Thursday, January 10, 2008

Politically Speaking Part 1: Does welfare make people lazy and dependent on the government?

I tend to avoid discussing politics. For one thing, I never feel like I'm informed enough to make a good point or even have something worthwhile to contribute. But despite the amount of information I have or don't have, I mostly avoid it because too often political discussions become unproductive and downright nasty. I've seen otherwise nice and polite individuals become hostile toward one another just because they disagreed politically. People are passionate about politics (and rightfully so), but often this passion leads to blindness and deafness. People stop listening, and start shouting. Political discussions, and even presidential debates, often seem to me to just be contests of who can shout the loudest.

"I'll listen to other people's ideas, but they just need to realize that I'm always right," smirked a politically-minded friend last semester.
"Now, that doesn't leave much room for real dialogue, does it?" I smiled, patronizingly.

I would never want to discuss politics with a friend of that mindset. Well, I will admit, I do have another friend of a similar mindset with whom I do occasionally like to discuss politics, but mainly because she's so easily riled up and I like to get under her skin sometimes. But nothing productive ever comes out of it, as I'm often just playing devil's advocate and don't even share my true opinions with her.

However, last week I enjoyed a political discussion with a few people seated around a round table (how appropriate), in which we presented our ideas, questioned, argued, hypothesized, and no one got hurt. Surprisingly, I not only enjoyed this conversation but felt invigorated by it. I think it turned out well because people actually listened. Imagine, actually listening to someone you disagree with, and actually being heard by that person. I agree with Carl Rogers, to be heard really is something incredible. To be heard is to be respected and accepted in a way that words can never express.

So, perhaps political discussions aren't as scary as I had thought. On that note, I have some things to share in response to that conversation last week, Anton's posts about Ron Paul and his ideas on healthcare, and Martha's recent post about her political leanings. Anton, Martha, I respect and admire both of you. Fortunately, because slight differences among friends are good things, I respectfully disagree with some of your opinions. I do hear what you're saying and it's given me a lot to think about. I don't want you to feel singled out or attacked by this post - you guys were the inspiration for this, and I thank you. I want to respond with my thoughts, and give you and anyone else who reads this something to think about.

There are several things that I intended to address in this one post, but I began writing and realized that I was being too ambitious. This will merely hopefully be part one of a four or five part series addressing welfare, charity, healthcare, and how our taxes are spent. I think the quality of individuals posts will be better than if I just lumped all of my ideas together, and this also allows you guys to comment and me to respond to your comments throughout. Before reading Martha's post this morning, I had intended to write about my intense and unyielding love of HEB. By the end of this series, some of you may wish that I had carried out my original intention. But rest assured, once I get a few political thoughts out of my head and into the blogsphere, I'll be back to writing about HEB, trees, grad school, loneliness, whiteness, and whatever else I'm experiencing. But right now, I'm experiencing an unusual political interest, and I intend to take advantage of it.

Part 1: Does welfare make people lazy and dependent on the government?

Lots of people don't like the idea of spending their hard-earned money on poor people, arguing that they are lazy and welfare creates dependency, giving no incentive to find work and get off of welfare. It really is an awful idea. I work for my my money, so why should I be paying for someone who isn't working? Doesn't sound fair at all. As a social work minor, I remember in one course discussing myths about welfare. I tried to find these myths and facts online, and I found plenty, but most authors were citing statistics that were at least 10 years old, before the welfare reform of 1996 and TANF was created to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. So, I decided to just read up on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and refresh myself on what exactly it is. First off, just reading the title, welfare is temporary and therefore shouldn't create dependency because at some point, a person will be unable to continue receiving it. I learned more reading this handy dandy fact sheet about TANF from the US Department of Health and Human Services:

"Five-Year Time Limit:
  • Families with an adult who has received federally funded assistance for a total of five years (or less at state option) are not eligible for cash aid under the TANF program.
  • States may extend assistance beyond 60 months to not more than 20 percent of their caseload. They may also elect to provide assistance to families beyond 60 months using state-only funds or Social Services Block Grants. "

If I'm reading this correctly, 80% or more of those receiving TANF will be completely cut off after five years, unless the state decides to use its own funds, but federal funds will not be provided. It's temporary; it's not designed to create dependence. If people are continuing to use TANF more than 5 years, then that's because of a state, not federal, choice.

