Government losing its 50-year “War on Poverty”

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

The federal government appears to be losing its fifty-year “War on Poverty”.

According to the Heritage Foundation, our nation has spent nearly $21 trillion in inflation corrected dollars to address poverty within our borders during the past five decades. President Lyndon Johnson famously declared his intentions to do whatever was necessary to correct the poverty suffered by fifteen percent of the U.S. population in his 1964 state of the union message. His stated plan was to end poverty in the U.S by giving folks a hand-up to help them become self-sufficient. He believed that, given the opportunity, most adults would use that assistance to learn to become accountable and provide for their families. He promised that the return on his investment in poverty reduction would stimulate the entire national economy for future decades.

According to the 2012 United States Census, fifteen percent of our population continues to live in poverty today.

However, current standards of poverty, as defined by the U.S. Census, are significantly different than in 1964. U.S. Census and other available federal data describe the conditions of the average American living on an income below the federal poverty level. A very large majority of these folks are not undernourished. Most do not suffer from hunger for a single day of the year. They have automobiles, multiple color TV’s, and live in a house that is larger than the average European family’s dwelling. Their homes have air conditioning, cable TV and most have computers. Virtually all have cellular telephones and as many as a third have flat-screen TV’s. To be certain, the standard of living in poverty is much better today than those suffering in poverty in 1964.

The taxpayer dollars spent on fighting U.S. poverty over the past half-century significantly exceeds our current $17 trillion sovereign national debt. Yet the origins of poverty have not been diminished. In spite of President Johnson’s good intentions, those forces have become even more prevalent and pervasive.

There has been a sharp reduction in the percentage of participation in the labor-force by men. That reduction has accelerated during the past few years to near unprecedented levels. In fact, much of the alleged reduction in unemployment during the past four years is attributable to fewer people seeking employment rather than more people being employed.

The number of people receiving disability benefits from Social Security, Workman’s Compensation and pension funds has skyrocketed during the past five years. Both the total increase and the rate of increase of disability claims are virtually statistically impossible to explain. These newly disabled workers have also left the workforce.

Unemployment and underemployment among men twenty five years of age and under  exceeds 25 percent. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that in families living below the federal poverty line the average parent works only about 16 hours per week. To many, living on monthly welfare benefits has become an acceptable life style. That welfare dependency has too often become familial and generational, ensuring the accelerated decline into even less self-sufficiency.

Our public education system is failing to prepare young people for the workforce. Employers are virtually unanimous in their concern that many high schools and colleges are graduating students with few useful communication or workforce skills. Moreover, they point out that most graduates have been encouraged in school to be non-competitive, to have little work ethic, and to have not been taught critical thinking skills to solve problems. For these and other reasons, employers are reluctant to hire many young Americans.

Six percent of American children were born out of wedlock in 1963. More than 40 percent of our children were born to single mothers in 2012. Each additional child serves to increase the monthly welfare stipend. This more than six-fold increase in children born to single mothers is strong evidence of the disintegration of the traditional family structure. For too many, the welfare check has replaced the family wage earner.

The federal government currently operates more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. According to the Heritage Foundation, more than 100 million Americans received aid from one or more free cash, food, housing, medical care or other social services programs in 2012. These programs provide benefits to about one fourth of our population. Their total cost for 2012 exceeded $900 billion. This means that the average welfare recipient received about $9,000 in federal benefits in 2012.

Both state and federal welfare programs actually advertise and encourage people to sign-up to receive a variety of free benefits. Those that have learned to game and abuse the welfare systems are capable of accessing much larger monthly sums. We believe that some Oregon families are capable of taking home as much as $10,000 per month in federal and state welfare benefits.

That $900 billion annual cost does not include Social Security benefits and Medicare costs that have largely been paid by payroll taxes levied on the recipients. It does not include all of the federal dollars spent to provide Emergency Unemployment Compensation to more than 14 million people who have exhausted the unemployment insurance benefits for which they paid insurance premiums. Neither does it include the burgeoning costs of disability benefits.

Our society needs and must have adequate social safety-nets for our most vulnerable citizens. Any society must be graded by its treatment of its older, infirmed, disabled, and severely disadvantaged citizens. However, able bodied Americans should not be encouraged or allowed to live on the dole.

In my opinion, in order to access welfare benefits all non-elderly adults who are capable of working should be expected either to perform some job or to be preparing for a job. Moreover, they should be monitored to ensure that they are drug-free in order to remain employable while receiving benefits. Those adults that refuse to work, or refuse to comply with drug monitoring, should immediately be denied their welfare checks.

Further, the benefit structures must be changed to stop penalizing those who choose to work but cannot earn enough to live-on at an entry level wage. People should be encouraged to start work by helping them to become self-supporting.  The current processes too often penalize those who try to work by reducing or eliminating their benefits before they are able to make enough to get-by. The result is the perverse incentive to quit work and to go back on the welfare dole.

Finally, the benefit structures need to be changed to stop penalizing those who choose to live in traditional family settings. Marrying a person who is gainfully employed too often results in total termination of social network benefits. That reality may cause a single mother or father to reevaluate the marriage choice. Once again, the perverse incentive is to remain a single parent and to continue to access full welfare benefits rather than work toward self-sufficiency.

By virtually any standard, the U.S. war on poverty has been a catastrophe. In my opinion, the effort will continue to fail spectacularly until we make the choices to deal with the root causes of welfare dependency and to restructure our welfare programs to encourage accountability and self-sufficiency.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls