Monday, January 14, 2013

Welfare to Work and the Failed Search for Cheap Solutions

Is work better than welfare?

Of course!

Is the pride and the sense of purpose associated with having a job, better than going through the sense of shame some people feel when having to apply for food stamps, or TANF?

Without question!

If you're fortunate enough to have a job that provides health care benefits than to rely on Medicaid?

You bet!

Is the fact that we have millions of poor Americans an indication that these public supports are failures and should be dismantled?

It's not even a serious consideration...of course not (for those that need me to answer the question)!

But once again, this time from an apparently well meaning source, we have another argument for the debilitating 'dependency' created by 'the welfare state' and the virtues of providing work instead.

Peter Cove, founder of America Works, a for-profit welfare-to-work company, says in an op-ed column published in yesterday's Dallas Morning News, that "...government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither City Hall nor I comprehended that the community action organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls. War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more — and more expensive — welfare programs."

Well, maybe...

I think a number of things tend to get lost in the condemnation of Johnson's efforts to end poverty.

We tend to forget, for instance that the commitment to the war on poverty, was eclipsed by a commitment to another war...the Viet Nam war. According to The Navy Department Library, the cost of the Viet Nam War in 'constant 2008 dollars' from 1965-1975 was $686 billion. The Cato Institute says that since 1964 to present (2012) we have spent close to $15 trillion fighting the war on poverty and failed in the attempts. One might also point out, according to The Navy Department Library, that we have, during virtually the same period during which we've spent an alleged $15 trillion dollars to fight poverty. Meanwhile, from 1965 to the present, we've spent more than $2.5 quadrillion dollars on war and have not achieved lasting peace!

We also tend to forget, that episodic catastrophes  natural and domestic throw people into poverty: Katrina and 2008's Great Recession had both immediate and collateral impacts resulting in each case with the creation of 'new' poor.

Nor do the adherents of Cove's thinking take into account policies which help create or exacerbate poverty. Mass incarceration, for instance, devastates whole communities. The failed 'war on drugs', associated 'mandatory minimums' as well as the growing awareness of the numbers of wrongfully incarcerated prisoners, are creating single parent families and in some cases families headed by grandparents and great-grand-parents. The resultant prison re-entry population, which don't cost our society in terms of public financial supports (because those who return to the poor communities from which they were incarcerated, are ineligible for many of them), cost nonetheless in post incarceration supervision. They are, in the meantime, ineligible for a number of work opportunities, not to mention housing and some job training programs.

The fact is poverty and work as a solution are not as simple as we want to make either of them. And our continued attempts to solve those problems inexpensively, only reveal our unwillingness to deal with problems with which we are in some ways complicit.

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