Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Supporting the Welfare System, Part I: A Public Policy Argument

Let's say you were approached by ten poor people who needed your help. You happen to have $100 extra dollars to help them out. Eight of those people were honest, hard-working, and have come on rough times through no fault of their own. Some have been laid off, are looking for work, maybe they come from a difficult background and are trying to claw their way out, maybe medical expenses got the best of them, or whatever. Some have a job, work hard, but still find themselves in poverty. They have children who need adequate meals, clothes, and opportunities the parents never had. They are truly worthy of your support. The other two are free-loaders. They look for a job, but not seriously. They would use some of your money for necessities, but some of it would go to things like an Xbox or a new TV or an iPod.

In this hypothetical situation, if you had an all or nothing choice, you either give the money to them all or none at all, what would do? Should you send a message to the two loafers at the expense of those that really need help or do you give to the two loafers incidentially so you can help the other eight? For me, the answer is clear cut, but for others it presents a serious dilemma.

Too many Americans project their justified distaste towards that minority of welfare abusers onto the majority that need help and are worthy of our support in order to demonize those on welfare and the system itself. Too many Americans view poverty as an indication of personal failures. This is not the case. What drives people to poverty and public assistance are low wages and lack of education.

Most families on the welfare system use it for a temporary period of time. About half are leave the system within a year, about 70% leave within two years, and about 90% leave within five years. Less then half come back within a year, but about 70% will use welfare again within five years. What this means is that a small fraction of welfare recipients are long-term cases. Those that come back will again remain on the welfare list temporarily. There is a small percentage of people that remain on welfare for extended periods of time, sometimes up to 25 years. A good percentage of welfare users are underemployed, meaning they have part time jobs but would rather have full time jobs.

Of course the system is imperfect and can be improved upon. Finding ways to weed out the abusers has proved difficult. The best welfare system is one that requires recipients to put in some amount of work for the benefits and also provides education and counseling to help people gain skills and motivation needed to get out of the system. But such programs are not needed for the majority of welfare recipients. The majority stay in the system temporarily, have a desire to work and a skill that makes them employable, and look for and find jobs.

Contrary to the empirical evidence to the contrary, human nature is to make conclusions based on personal experience. They see an abuser of the system who openly flouts his or her misappropriation and conclude that that must be the norm. They do not see, or ignore as contrary to their strongly emotional reaction to the abuser, the larger majority who hide the fact, out of pride, that they are receiving assistance.

The U-3 unemployment rate is at 8.5%. U-3 measures those unemployed and looking for employment. The U-6 unemployment rate is 15.6%. U-6 includes those who are underemployed (they are looking for a job but have taken a part time job or lower paying job as a temporary stop-gap) and those that have looked for a job but have temporarily given up looking. These are the highest numbers in decades. The economy has lost 5.1 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

Do all of these people that qualify for welfare assistance deserve what they got handed to them? Are they just lazy and that's why they lost their jobs? This recession and all those lost jobs were caused by greedy, immoral financial executives who produce nothing of worth for society, who toy with our life savings and futures by creating secondary and tertiary markets based on speculation and, again, greed. The wealthy are getting wealthier at the expense of the working class. And yet our ire is pointed at the welfare system? The poor are supporting the lifestyles of the rich and when that system creates situations of poverty we blame the poor.

And yet only about 1 or 2 percent our total federal, state, and local budgets goes to welfare programs. We complain that welfare is a drag on our economy and ability for national growth, and yet just tiniest percentage of our tax burden goes to helping those unprivileged families. The risk is far greater that we will start seeing abhorrent slums, abject poverty, and systemic hunger than that we will see a "Nanny-state" which encourages widespread laziness and a general sense of entitlement.

Don't forget, too, that the middle and upper classes get forms of welfare, as well. We get things like tax breaks for owning a home, we get heavily subsidized student loans and Pell grants for going to college, we get lower tax rates on capital gains, we get more benefit out of the infrastructure because we can afford to live farther out in the suburbs and commute longer distances, and so on.

