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Beyond the welfare state

"Beyond the welfare state" Continued...

In writing about welfare I tried to emphasize the human cost. My kids and I had dogs as pets, so we put food in their bowls and let them lie or run around all day. That was fine for dogs, but for years we treated welfare recipients the same way. That’s not fine for people made in God’s image and capable of working and achieving and helping others.

We in the United States turned a corner when we started thinking about the cost in human lives. We passed welfare reform in 1996 and started emphasizing getting people into jobs and not treating them like animals. The food stamp participation rate—the percentage of those eligible who enrolled—had jumped from 31 percent in 1976 to 75 percent in 1994, but it fell to 52 percent by the end of the decade. The number of food stamp recipients fell from 28 million to 17 million. We don’t know as much as I’d like to know about what happened to some recipients, but a Rockefeller Institute study showed that two-thirds of the nearly 700,000 New Yorkers who left welfare during the late 1990s found jobs, and only one in five went back on welfare.

By 2000 the results were clear. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted changes in Ohio: “Many of the 111,000 families leaving welfare are doing so because family members have found work. … A survey conducted for the state found that a year after leaving welfare, 66 percent of the people were employed, averaging 38 hours a week at $8.65 an hour.” Those wages kept going up as former welfare recipients got better jobs and joined the middle class.

In the year 2000 Bill Clinton himself bragged in a speech to the Independent Insurance Agents of America:

“If I had said … we’ll cut the welfare rolls in half, you wouldn’t have believed that. … We know now, because of the success our country has had, that if we work together and we set common goals we can achieve them.”

The problem, though, is that the underlying mentality of many government officials had not changed. Starting in 2001 they began to use every opportunity they had to get more people back onto welfare. When the economy turned sour in 2008, that drive continued. For example, the most-used program, food stamps—now called Supplemental Nutrition Aid, or SNAP—had 17 million people enrolled in 2001. Last year that number was up to 46 million, one out of every seven Americans. Much of the growth was before 2008, when economic times were still good.

Graduates from The WorkFaith Connection program ring this bell when they lands a job.
Photo by James Allen Walker
Graduates from The WorkFaith Connection program ring this bell when they lands a job.
This brings us to part two, the present. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not arguing against food stamps in some circumstances. I spoke recently with a woman who lives in Houston, Jean Solis. Seven years ago she was 48 and had a 10-year-old daughter. She lived in a battered women’s shelter. Eventually she entered a training course at The WorkFaith Connection, a Christian program in Houston that prepares motivated people to get jobs and persevere in them. [The WorkFaith Connection won the 2012 Hope Award for Effective Compassion.] Four years ago the only job she found right away was in a distant part of the city. With no car, it took three hours by bus each way to get there and back. She worked four hours per day.

That was when Solis reluctantly joined the millions on welfare. She said, “I needed food stamps to feed my daughter.” She worried about her daughter’s perceptions: “What are you teaching your children when you don’t stand up for yourself?” When Solis finally garnered a full-time position she kissed food stamps goodbye: “I stopped on April 1, 2008. That was a good day for me.”

For Solis, welfare worked the way it is supposed to work: Temporary help that saved children from destitution and gave a work-seeking parent time to get on her feet. But I also talked recently in Houston with a man, Scott Wesley. At age 20, while heavily using cocaine and alcohol, he impregnated his girlfriend. Over the subsequent 12 years they had four children and lived off numerous welfare programs, including food stamps. He felt no pressure to work: “I knew the rent would be paid and the children wouldn’t go hungry.”

Wesley and his girlfriend never married, in part because that would have reduced their welfare income. He stole goods that they wanted and traded food stamps for drugs, a common tendency. “When the police raided drug dealers’ houses they’d find caches of food stamps,” he told me. Later Wesley started manufacturing and selling meth. He eventually went to prison. There he fell upward, because God changed his thinking there. When Wesley came out three years later he found a job and has been employed for four years now. He criticizes use of food stamps by those capable of working: “They allow you to be irresponsible.”

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