The Human Cost of Welfare

The clearest finding is that some form of work appears to be necessary for a satisfying life. Work involves challenges, and dealing with such challenges lies at the heart of human wellbeing.
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Co-written with Lisa Conyers

A new round of welfare reform may be on the horizon. Sen. Tom Coburn (R/OK) and Rep. Steve Southerland (R/FL) are both raising the issue, and 150 interviews we've just done with welfare recipients show why and how the current welfare system needs to be fixed.

To see how welfare recipients view these programs, we asked current and former welfare recipients across the country how they feel about life on government assistance, and about work, and we asked them what happens when they depend on government programs to meet their daily needs.

Some, like Beverly (not her real name) "feel a lot better" once they find a job, any job.

"I had a good job in advertising, but then the recession hit, my job got 'downsized,' and I ended up on welfare," Beverly said. "I had never been on welfare. When I heard that this hotel in Durango was looking for someone to manage their free breakfast and vending machines, I came in to apply. The manager thought I was overqualified but I got the job. It's a big step down, but now I have a reason to get up in the morning."

Others, like John in New Orleans, feel caught in the welfare trap. "I'm not living, I'm just surviving." John said. "I used to work, always worked but now I'm just surviving day on day."

Replies like these were common among the 150 people we interviewed, including people who felt stuck in welfare, people who had gotten out of the system and back into a job, tribal leaders on Indian reservations, young people in homeless shelters, and older men in cities. While this was not a scientific sample it gave us a profound sense of the nature of America's welfare programs and how their recipients feel about them and about their lives.

The clearest finding is that some form of work appears to be necessary for a satisfying life. Work involves challenges, and dealing with such challenges lies at the heart of human wellbeing.

At some level, we all know the importance of accomplishing difficult things, of overcoming real obstacles. Picture, for example, the happiness of a child who, after many weeks or months of trying, masters riding a bicycle. The happiness that results from this accomplishment requires the effort that went into it. Closer to home, one of our family members, in the final uncomfortable months of his life, often said "At least I got four kids through college." That was something he was especially proud of.

Mastering the bicycle, getting your kids through college -- these are hard things to do, things requiring skill and persistence, and their mastery is a source of immense satisfaction.

Our evidence indicates that this is the element missing from the lives of those who depend too much on assistance from the government.

Of course, many people who receive government assistance truly need it and their lives might be worse without it. But we repeatedly got the message that people in need want to accomplish things; they want to make a contribution, to have something to point to and say "I did that."

Clearly, a wealthy nation owes its poorest citizens a decent subsistence. But making poverty comfortable, even modestly comfortable, can create a pattern of dependence and entitlement. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for example, provides cash benefits to the disabled, many of whom are able to work and want to work, at least part-time. But if SSI recipients earn even a trivial amount, the benefit is reduced or eliminated. Such policies trap the recipients in "a cage" according to one man on SSI. The system penalizes both work and saving, two of the things that may provide a path out of poverty.

The successes of the welfare reforms of 1996 are, unfortunately, slowly being eroded under today's policies, but those successes support the findings of our interviews as they indicate that most people want to work; when given the opportunity and -- it must be said -- confronted with the requirement to work, they do. "Don't try to keep us down," we heard from Rebecca, echoing the views of many. "Create programs that will help us get back up."

Our present policies are keeping people down and keeping them dependent and they are not happy about it. Welfare policies that reward work (as the Earned Income Tax Credit currently does), are appropriately time-limited, and include access to training will help them get back up.

Philip D. Harvey heads the DKT Liberty Project and is author of Government Creep: What the Government is Doing That You Don't Know About; Lisa Conyers writes about public policy issues. Their book on welfare and work will be published next year.

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