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Beyond the welfare state

"Beyond the welfare state" Continued...

Another expansion came in 1972 when Congress made disabled children eligible. The goal was to help poor parents who lost wages by taking time off from work to care for children with muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. Politicians spoke of families having additional expenses such as wheelchairs or taxi rides to hospitals.

Fair enough—but psychologists asked, why not us? They argued that depression can be as disabling as a bad physical ailment. True enough, but while tests reveal physical cancers, psychological ones are often judgment calls—which means that some money-seekers can game the system when they want the money that a diagnosis can generate.

Hundreds of thousands have learned how to do just that. When Washington decreed that at least 10 percent of preschoolers in Head Start programs needed to be disabled, that also created an incentive to have more children so classified. Two Massachusetts parents are now in jail for overdosing their 4-year-old, Rebecca Riley, with a drug taken for treatment of bipolar disorders. The parents and two older children were receiving $2,800 per month for suffering from “mood swings” and attention deficit disorder, and they wanted $700 more for Rebecca.

That’s an extreme case, but 1 million children are now on SSI. Even the liberal Boston Globe said the government has gone too far. Americans used to have a “can do” attitude, but welfare creates a slippery slope, and it’s easy to slide from “can do” to “cannot.” That’s where we are in the United States now.

Let’s turn to the future: Given current trends, Washington University professor Mark Rank projects that half of U.S. children are or will be in a household that uses food stamps at some point during their childhood. He also forecast that more than 90 percent of children with single parents will spend time in a household receiving food stamps.

How do we change that? Our first challenge is to try to prevent a welfare society, where most people are dependent on government for a dole. Our second challenge is not to accept excuses, such as people saying, “No way I can get a job in today’s economy.” That’s just not true.

WorkFaith President and CEO Sandy Schultz stands before a wall of portraits representing a fraction of the people the ministry has trained and helped place into jobs.
Photo by James Allen Walker
WorkFaith President and CEO Sandy Schultz stands before a wall of portraits representing a fraction of the people the ministry has trained and helped place into jobs.
At The WorkFaith Connection in Houston I saw a room with photos of the more than 1,100 men and women who have graduated from job readiness workshops over the past four years. Many or most of those people are felons, who are statistically the least likely to be hired. But WorkFaith does some training, helps people in adjusting their attitudes, and finds that 78 percent of their graduates get a job, and 53 percent continue in that job for at least a year.

If felons can do it, anyone can. What I saw at WorkFaith reminds me of what a formerly left-wing counselor at an anti-addiction program told me 15 years ago: He had believed that the poor are trapped behind brick walls, but after seven years he had learned that the walls are paper and they can punch right through. So what if a person has messed up? In the movie Blackhawk Down a sergeant tries to turn down an assignment by saying he’s been shot. His colonel replies, “Everybody’s shot. Get in and drive.”

Yes, some are physically or mentally unable to punch, or drive. Others need temporary, emergency help—but 46 million Americans, and more each year? The problem with that enormity is not primarily the cost in dollars but in lives. It’s wrong to tell millions of poor people that their situation is hopeless and that they should settle into a life of dependency. They and all of us are created in God’s image and capable of doing great things.

Now, U.S. politics is divided. The left emphasizes government as the way to create change we can believe in. The right emphasizes the individual. I’m on the right, but I also see that if those are the only two choices, lots of Americans will continue to embrace big government. [Former] U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is often quoted as saying, “Government is simply the name we give the things we choose together.” As long as that’s the only way to do things together, a lot of people vote for more government, especially if they think they will prosper from it.

Moreover, as long as we think in terms of helping others by turning over money rather than turning over some of our time, we won’t get very far. For a couple of years I was flying around a lot to promote real welfare reform and accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to get free upgrades to first class fairly often. If I got into a conversation with the person next to me and he complained about taxes, I would ask: “What if you could reduce your tax bill but instead you’d spend a couple of hours each week on the other side of the tracks, helping a poor child learn to read or an ex-prisoner to stay out of trouble that would send him back behind bars?” Just about everyone preferred to pay taxes rather than give what is truly limited, time.

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