waivers for many innovative state programs. But more needs to be done, particularly at the state and local levels. The challenge now is to break completely from traditional welfare thinking and provide temporary assistance more fairly to those who need it, and to move those persons into employment and independence as rapidly as possible.
Pat Wilder is a member of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a former Arizona state legislator who now resides in Georgia. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.
Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 1995). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.