We can't blame all of our problems on society in general but we can pinpoint serious flaws in the hopes of improving them. Welfare, of course, isn't the final answer, for that we should strengthen and equalize our education system so that every person is given a quality, free education that provide real opportunities for success. Welfare is, however, a necessary link for many families between jobs or going through a difficult periods in their lives.

We are not islands unto ourselves. We are one nation and the successes or failures of some reflect on and affirmatively impact everyone else. The greatest nations are those that respect all law-abiding citizens, mete a measure of dignity to each, and do not simply leave the poor behind.

Coming up next will be "Supporting the Welfare System, Part II: The Religious/Moral Argument," wherein I preach.


peter said...

Jake, I think everyone would agree that there is a need for welfare and in that case agree with your post. I think that the disagreement comes in trying to decide the best route for determining need and implementing the aid in the best possible way.

First of all, I wasn’t sure exactly how you were defining welfare…specifically as programs to help people in poverty or any money given to any one for any reason from the government? Our conclusions about the need for and effectiveness of different government subsidies and aid would differ dramatically depending on which programs we are talking about and lumping them all together would increase the possibility that someone would not agree that welfare was necessary. For the rest of my response I am going on the assumption that you meant programs specifically designed to help those considered poor including things like food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, etc.

The article that you pulled your numbers from is very interesting…and he states that, yes, 90% of the people ever receiving welfare will be off in less than five years (though 70% will be back on within 5 years.) Interestingly, he states that of current case loads, 76% of people will be on more than five years. So though a majority (greater than 50%) of people who ever use welfare will be helped and get off, there is a substantial number who will be chronic users of the welfare system. Therefore we could argue that welfare is successful for a certain group of people and fails a certain group of people. I think the group that welfare doesn’t seem to help is our big worry here.

Your source goes on to characterize the typical long term welfare recipient as someone who begins on the system young, unmarried, with low levels of education, or no recent work experience. They are trapped by poverty and do not have the resources or the mindset to escape. These people need help and just giving them money obviously doesn’t work. How do you teach someone to have a vision of what their life could be like when it is so different from what they have been raised in? How do you teach someone that the consequences of their choices are going to affect their whole life? And when we come to understand that for this group a lot of their problem is due to choices that they make, how long do we subsidize or pay for people’s stupid choices?

I don’t think that expanding welfare to just give people more money will work because I found several studies indicating that while parental income plays a role in children’s performance, it isn’t nearly as important of a factor as parental attitude and teaching in the home and education. It seems that focus needs to be on the importance of family relationships, values and education.

The article you referenced for your statistics actually refers to welfare before the 1996 welfare reform under President Clinton and the republican congress. From what I understand, it was not the reform the far left liberals wanted by any means (they wanted to expand welfare dramatically) but so far people seem to think that it is working better than anyone expected…the biggest objections were to time limits and work requirements. But the system hasn’t been tested by a true economic downturn until now and we will have to see what happens.

So your welfare question, Jake, is much more complicated than is welfare good or bad, but deals with philosophies. What is your particular philosophy on poverty remediation and welfare? The way I see it, the liberal approach to welfare is to “redistribute the wealth” to make everyone more equal and the conservative way is to teach personal responsibility and give only as much help as needed to get back on your feet. It seems kind of like the justice and mercy argument we find in the gospel and obviously a mediator is necessary. The government is the mediator, but how much mediating is necessary and how do you get the best outcome trying to balance a government that can’t give all and recipients who don’t want to give their all? I could take this farther, but I won’t and, anyways, the analogy breaks down.

You mentioned free education and I assume you are referring to post-high school education since education is free through high school. I don’t think that going completely free is the way to go. First of all, a problem is that the people that a free college education would help often don’t have any inclination to go and even drop out before they finish high school. They don’t understand the importance of education and these things aren’t stressed at home. Second, a college education is attainable if community college, Pell grants, student loans, and work are all used together. Third, people don’t value things that they get for free as much as what they have had to work and pay at least a little for. I had many friends in college who were there on their parent’s dime and didn’t work as hard or care as much about their classes.

