Work is the centerpiece of American life. We define ourselves by what we do and attribute value to others based on the status of their professions. We work ourselves to the bone without consideration for our mental health and personal relationships. Finally, with the advent of apps like Slack and Teams, the line between work and fun has been blurred. Despite the problems of hard work as an essential American value, it still is one, and it shapes our public policy even today.
During the Reagan Revolution, conservatives declared themselves the party of small government. They railed against anti-poverty programs as a waste of taxpayer dollars, framed low-income people as lazy, and began a war against both in politics. That argued that if only poor people would get off their asses and get a job, we could cut taxes and create a capitalistic utopia. In the aftermath, social programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) were gutted. Expanded access to health care took another 20 years. Finally, extreme poverty went up, not down as promised. The goal of this was to make it so that the government wouldn’t pay people to stay home and do nothing. A value that most Americans agree upon.
Despite draconian reforms to many different so-called welfare programs, the goal of getting welfare queens off of the dole and into jobs has not worked.
According to conservatives, the government that governs least governs best, and the government should not create dependency. It should promote independence from the government through the dignity of work. If there were more jobs available, people could earn a paycheck, be self-sufficient, and not rely on government handouts any longer. Deregulation and tax cuts will create competition amongst government services and reduce the cost of living so that government programs aren’t necessary. If everyone had jobs and government programs shrunk due to lack of use, less tax revenue would be needed, and politicians could cut taxes further. Cutting taxes creates jobs as people have more of their own money to invest in private enterprises. These changes would create a virtuous cycle of smaller government.
The public policies needed to implement this utopian capitalism meant creating administrative burdens on poor people to get people off of welfare. People don’t automatically go to jobs when they are plentiful. Hence, conservatives assumed a cultural problem. To be compassionate, poor people needed a nudge to stop using government programs.
In the following years, work requirements, drug testing, identity verifications, and not doing regular updates of welfare law statutes created a system where even poor people that need and qualify for said benefits can’t access them. These are the primary weapons that conservatives have against the poor. The wording may be too complicated, or the wait times can be so long that people throw their hands up and give up. This was all created by design so that poor people would go back into the labor force. Frustration was the goal, not a side effect. Poor people are only worth what an employer will pay them.
I agree with the idea that all work has value, financial independence makes one feel secure, and jobs can provide a level of satisfaction in life that you can’t get from staying at home all the time. Poor people did not get the message that this is how welfare programs were designed to function. Not all programs for the poor are too complicated. Medicaid, SNAP, and the Earned Income Tax Credit are all pretty easy to use. Politicians made it so that while they aren’t going to give poor people cash anymore, individuals would not go hungry or should be able to go to the hospital.
However, the effort to change the culture of poverty, where families work to maintain their government benefits, has been an absolute failure.
I work in the Michigan State Legislature as a Constituent Services Representative. I want to talk about some of my experiences talking to people who need or want help from the government. People expect cash assistance the same way they want health insurance to be low-cost or free in times of crisis then get frustrated when that isn’t the case.
First off, Unemployment Insurance is widely misunderstood, broken, and designed to be frustrating. To qualify for unemployment, you need to lose your job through no fault of your own. That means you’re not supposed to be able to quit or get fired, then sit on the couch and collect unemployment benefits. For example, if COVID regulations force a restaurant to close down temporarily and employees can’t go to work, then they would qualify for cash assistance to get them through in the meantime. If a factory regularly lays off its workers with them being subject to recall, they have been laid off and can’t work due to no fault of their own.
First, the people who apply for unemployment DO NOT understand these rules. Even if they do qualify, the system often lets them down anyway. Second, many people still view the unemployment system as “free money from the government when you don’t have a job.”
The messages that welfare programs have changed to not support lazy people were not sent out or received by the mass populace. The news that Republicans regularly give is that welfare programs need to be cut because there is too much abuse in the system. This tells people that there is still abuse in the design, and it can be abused. Not only can it be abused, but they also view it like Social Security. They believe that they have paid into this program, and “there are so many people out there that have never worked a day in their life getting paid.”
The system is designed not to do this. The programs require fact-finding sessions, identity verifications, and work search requirements. The unemployment system was designed to handle around 5% unemployment on purpose, so they don’t have enough customer service reps to address everyone’s concerns in a timely matter.
The computer system that runs unemployment is out of date, it regularly duplicates issues on claims, and even the people who work there can’t remove problems sometimes. The customer service line does not let you wait on hold. You have to dial in continually. Since they receive 25,000 calls a day, the CSR’s tend to be pretty unhappy people since they deal with constituents who don’t understand why they’re not getting free cash while facing eviction. Here are some of the stories that I have heard from people:
- One man spent two months trying to get his identity verified. When it was finally confirmed, he was given back pay. The following week he was asked to verify his identity again.
- A woman applied for benefits, and while she has a mild disability, she is still perfectly capable of working in an office setting and wants a job. There were two “ability to work” issues preventing payments from going out. The customer service agent couldn’t remove them due to the computer system.
- Another fellow applied in January, but someone was committing fraud under his social security number. On several different occasions, he asked them to remove the fraud issue to receive benefits. After four months, he was denied benefits for not certifying, but he couldn’t certify due to the fraud issue they never removed.
I could keep going.
Reagan’s conservative views on the welfare system created these problems. The government regulates itself too much to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse to the point where it doesn’t work well and isn’t nimble. Reagan argued that government often struggles to provide high-quality services compared to the private sector. Businesses are more agile and nimble and can adapt quickly, so they should do most of society’s work.
