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June 10, 2016

Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan Will Help The Poor, But The Welfare Lobby Will Fight It


House Speaker Paul Ryan has released an anti-poverty blueprint that would actually reduce poverty, which is why the left is denouncing and dismissing it—and why it should be implemented immediately.

Ryan’s home state is Wisconsin, where Governor Tommy Thompson paved the way for welfare reform in the 1990s. The Badger State’s efforts became the model for the 1996 federal welfare reform law, one of the nation’s most successful public policies.

Those reforms required work to receive a welfare check. However, cash assistance is only a small part of the $1 trillion the federal and state governments spend on welfare—more than the gross domestic product of all but 15 countries,according to the World Bank.

“Today, 13 federal agencies run more than 80 federal programs that provide food, housing, health care, job training, education, energy assistance, and cash to low-income Americans,” says Ryan. He wants to tie work to receiving benefits from any of these programs.

The left always complains that forcing welfare recipients to work is mean-spirited and degrading. But the rest of us have to work for the money we receive. Why shouldn’t someone on welfare?

Twice the BBC has flown me to Wales and spent a week filming me interviewing people who had been “on the dole” for years. In some cases multiple generations under one roof had never held a job. While they all said they wanted to work, living off the taxpayer had become a way of life, and they weren’t about to change unless they were forced to.

One important reason for requiring work is to weed out those who can find a job but don’t want to. When caseworkers in an Oregon welfare reform pilot project told applicants that they would have to work, roughly a third turned around and left.

As a result, caseworkers had more time and money to focus on the tougher cases: those who had been unemployed so long they’d lost needed skills, people struggling with dependency issues or perhaps domestic abuse, and women who would soon be giving birth.

The New York Times ran a story in the late 1990s detailing how these Oregon caseworkers were finally able to tackle what they called the “drawer cases”—those applicants with so many challenges that their caseworkers put their files in a drawer with the intention of returning to them when there was more time, which they never seemed to get.

More importantly, work helps restore a sense of dignity. In the 1990s, I talked with some Oregonians who had been on welfare for years. They confided they had lost all confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their families. Once the Oregon program got them into jobs and they began to bring home paychecks, they told me their dignity and confidence returned.

Now, Oregon was unique in that if a recipient couldn’t find a job, he was placed in one, and the program used his welfare benefits to, in essence, pay his wages. Since the employers had a new employee for little or nothing, many were willing to take a chance. If after four months the employer wasn’t willing to hire the person, caseworkers helped him find another employer.

The Oregon plan designers believed the best training was on-the-job training. Offsite job education, while helpful, can also be used as an excuse to avoid work.

If employees in the private sector want additional training, they either get their employer to provide it or go on their time, after work. Welfare should be no different.

The biggest resistance to adopting a “workfare” system isn’t from welfare recipients, but from bureaucrats and the welfare lobby who benefit from keeping the poor dependent on government. They do their best to undermine, delay, or undo needed reforms. As Ryan noted, the strong work requirements in the 1996 law have been so diluted that only about half of recipients now perform any work.

Ryan also addressed education, child care, and the need to measure results in his proposal, but restoring the work requirement will likely be the biggest challenge to getting something passed into law. Lots of people benefit from the $1 trillion we spend on welfare—and not just not the poor.


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