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Guest Editorial

Welfare that works

For decades, liberals have promoted welfare as a "hand up, not a hand out." Now, with the cost of American welfare programs pushing toward $1 trillion per year, it's time to make that slogan a reality.

First, the depressing background.

In 1964, President Johnson declared "war" on poverty, stating he would make Americans self-sufficient by eliminating the causes of poverty. During the 46 years since, the United States has fought actual wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq again. All those wars have ended, or will end, long before the War on Poverty will. And they'll have cost far less.

The U.S. has spent almost $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. Yet instead of solving the problem of poverty by curing its causes, all that spending has made things worse. After all these years and several generations of dependency, many families are less capable of supporting themselves today than they were when the War on Poverty began.

We need to break this destructive cycle. In a new paper from The Heritage Foundation, poverty experts Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley explain how to do that.

First, lawmakers need to get spending under control. President Barack Obama's planned budgets would be a big step in the wrong direction. In the next decade, he intends to spend some $10.3 trillion on programs for the poor. That would be a huge, and permanent, increase in spending.

Instead, lawmakers should agree to cap welfare spending at pre-recession levels. That would still add up to $16,800 per poor person in spending on benefits, and that should be more than enough to help the needy.

Next, lawmakers should add work requirements to major benefit programs, including food stamps and public housing programs, that require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition for getting aid.

When congress passed welfare reform in 1996, it required recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to work or to train for a job for a minimum of 30 hours per week. This worked like magic. "Caseloads shrunk by over 60 percent, 2.8 million families moved off the rolls and into jobs, and 1.6 million fewer children were left in poverty," Rector and Bradley explain.

Applying the same requirements to more welfare programs would likely generate a similar jump in employment and reduction in dependency.

Finally, lawmakers ought to change the incentives that families have to remain on welfare indefinitely. One way to do that would be to make some welfare benefits a loan that recipients would eventually pay back.

This would accomplish two goals. It would make welfare recipients understand that their actions, such as having children out of wedlock, have consequences. Also, it would reduce the total cost of welfare by creating a stream of money flowing back from former recipients that could be used to fund future benefits.

"If such a policy was implemented throughout the welfare system, over the long term it could reduce the high levels of early non-marital childbearing that are a predominant cause of poverty and dependence in American society," Rector and Bradley write.

This is the very opposite of how welfare programs function today.

Consider food stamps. It's commonly seen as a short-term assistance program for those down on their luck. Yet half of food stamp aid goes to individuals who have received aid for 8.5 years or more. They're caught in a cycle of dependency, and if they haven't broken free after all that time, when are they ever going to achieve independence?

It's time for a change. Since taking office, President Obama has almost doubled spending on food stamps and added 8 million more people to the rolls. Our country's budget is already in the red, and simply can't afford to carry all those recipients for the better part of a decade.

With the correct reforms, welfare can once again become a hand up, and we can finally make a popular liberal soundbite a reality.

- Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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