Bill Gates shared some insightful comments on welfare reform in an interview last month with Rolling Stone.
“Why aren’t the technocrats taking the poverty programs, looking at them as a whole, and then redesigning them?” he asked. Policymakers should heed Gates’s insights and look at the welfare system in its entirety. In February, Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) introduced legislation that frames the welfare system this way.
Most Americans don’t realize the federal government operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion each year. When Congress debates welfare reform, it usually examines one program at a time. Congress should instead look at all of the programs as a whole and cap aggregate spending, adjusting for inflation going forward. This would require lawmakers to prioritize spending and allocate resources in a more prudent manner.
Not only is welfare spending unsustainably high today, but it’s being poured into programs that need significant reform. As Gates put it, the government’s “ability to distinguish between somebody who has family that could take care of them versus someone who’s really out on their own is not very good.” Work-based welfare reform is designed to address that issue. A work requirement ensures that resources are going to those most in need of assistance while encouraging those who can find work or other assistance to do so. Work requirements for able-bodied adults also help avoid long-term dependence by helping those who are capable of work move out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
Senator Lee’s welfare reform would more effectively meet the needs of those in poverty while also moving the welfare systems toward fiscal responsibility. In an effort to “make poverty more temporary,” the legislation implements work requirements for the food stamps program, calls for greater accountability in welfare spending, and focuses on getting welfare costs under control.
Bill Gates is right. The way the welfare state attempts to help the poor today is problematic. But the good news is that some policymakers are taking promising steps to reform the welfare system so it better serves America’s most vulnerable.