"Work Requirements:

  • Recipients (with few exceptions) must work as soon as they are job ready or no later than two years after coming on assistance.
  • Single parents are required to participate in work activities for at least 30 hours per week. Two-parent families must participate in work activities 35 or 55 hours a week, depending upon circumstances.
  • Failure to participate in work requirements can result in a reduction or termination of benefits to the family.
  • States cannot penalize single parents with a child under six for failing to meet work requirements if they cannot find adequate child care.
  • States, in FY 2004, have to ensure that 50 percent of all families and 90 percent of two-parent families are participating in work activities. If a state reduces its caseload, without restricting eligibility, it can receive a caseload reduction credit. This credit reduces the minimum participation rates the state must achieve. "

"Work activities" include employment, job training, education, and community service. Even job searching is considered a "work activity," but it is "not to exceed 6 total weeks and no more than 4 consecutive weeks." To receive this assistance, you must working or serving your community, or actively working to increase your ability to find a job through education or job training. TANF is designed to give individuals the incentive to find work. It's designed to temporarily help needy families get onto their feet so they can soon provide for themselves. If people are receiving TANF checks and sitting around not working or trying to work, or continuing to receive those checks for years and years, then the program isn't being implemented correctly.

Ok, so TANF is temporary and has built-in work requirements. What about other social services, such as Food Stamps or housing and energy assistance? I don't think the Food Stamp Program has any sort of work requirement, but according to its fact sheet:

"FSP provides crucial support to needy households and to those making the transition from welfare to work. In fact, 29 percent of participating food stamp households have earnings."

"The average time a food stamp recipient stays on the program is 9 months."

While it may not have the built-in incentives like TANF does, the Food Stamp Program also is generally being used temporarily. Without knowing the standard deviation of this 9 month average, there could be a wide spread, meaning that there may be outliers who use food stamps for years upon years, but these likely represent a very small portion of food stamp recipients.

In addition to nutrition assistance, low income households can receive government assistance in paying their energy bills. The federal government gives money for this to states, but lets the states decide eligibility and how it's allocated. Texans can apply for this assistance through the Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program (CEAP). Their website clearly states that CEAP is not an entitlement program, meaning that:

  • "Program funds must be available;
  • One must apply for the assistance and qualify;
  • The assistance is not limitless (there are caps for assistance); and
  • The assistance is determined on a case-by-case basis. "

There are plenty of government websites explaining what exactly these welfare services are, who's eligible, and for how long. If you're curious, go take a look, but I think the information I've surveyed shows a couple of interesting themes: 1) the temporary and limited nature of these services, and 2) the states' relative freedom in distributing the funds. Reading about these services, unless they're being horribly implemented and abused, I don't see how a family could become permanently dependent on the government for assistance.

Next Post: Could Charity Replace Welfare?


Martha Elaine Belden said...

i don't know either. but i know from experience, people abuse this system and do little if anything to get up and active. when i was growing up, i can't tell you how many families i saw around town driving souped up trucks while their kids ran around town barefoot and hungry. these people stayed unemployed and yet somehow had enough money to drive these loud, ugly, obnoxious trucks. they lived on food stamps for years on end (i don't know if the limit has happened since then or if it just isn't regulated enough).

i'm not saying welfare should be thrown out and we shouldn't do anything at all. that's why i said toward the end of my post that we need to offer REGULATED assistance to those in dire need. single mothers, for instance. people with disabilities who CAN'T work.

my dad used to work in fort worth for a vet clinic somewhere off i-35. he said that EVERY SINGLE DAY they would have guys come in... dirty, smelly, obviously with no real intention of bettering their situation... and mumble, "can i have a job?" and when turned away, they'd smile, ask for a business card to prove they'd been buy and then run off.

our welfare system is greatly flawed and too easy to abuse. i'm not heartless... as i said before, i'm just realistic.

Anton said...

Cooool, I just found your posts. I'm looking forward to reading them and thinking about them.

My thoughts are these: Mormons for the most part don't go on well-fare, think about that. Ron Paul is the best candidate, just look at the record of things that he's voted for and against over the past 20 years, then compare it to Hilary's, it's interesting. Watching the other candidates debate and self-aggrandize makes me feel ill.

I'm tired of talking about politics, but nonetheless, I look forward to reading your posts.