In the kick-off to his most recent speaking tour, President Obama said the United States must “rebuild ladders of opportunity for all those Americans who haven’t quite made it yet.” But his economic policies have actually made it harder for many Americans to escape poverty and a welfare system that does little to promote self-sufficiency.
“Here in America…we expect people to be self-reliant,” he said. “But that idea has always been combined with a commitment to equality of opportunity, to upward mobility.… If you’re willing to work hard and discipline yourself and defer gratification, you can make it, too.”
However, very few of the government’s approximately 80 means-tested welfare programs promote self-sufficiency through work. And Obama has made it worse by seeing to it that even fewer welfare programs promote work.
While the cost of welfare has been growing for decades, Obama has accelerated welfare spending. Today, over a third of Americans now receive some type of means-tested welfare aid, with an average of $9,000 per person totaling nearly $1 trillion in taxpayer dollars annually. Taxpayers have financed almost $20 trillion in welfare spending since the 1960s — more than the cost of all of America’s military wars combined—but the poverty rate has hardly budged. America’s welfare system has failed the poor.
Obama went on to say that lawmakers should “redesign or get rid of programs that don’t work.” America’s welfare system is a prime candidate for reform. Here’s how the President can do it:
- Reform the welfare system to promote work. Work is the best way to attain self-reliance. If Obama is serious about hoping “more Americans will know the pride of that first paycheck,” he should restore the work requirements he gutted from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program last summer. Lawmakers should also expand work requirements for able-bodied adults in programs such as food stamps.
- Rebuild a healthy marriage culture. Obama said nothing in his speech about the essential role of marriage to building a strong society, but marriage is one of the greatest protectors against child poverty and increases the likelihood that children will thrive down the road. Tragically, however, over 40 percent of children today are born outside marriage. The high rate of unwed childbearing is creating a two-caste society divided along the lines of marriage and education. Congress should encourage healthy marriage by reducing marriage penalties found in many welfare programs and should also support marriage education efforts.
- Rein in the massive costs of welfare. If Obama wants to “embrace changes to cherished priorities so that they work better in this new age,” as he said, he should lead an effort to control the explosive growth in welfare spending. As soon as employment recovers, aggregate welfare funding should be capped at pre-recession levels and indexed to inflation. This would encourage Congress to determine which programs are actually working to alleviate poverty.
Policies should increase opportunities for upward mobility and self-sufficiency. If the President is serious about these aims, he should take leadership to reform welfare by promoting self-sufficiency through work. Reforming the broken welfare system and making efforts to build a healthy marriage culture are crucial to helping “rebuild ladders of opportunity” to open the way for more Americans to achieve a prosperous future.