I’m not trying to stereotype people, I care very much about people being able to get ahead and better themselves, but I don’t think that it is the government’s job to give everyone everything. You down played the sense of entitlement that exists, but I think that too many people are worried about who owes them (including the government) and fail to take responsibility for their own actions. There is very little that we are actually entitled to…

I honestly don’t know the right answer to this problem, but I do feel that it isn’t just providing more money and more things for free. But how do we teach personal responsibility, a visionary outlook on life and the importance of consequences without hurting the children involved in these families?


Jacob S. said...


I agree completely that the solution is not more free money, and that real solutions lie in increased educational opportunities and more stable homes.

It is so important, though, I think, that we make sure nobody in our society gets left behind. Is the collateral damage (giving resources to the minority of the very small percentage of our population that uses and abuses the welfare system and have that sense of entitlement) worth that goal? I think it is. That doesn't mean we don't try to continually improve the system, but to me it still means fully support it.

I appreciate your comment, I think it highlights the problems with the system and the reasonable fears many Americans feel.

Randall said...

Happy Earth Day,

This is an introductory volley in what will become a more detailed analysis of the self described “environmentalist” movement. I am not going to use this occasion to itemize all the specifics or to draw quotes from leading “environmentalists,” as they are. That is to come.

I would like to explore the intellectual foundations of the environmentalist movement and what their stated and actual agendas are as they continue their success in influencing public policy. What we know about environmentalists is that their true motivations are universally misunderstood and that their effect on public lands and private industry has been exponentially disproportionate to their numbers and resources.

On a basic level, most are inherently sympathetic to “environmentalist” causes. They see environmentalists as a selfless army of do-gooders who stand as a small quiet David against the Goliaths who would build condos on the rim of the Grand Canyon, hunt all the Pandas, and cut down every tree until we all lived in a vast lifeless dustbowl.

We can be profoundly grateful that the environmental movement has not been in a strong position to influence public policy until the 1970’s. Thankfully, before we gave these people control over our country, we had built our railroads, our bridges, our freeways, our tunnels, our highways, our water systems, our dams, and our power plants.

If these people had gained control any sooner, we would have a nation with no train tracks, freeways, hydro-electric dams, power plants, gas refineries, nuclear power plants, factories, coal mines, ore mines, or virtually any component of what we have regarded as contemporary industrialized society for half a century.

How do we know that this is true? We know because with few exceptions the environmentalists have raised opposition to every new freeway and train track, opposed every new mine, and created a scenario that has rendered it nearly impossible to construct a new power plant or oil refinery. In the case Colorado River dams, which are some of the most beautiful and astounding masterpieces of American engineering, they seek not only to impede new dams but actually deconstruct existing dams.

In this example of their zealotry we catch a vision of their long term dream, not only to impede nearly all future construction and expansion of the national and global infrastructure but to reverse construction of things that are already made.

At first investigation one might left puzzled and disbelieving that any supposedly rational group of people can truly oppose nearly every expansion of the industrial, transportation, or energy infrastructure possible. At first, the scope and scale of their oppositions are incomprehensible and unbelievable. How could such a group imagine that we would move freight, generate power, dig for ore, make steel, build planes, create polymers, or cut wood for homes. They can’t really want that, can they? Why would anyone want that?

The answer to that question is the answer to the mystery of the environmentalists. Had they had the power they would have prevented the creation of the national infrastructure and left unimpeded they would deconstruct it piece by piece. The answer to the mystery is the nearly inconceivable truth that they believe the world is, in every form, better off without the imprint of mankind, and most especially of civilized, industrial, technological man. Man, as a species, is a dangerously ambitious creature who damages the fragile utopia that is the world but not for the existence of the inconvenient species of homo-sapiens.

