According to a new Associated Press/NORC poll, 72 percent of Americans rate “reducing poverty” as “extremely” or “very important.” This includes 62 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Independents, and 85 percent of Democrats. Further, 62 percent of Americans rate “reforming welfare” as “extremely” or “very important.” Americans are right: It is time for a change.
Although the left continues to advocate for increased welfare spending, more money is not the answer. Combined federal and state means-tested welfare spending continues to grow and now tops $1 trillion per year. This works out to about $20,000 for every person under the poverty line.
The War on Poverty has expensively failed to increase self-sufficiency.
As we have argued previously, and as numerous Heritage Foundation reports demonstrate, the War on Poverty has expensively failed to increase self-sufficiency. Heritage senior research fellow Robert Rector writes that “taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on [President Lyndon B.] Johnson’s war [on poverty]. Adjusted for inflation, that’s three times the cost of all military wars since the American Revolution.” Yet despite this spending, the poverty rate has hovered between 10 and 15 percent for the last 40 years.
Ever-increasing spending has not solved the problem. As President Ronald Reagan said: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” It’s time to adopt a different strategy to fight poverty.
In a new paper Rector and Sheffield lay out the conservative way forward:
- Get the Goals Right – Welfare should be about putting low-income individuals on the path to self-sufficiency, helping people achieve the ability to support themselves and their families. It should not be about throwing an ever-increasing amount of money at the symptoms of poverty.
- Get the Facts Right – Since welfare spending is split up among 80 means-tested welfare programs spread across multiple government agencies the welfare system’s $1 trillion price tag is easily hidden. Congress should list this total cost in their budgets. Further, when the government measures poverty, it does not count welfare benefits. So, no matter how much the government spends on antipoverty programs it still appears that roughly 50 million Americans live in poverty. Official poverty estimates should count these benefits when measuring poverty.
- Require Work – The vast majority of Americans believe that able-bodied adults who receive government welfare benefits should have to work or prepare for work. Nevertheless most welfare programs do not require work for able-bodied adults. Work was at the heart of the successful 1996 welfare reform and it should be at the heart of any 21st century reform as well.
- Promote Marriage – Over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage today. Tragically, these children are over five times as likely to be poor compared to children in married-parent homes. Yet we have largely replaced fathers with a welfare check, a check that mothers may lose if they marry. We should take steps to reduce marriage penalties in the welfare system and should also work to rebuild a culture of marriage in low-income communities.
- Reject the Pseudo-Federalism of Welfare Block Grants – Over 75 percent of government means-tested welfare spending is federal. Sending federal dollars to the states in the form block-grants – simply handing taxpayer dollars down from one level of government to another – is a perfect recipe for unaccountability and is not true federalism. Real federalism would mean states using their own dollars to pay for welfare. One way to promote federalism would be to require states to take financial responsibility for public housing programs.
- Prevent Fraud – According to the IRS, over 20 percent of payments under the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) are fraudulent. Income verification and tighter eligibility would greatly reduce this problem. Further, many welfare recipients fail to report jobs in order to maintain welfare benefits. A work requirement eliminates this fraud because recipients cannot be at a reported job and an unreported job at the same time.
- Pay for Performance – The welfare system includes many educational initiatives, training programs and social services. A portion of the funding for entities performing these services could be tied to effectiveness.
- Create Opportunity – Some recipients, like former inmates, cannot get a job. Providing incentives for businesses to invest in these individuals helps open doors to job experience that can give them a better shot at the American dream.
The American people sense that it is time for a change. As Congress considers reforming our safety net, we should keep in mind these common sense principles. With these effective strategies we can develop policy that actually meets the needs of low-income Americans.