Reform Entitlements to Help People, Not Government

Reform Entitlements to Help People, Not Government
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, file

By reforming government-run entitlement programs, lawmakers can start reversing a decades-long trend of trapping people in poverty — causing harm in the name of providing help. States are already leading the way.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R) is proposing to reduce the duration of individuals’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility by two years, from five years to three years. reforms included in his proposal would require individuals receiving taxpayer assistance to seek employment actively. LePage is also proposing to combat welfare fraud by adding identification photographs to the state’s electronic benefit cards and removing convicted fraudsters and deadbeat parents from the welfare rolls. These are all modest, common-sense reforms to the state’s welfare programs. 

In Mississippi, lawmakers recently approved a bill that would make similar reforms and sent the bill to Gov. Phil Bryant (R) for his signature.

Contrary to a belief popular on the Left, increasing the number of people signed up for welfare programs, such as TANF, does not increase the number of people helped. On the contrary, enrolling more and more people in welfare — and keeping them there — incentivizes dependency, rather than encouraging them to succeed. 

At a 2011 town hall meeting, conducted via Twitter, President Barack Obama pointed out that welfare programs can sometimes hamper economic opportunities: 

“I think we should acknowledge that some welfare programs in the past were not well designed and, in some cases, did encourage dependency. And as somebody who worked in low income neighborhoods, I’ve seen it, where people weren’t encouraged to work, weren’t encouraged to upgrade their skills, were just getting a check, and over time their motivation started to diminish. I think even if you’re progressive, you’ve got to acknowledge that some of these things have not been well-designed.” 

The former president wasn’t making an unfounded claim. Government statistics back up the assertion that welfare causes more harm than good with empirical data.

For instance, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) 2016 Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors report, about 16 million people received more than half their family’s total income from TANF or other entitlement programs in 2014 (the most recent year studied). And yet the number of people defined as being poor has not since declined. According to the authors of the HHS report: “The national poverty rate in 2014 was 14.8 percent, not statistically different from the poverty rate in 2010, the peak rate the year after the recession.” Moreover, “poverty increased in 2008, the first full year of the Great Recession to 13.2 percent, and the rate peaked in 2010 at 15.1 percent. Prior to this period the poverty rate had not reached 14.0 percent since 1994.” Clearly, these programs are not helping. 

The problem is that it’s not in the best interests of the government bureaucracies that run these programs to do so. The reason is that if the hammock of entitlement programs were successful, fewer people would require government assistance. But fewer people enrolled in these programs would lead to fewer tax dollars being pumped into the programs. This, in turn, would mean that fewer people would need to be employed by the same government supposedly working to end these problems. What’s in the best interests of government bureaucracies is not helping those in need but keeping the gravy train flowing. That is, bureaucracies care first and foremost for the welfare of their employees — at the expense of the people its programs are designed to help.

In his 2011 town hall, President Obama said, “What ties us together is this idea that everybody has got a shot. As long as you carry out your responsibilities, you can make it.” Lawmakers in Alabama, Maine, and other states are doing just that, helping people get back on the road to success and opportunity by reforming the welfare system. It’s time to break the vicious welfare cycle and encourage Americans to take responsibility for their own success. 

Jesse Hathaway (jhathaway@heartland.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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