According to conservatives, government inherently can’t operate that way. However, the public policy changes that punish people for losing their jobs or being poor are designed to make people hate government, furthering votes for Republicans. Government can work; it’s designed not to for poor people. Most people have a reasonably good opinion of Medicare and Social Security because old people vote. They’re not perfect, but seniors don’t want them to change.
Here’s the worst part about trying to punish the poor for being poor and making them jump through hoops for government assistance. It’s psychologically counterproductive.
Much like a bad relationship, the harder you work for something, the more you want it, and the harder it is to leave it. People stay in bad relationships because they put so much emotion and energy into them. If you make people work harder for welfare benefits, they will work for them rather than give up. They will then have that sense of pride in their work once they finally get paid.
I want to propose an alternative.
Most welfare programs’ goal is to alleviate a problem rather than focus on the individual’s needs. We have government programs that give people cash for heating their homes, going to college, paying their rent, buying food, and so on. Having warm homes, going to college, preventing homelessness, and keeping people satiated with food are all worthwhile goals, but why not give people cash rather than having them jump through hoop after hoop. Most low-income people are grateful for SNAP and Medicaid, but they would still prefer cash as it is more fungible.
So let’s take all of the current funding we give to the poor and consolidate them into four programs with clear eligibility guidelines.
There are four groups of people in society that the government should look out for. They are all vulnerable to societal woes through no fault of their own: seniors, the disabled, children, and low-income, non-disabled working-age adults. Each of these groups benefits from welfare programs, but reducing the programs’ administrative burdens would simplify their lives, make them happier people, and we can still promote work without harming the most vulnerable. I believe this would create a more fair and just society, and deregulating the vulnerable populations would increase employment when employers are begging for workers.
Give seniors and the disabled a basic income —
We already have this system in place with Social Security. People with autism, downs syndrome, or those whose bodies do not function well receive cash to survive. Seniors are given money in their retirement years to prevent them from going broke. Expanded Social Security benefits will provide neither the disabled nor seniors the high life, but they won’t go hungry either. Despite the good that Social Security does, we need to make two significant policy changes. We should give seniors and the disabled a guaranteed minimum income that lifts them above the poverty line and change the system to not prevent them from working.
There should be a minimum benefit that prevents someone on Social Security from living in poverty. Most seniors do live above the poverty line, but some fall through the cracks. Imagine a couple where one worked their entire life, and the other was a stay-at-home parent. If the couple divorced, the stay-at-home parent would have almost no work history to claim Social Security benefits and be given less than the poverty threshold, if anything, requiring that person to apply for other government assistance programs.
Second, both groups should be allowed to work and simultaneously collect Social Security benefits. If a senior or a person with autism or downs applies for a job, they’re going to have a more challenging time getting one than, say, myself. You could imagine a scenario where a senior or a high functioning person with a disability finding a job. Maybe something simpler like a grocery store clerk or a hostess at a restaurant, but the jobs are out there.
Some seniors do and can work, but their benefits are restricted if they make that choice. The disabled aren’t allowed to earn more than $2,000 a year or risk losing their Social Security benefits. Social Security Disability is already one of the most challenging programs to get into due to the wait times, and most people need a lawyer to complete the application. Many people also aren’t successful in applying because the government deems them “able to work.” Seniors shouldn’t have to work, and the disabled were given a rough lot in life; provide them with enough money to live on and stop regulating their lives after that.
Children can’t work. They should have happy childhoods with full bellies, play, and go to school. If their parents are poor, it’s not their fault. That’s why drug testing and work requirements are sometimes counterproductive. If a parent fails these onerous government regulations, the child suffers.
As previously mentioned, AFDC was old-school-style welfare. The more kids you had, the more money you received from the government, and you could stay on these programs indefinitely. Its original intent was to give families enough money so that one of the parents could stay home and raise the child. Due to racism, it was deemed “creating dependence on government” and subsequently gutted by President Clinton and a Republican Congress. President Biden functionally brought it back with his child allowance created in the American Rescue Plan. The child allowance program should be maintained into the future. It will cut child poverty in half and make considerable gains in education, reduce future strains on the criminal justice system, and give kids better lives than they would have had.
Non-disabled working adults (NDWAs) should work.
The quintessential American value that all work has dignity and our jobs should be the centerpiece of our lives isn’t going away. The conservative belief that poor people are lazy is misguided and ultimately harms children, seniors, and the disabled. Giving unconditional cash to the previously mentioned groups makes more sense than the current system of eight different welfare programs subsidizing problems rather than people.
It’s hard to design a welfare program for NDWAs while maintaining a work requirement, but the Earned Income Tax Credit or a negative income tax system is an excellent place to start. The EITC works because if you don’t earn much money and have kids, the government gives you a lump sum when you file your taxes. I think this benefit should double from a max of roughly $3000 to $6000 paid out either in a lump sum or in monthly $500 increments. The EITC phases out, dollar for dollar, the more one earns. If you earn nothing in a year, though, the government should give you $6,000.
$6,000 is well below the poverty line. One would not live well with this amount of money. Someone who chooses the $6,000 rather than working would not live well, but the beneficiary wouldn’t starve, and the $6,000 is more fungible. Whether a low-income person’s problem is paying off debts, buying a vehicle, or getting shelter, they would address this. We could also eliminate unemployment benefits, SNAP, TANF, LIHEAP, and the rest of the alphabet soup of government programs.
This is a direct return to old-school welfare, but it would eliminate extreme poverty, and work requirements would be maintained when the economy is doing well. The benefit here is that it would either be an incredibly dull life or give workers a little more power when looking for work. Individuals wouldn’t be desperate and take crappy jobs, so employers would have to compete for workers and make working a more attractive option. We’re already spending the money on this, so why not let poor people make their own decisions? The accountability measures are also still there because they won’t get any if they want more help.