This is nearly impossible for most people to understand because the idea is so extreme and absurd to consider. This is a group of people who abhor their own species and the imprint of their species on the planet. They oppose nearly every effort to expand the imprint of mankind on the planet and desperately try to reverse the imprint they have made already. Environmentalism is a kind of self-loathing nihilism that has at its ultimate expression the genocide of mankind, or at least driving their numbers down and back into the caves they had the hubris to abandon when they built the first hut.

They will not stop until they have drained every dam, stopped every new road, filled over every mine, saved every tree (to be burned later my natural fires), stopped every building, and turned off the engine of capitalism which stands in their way: energy, material, and manufacturing.

To this end they have been remarkably successful. They have stopped all new dam projects, stopped all new power plants, impeded any new oil refineries, and stopped us from getting oil from a mosquito ridden wasteland that no one will ever see for the fear of inconveniencing a few caribou among millions.

Resist not your march back to the lightless, heatless caves we emerged from. For all who are hesitant to abandon your cars and your planes and your metals and your plastics, and who aren’t confident there are enough caves left to fit everyone. Resistance is Futile, you will be assimilated!

Happy Green Day

Good news for you, the global depression is really slowing down the progress of civilization.

Randall said...

You continue to ignore an important distinction. You cite numerous scriptures and quotes from general authorities about the need for generosity and giving to the needy.

The church, of course, has an entirely morally sound program of welfare which promotes self-reliance and responsibility.

Individual choice of volunteerism and forced wealth redistribution are not the same and can not be discussed together. The scriptures are making an appeal to people to choose to be generous.

This is of course highly selective reading of gospel quotes ignoring the bulk share of warnings of socialism and taxation from nearly every church leader who has touched the topic. Try Ezra Taft Benson "An enemy hath done this" or the analysis of Skousen on the united order in the first two thousand years. There are, as you know, specific council from church leaders to avoid federal assistance at all costs and to rely on yourselves and family primarily. You know that I'm sure.

Pragmatically, all of these programs from federal housing to welfare have been an abysmal failure and have worsened every social pathology they sought to promote.

You have far more faith in the oligarchy of elite politicians than I have. Or perhaps I remember how every political leader of the twentieth century who attacked the "rich" ended up with unprecedented power and an enslaved people.

Republicans are statistically more generous than democrats both in volunteerism and in charitable donations. Republicans give more to the poor and the oppressed. That it is fact. The difference being that we are generous with our own money instead of other peoples.

I disagree with the premise that only the federal government can distribute resources to the needy. I think the federal government is uniquely disqualified in that it is the most detached and beurocratic organization that ends up creating a culture of dependence. It wastes billions on supervising programs it has no capacity to monitor.

I have been to the projects in South Chicago. All the government did is pool the poor together, create a dependent class, reward the destruction of the family structure and reward sexual promescuity, and establish a useless criminal class that will plague this nation for generations. Most liberals, except for you, admit the broad failure of Johnson's social engineering policies.

Only individuals, churches, and perhaps local community organizations have the capacity to distinguish between need and abuse. But if your a party looking to build a dependent consituency, its a great tool.

Go to south Chicago and see the product of two generations of good intentions, a waste of billions of dollars, and the creation of a new social pathology created completely by Johnson's "Great New Society" sound a lot like the "Giant Leap forward."

As a point of correction. Hitler, was a socialist not a conservative. Nationalism has been used a tool by the left much more than by the right. ( Russia, China, N. Korea, Socailist Germany, etc )This whole liberal mythology that Hitler and Mussolini were right wing freaks is a ploy to ignore the reality that it was centralized economic power in the hands of a charismatic leader. In each case they campaigned on "hope" and "change," sound familiar. Facists were not pro-religion, not pro-gun, not pro-business, not pro-self reliance, not pro-christian morality, and not pro family. Please don't drag this tired misrepresentation of history out again as though facism is the natural abuse of the right, it is, as a point of fact, the natural evolution of the left.

The opposite of Hitler is Reagan, Johnson.