Most Americans Are Getting Help -- and That's a Good Thing

When we think of people on government assistance, we often conjure pictures of people living in our poorest neighborhoods. The truth is that most of us will get help at some point in our lives. That help is not charity; it is an investment in a healthy society.

For example, more than half of infants in this country now enroll in Women, Infants and Children (WIC). WIC provides healthy food and dietary information to pregnant women and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. In an ideal world - or even a reasonably just one -- every baby in the richest country on Earth would be well fed. But given the world we have, WIC is a good option. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that WIC pays for itself within a year in lower medical costs. By the time a child reaches 18, his or her early participation in WIC produces enormous savings. The GAO found that $296 million in WIC expenditures would produce more than $1 billion in savings over an 18-year period.

Among the many lessons to be gleaned here: Helping babies is an awfully good investment, and we should be doing more of it. By distributing free diapers, non-profit diaper banks across the country help kids stay healthier and help parents get to work and school. Providing families with diapers may prevent maternal depression, which is commonly reported by women who can't afford diapers. A mother's depression is associated with a host of bad outcomes for children.

Because so many young families struggle, the National Diaper Bank Network developed a curriculum for people in the helping professions to assist them in identifying problems that spring from a lack of basic needs. For example, maybe a client isn't showing up at a job-training program because she doesn't have the bus fare to get there. We're finding that many problems once chalked up to poor mental health, or even poor motivation, are all about resources.

A helping hand doesn't just produce a social payback when we invest in the very young. Even excluding entitlement programs like Social Security, many of us get some assistance throughout our lives. The percentage of students at four-year colleges getting some form of financial aid increased from 80 percent in 2007-08 to 85 percent in 2012-13. That includes federal and state aid as well as assistance offered by colleges themselves and private scholarships. The average student got in excess of $4,000 in federal grants. Originally designed as an anti-poverty program, federal student aid now primarily benefits middle class families. I am certainly not advocating a structure that fails to prioritize the needs of students who struggle most. I am simply pointing out that most families accept this form of government assistance without suffering any of the stigma that goes along with programs like Food Stamps or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. So let's stop judging people who need a bit of help, when the truth is that most of us do now and then.

Making college affordable for more Americans certainly benefits us all. It creates the next generation of educators, health care workers and others so essential to our common well-being. It also gives us a base of highly paid workers who will support Social Security, pay higher taxes and so on.

Finally, let's look at Federal Housing Authority mortgages and similar programs that make home ownership available to more Americans. Again, the benefits extend to all of us. Homeowners move less frequently, and so are more likely to become involved in their communities. Homeowners are healthier than their peers, and their kids do better in school.

When we think of people who receive some kind of assistance, we should think of our family, neighbors, friends, and of course ourselves. In giving and receiving, we all benefit.