While it would be great if we could find constructive and productive tasks for welfare recipients to do in exchange for receiving welfare benefits, there are simply more people in need of welfare than we have governmental tasks for them to perform. Even if we could give them all work to accomplish, workfare does not solve the more fundamental problem of poverty. One key to improving the circumstances of poverty is to increase the knowledge and skills of those living in poverty. There are programs that provide resources for job training and skill building. As much as possible, we should continue to explore these options with welfare recipients.
Providing job training and skill building education would help welfare recipients to more quickly find employment or increase their income earning ability. These types of programs can be particularly helpful in assisting unemployed workers to find jobs or facilitate a career change. Too often, we expect welfare participants to know how to help themselves. We could be doing a better job of making them aware of student loan and grant programs which could benefit them in increasing their education and skill levels.
Beyond those, however, everyday skills that teach one how to live in poverty can also be a useful tool in the fight against poverty. It sounds odd on the surface: Teach people to live in poverty as a means to get out of poverty? How does that work? What I mean by this is that there should be a focus on how to manage one’s home on limited means. This information used to be passed from one generation to the next as we lived in closer proximity and extended families. Generations of prosperity and mobile living has caused us to begin to lose knowledge on how to live within limited means. In fact, our economic system has been set up to encourage Americans to live beyond their means. (see related article: The Unstable American Home)
A great many poverty cases are temporary situations created by the loss of a job, an illness, loss of a spouse or other conditions from which a recovery can be made. Still, about 25% of the people utilizing welfare remain on public assistance longer than two years. While this is not a major percentage, with the historically high number of people living at or below the poverty level (46.2 Million), we can expect 11.6 Million perpetual cases of poverty to result. (see related article: Is Welfare Working?)
Some State and Local institutions already provide some training along these lines. For example: When my family participated in the WIC program, we were required to attend monthly classes that discussed children’s health and nutrition information. I have heard of other State agencies that require non-working welfare beneficiaries to participate in weekly classes designed to help them improve their resumes as well as job search and interview skills. I would like to see this type of education expanded.
The goal of this reform would be to provide training and instruction in areas such as nutrition, shopping, home budgeting, money management, food storage & self-sufficiency. Welfare recipients would not only learn how to live poor but also to live in such a way that they break the habits of poverty. They would be able to make the most of their welfare benefits and learn useful skills to better manage their homes even after they no longer require welfare assistance. In this way, they more quickly and more permanently graduate from the welfare system. With less recidivism and a lower perpetual poverty rate, we would see welfare cost and reliance diminish.
Providing this type of training does not necessarily decrease welfare costs immediately. On one hand, it could actually require an increase in cost as welfare agencies must now provide training materials and educators to facilitate the sessions. However, this cost can be mitigated if the workfare reform is instituted in conjunction. To say it another way, adding the education function can create more demand for workfare participants. As current welfare workers move into the roles of education facilitators, their positions can filled by those working to receive welfare benefits.
Even without the workfare measure being instituted, I think we should move forward with this reform. While it may temporarily increase costs, it would help to decrease the need for welfare assistance over time. It would also have a side benefit of limiting participation of welfare to those who want to improve themselves and beat poverty. For those who seek to exploit the welfare system by “coasting” on the People’s good will, the education requirement would serve to demotivate them from seeking welfare assistance.
Like most reform ideas, this too has its downsides. The chief among those is that, without workfare to offset the labor requirements, costs would increase in the short run. This is also not a short term solution. It will take time for the initiative to begin reducing welfare participation. Another shortfall is that without a way to measure the effectiveness of the programs, we could find ourselves in the same situation that we have with many other government programs: We offer them perpetually without really knowing if they are doing any good. If we are going to offer education and training, we must also be prepared to measure and manage the results.
Weighing the positives and negatives, I think we should pursue this course because it increases the skills and ability of the poor to manage and overcome poverty. It, too, is a worthwhile long-term solution because of the benefits it achieves to reduce poverty and welfare costs over time. Just like workfare, however, it is not a complete solution either. It is simply another step in the right direction.
To be continued…Up next: Measuring Welfare Success