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May 25, 2018

5/4/2018 7:29:00 AM
Of welfare and work

There's a lot of knocking about these days over attempts to rein in eligibility for state and federal welfare programs, but few of the arguments get to the heart of the matter.

This is highlighted once again by Democratic arguments around the state this week that tighter eligibility rules proposed in the new farm bill before Congress will kick a whole bunch of children off the food stamp program, and condemn them to a life of starvation.

Charles Dickens is apparently writing Democratic talking points these days.

The rhetoric is the equivalent of the TV ad showing Paul Ryan throwing granny off the cliff. The reality is not so bad, of course, and the Democrats are trying to score points with hyperbole.

That's not to say there would be no pain, though. Some families in need of food stamps could well, and probably will, lose eligibility. It's also not to say that others who lose coverage haven't been abusing the system, and some who are abusing the system will likely keep their eligibility.

And that's the way it's going to continue to be as long the current system is maintained. That's because the current system is designed for abuse, not to provide a realistic safety net.

That needs to be changed, and to do that requires recognizing a couple of key principles about welfare.

The first is, welfare programs such as food stamps and unemployment should be temporary, true safety nets that provide for people until they can get back on their feet. These days, as eligibility has risen substantially above the federal poverty line, more and more people stitch together an array of welfare programs as a substitute for finding work.

Welfare becomes their full-time job.

Democrats fail to recognize this, and so view any attempt to deal with the problem as an attack on poor people.

It's not. Because these programs should be temporary, it's reasonable - and indeed responsible - to mandate work and training requirements. Participation in SNAP shouldn't be punishment but it shouldn't be a picnic in the park: Working toward work should be demanded.

Setting income and asset threshold levels for participation in these programs is a thornier issue. It's easy to say the income level should be the federal poverty line - and it should be - but it's much tougher to ascertain what the true federal poverty line should be.

It certainly varies by geographic location, and between urban and rural areas, and by cost-of-living indexes. The task before us is to properly - as much as is humanly possible - set those levels so poor people can access the temporary and adequate help they need.

It's a difficult task but certainly not an impossible one if the government will just put its collective mind to it.

Questions about whether there should be time limits, or work requirements, or drug testing should not even be discussed. These programs were never designed to be permanent alternatives to work.

For those who dream of utopias, for never-ending founts of government cash flowing to the hordes, who are freed from work to pursue their leisure, those people can focus on other debates, such as a universal guaranteed income. Heck, even some conservatives support a version of that.

In the meantime, let's make sure the people who deserve food stamps - and only those who really deserve food stamps - get what they need, and only for as long as they need it.

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