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Disabling security

"Disabling security" Continued...

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

Wen concluded, "The sense of dependence on SSI checks, for children and for their families, can creep up slowly." She quoted a psychologist's view that "children who grow up on SSI often cannot see themselves ever living outside the system. ... They develop an identity as being disabled." In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest has below-average intelligence but his mother is always telling him, "You're not stupid." Today, mothers tell children of average intelligence, "You are stupid."

Two kinds of poverty

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The liberal Boston Globe was not ready editorially to declare the SSI program entirely a fundamentally misshapen mess. Instead, it asked for SSI reforms in eligibility standards and payment structures. That's fine. It asked for more social workers to re-evaluate cases. Maybe. But more radical changes may be needed: Why not differentiate among SSI recipients so that each is more likely to receive "help" that actually helps? As with poverty-fighting generally, why not distinguish between lifestyle problems and catastrophe problems?

Lifestyle poverty comes about when people don't do four things: Stay sober, stay in school at least through high school graduation, stay out of bed in situations likely to lead to pregnancy or abortion, and stay with a job even if it lacks thrills. When people don't follow these basics, the result is often alcoholism and addiction, single parenting, and lack of the skills or perseverance needed to get and hold a job.

Lifestyle poverty arises out of messy lives, and sending a government check does nothing to clean up the mess. That's different from catastrophe poverty: A plant closes, a person is injured, or-right now-a person is laid off when recession begins and doesn't get new opportunities, as economic blight drags on year after year.

Catastrophe poverty is not like lifestyle poverty. Those who suffer through catastrophe poverty are often work-oriented. They have not fallen into joblessness: Situations beyond their control have pushed them into it. They may need financial help to bridge the gap until they are ready and able to work again, but their values do not need realignment.

With lifestyle poverty, though, a government check can hurt rather than help, because it may just further a non-work psychology. Those sunk into lifestyle poverty need challenging, personal, and spiritual help, rather than cold, enabling, entitling, by-the-numbers bureaucratic aid. We should not treat them the way we treat pet dogs: In the morning put some food and water in their bowls, and in the evening take them out for walks.

Given the logic of Social Security, SSI is a logical supplement to it. But when Congress grandly created the program 40 years ago, leaders did not recognize that it would become a moral hazard for those sunken into lifestyle poverty, because SSI might push them to act worse than they otherwise would. Administrators looked at disabilities without asking how the disabilities had occurred and whether money would make them worse.

Many adults have been hurt or killed by government compassion for self-generated problems. Walk around with Denver homeless shelter manager Bob Cote and see places where alcoholics who received SSI because they were alcoholics had cashed their government checks, gone on binges, and then frozen to death. Rebecca Riley's death reminded us that children also become victims.

But the Boston Globe articles about SSI did have a couple of encouraging paragraphs amid all the gloom. One told of Eliseo Ramirez, a 15-year-old who "virtually begged his mother not to apply for SSI benefits for him, even after a state social worker ... predicted quick approval of benefits. ... Eliseo said he has seen troubled classmates qualify for SSI, then lose their ambition to get part-time jobs or strive for better things in their lives. Some, he said, have drifted into the underworld of drug dealing because they didn't want any above-board income.

Ramirez said he is turning his life around and wants to earn his own way in life: 'I don't want to depend on the check.'

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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