Poor Americans may be “better off” today than before the government’s War on Poverty began in the 1960s, as a New York Time article published last week said. But they remain “far behind” and will continue to do so unless work requirements are strengthened in the nation’s welfare programs.
Indeed, the living standards of the poor have improved over the last 50 years. Prices on household amenities have gone down over time, and taxpayers have poured roughly $20 trillion into means-tested programs over the past five decades – and will spend $14 trillion more in the next decade alone.
But although today’s poor may have more cell phones and dishwashers than previous generations, self-sufficiency has hardly budged since the 1960s. That’s because most welfare programs are designed simply to provide material goods rather than to empower individuals by promoting self-sufficiency.
The federal government operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Of these programs only a couple have any work requirement, and those work requirements have been diminished under the Obama administration. Work requirements not only encourage individuals to move towards employment, but also serve as a gatekeeper to ensure assistance goes to those most in need.
Of course, jobs are harder to come by during tough economic times. But even in good economic times, work rates are low among low-income households. Encouraging work in the welfare system – requiring able-bodied adults to work, prepare for work or at least look for work in exchange for receiving assistance – should be at the heart of welfare reform.
A stronger economy that encourages job growth and opens opportunities for more Americans would help. So would finding ways to make higher education more affordable, such as reforming accreditation and expanding online learning, as well as expanding school choice for K-12 students to bring quality education to even the lowest-income communities.
Big-government policies that restrain job an economic growth, such as Obamacare, do not help.
Neither does the sharp increase in unwed childbearing – a leading cause of child poverty. Today, 40 percent of American children are born to unwed parents, which significantly increases the likelihood they will grow up in poverty.
Living standards aside, the War on Poverty has failed, and many Americans are struggling to prosper in the nation that should be the land of opportunity. Pouring trillions more into a failed government system will not make Americans more self-sufficient or prosperous. Reforming welfare to encourage work for able-bodied adults, strengthening the institution of marriage and providing greater educational and job opportunities will do both.