Republicans and Government Assistance: Helping or Humiliating?


We don’t believe compassion should be measured by the size of the safety net, but by the number of rungs on the ladder of opportunity.” –Former Congressman Jack Kemp.

“It’s a safety net, not a hammock.” –Congressman Paul Ryan.

One of the many philosophical differences between Republican and Democrat legislators regards the size and scope of this safety net, otherwise known as means-tested government assistance. Republicans generally believe that a net is necessary, but they also adhere to the old JFK quote: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  To follow this analogy to a conclusion, most Republicans believe compassion consists of wanting to get the most people out of the water they can.  Even if they have to force some of them out.

Posted by Dan Mitchell

Posted by Dan Mitchell

The problem Democrats have with various Republican proposals lies in those three words: force them out.  They disagree so vehemently with various Republican proposals to do so that anytime one of them begins to gather any sort of momentum, Democrat politicians and columnists leap to the rescue with “Throwing babies in the streets” and “starving children” type characterizations.

The general theme of discontent that Democrats have for the Republicans proposals to get as many citizens as possible off government assistance, is that they are “humiliating,” “dehumanizing,” and “punitive” to those currently receiving these taxpayer-funded benefits.  A literal reading of their complaints would have it that these Democrats are more worried about the self-esteem of benefit recipients than they are the quality of life, they might otherwise know if they were free of this dependence.

If this is an exaggerated reading of the Democrat position, and the problem Democrats have is with the specific proposals Republicans offer, the requirement is on them to develop a counter proposal.  Those Democrats that do offer a counter proposal, usually have a non-results-oriented solution (i.e. a talking point that sounds terrific in campaign speeches) such as “job training centers”.

Job Training Centers

What are these modern day –job training centers?”  John Stossel asked in an October 03, 2012 column after sending one of his college interns to find answers.

The following is a list of the conclusions this college intern reached after numerous interactions with those employed in job training centers to ostensibly assist prospective employees in finding a job:

–It’s easier to get welfare than to work.

–The government would rather sign me up for welfare than help me find work.

–America has taxpayer-funded bureaucracies that encourage people to be dependent. They incentivize people to take “free stuff,” not to take initiative.

–It was easier to find job openings on my own. The private market for jobs works better than government “job centers.”

Stossel’s conclusion from this experiment was, “Job training does help – when employers do it.”  When government does it, as they now do in forty-seven different federal jobs programs, they fail.  When government attempts to reach into the private sector, with its progressively visible hand, it does everything badly.

The (failed) Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) operated more like a commercial for government handouts. It launched door-to-door food stamp recruiting campaigns, and gave people free rides to welfare offices.”

This 1973 CETA jobs training program was signed into law by Richard Nixon, and it failed so miserably that it was eventually replaced by Ronald Reagan’s Job Training Partnership Act of 1982.  That JTPA failed so miserably that Bill Clinton replaced it with the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, and that apparently failed to such a degree that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was signed into law by Barack Obama on July 22, 2014.  The failures of these programs are not exclusive to party, in other words, so much as they are a comment on how government fixes are less results-oriented and more politically based.

One would think that an enterprising, young politician would see the evidence of this generational, non-partisan failure and put together a proposal that called for a more privatized jobs training program that followed the temp agency model.  These agencies are not perfect, of course, but if they’re not results-oriented, they’re out of business.  Such a proposal would probably get land-locked in some committee, however, as the politicians tried to find some way that Washington could get credit for it, as opposed to the private company.  Thus, the only solution Washington can come up with is one proposed by Washington to create another job training center act to replace the failed one.

One nonpartisan solution that Washington eventually came up with to combat this generational failure was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This law placed work requirements on those that would receive welfare benefits, and it was Bill Clinton’s attempt to live up to his campaign pledge to  “End Welfare as we know it”.  The results of this law are debatable, but many claim that the welfare and poverty rates dropped, in part, due to this bill.  Until, that is, the work requirements of this bill were eventually gutted on July 12, 2012 by President Barack Obama’s administration, and the conflict between the two philosophies on this matter, were reignited.

Reigniting the Partisan Conflict

After Obama’s administration began allowing states waivers to the work requirements, some states have decided to increase their own requirements by eliminating certain items from the list that food stamp recipients can purchase with food stamps.  A proposal The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has characterized as “an innovative, new way to humiliate the poor”, in his April 7, 2015 column:

(This proposal is) less about public policy than about demeaning public-benefit recipients.”  Mr. Milbank wrote to demonize one of them.  He then broadened his characterization of these surf-and-turf laws by writing, “The flurry of new legislative proposals at the state and local level to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor as the country deals with the high-poverty hangover of the Great Recession.” (My emphasis.)

Mr. Milbank proceeds to refer to “the flurry” of state and local limits as “imposing punitive new conditions on the poor” in their attempts to limit daily cash withdrawals, and any use of their benefits in “business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”  He then concludes this rant with a characterization of a Kansas bill to ban all out-of-state spending of welfare dollars as “gratuitous.”

He then broadens his attack to the federal Republicans:

In their budget plans in Congress, Republicans propose “devolving” food stamps and other programs to state control by awarding block grants with few strings attached. The states, the thinking goes, are closer to the people and have better ideas about how to reduce caseloads. But recent experience suggests that one strategy for reducing caseloads is to harass recipients.”

Republicans, Mr. Milbank basically writes, propose programs that will put more people on the street, and when that happens Republicans propose laws that will keep them off the streets.

And what if all these new (laws) for the poor put them out on the street? The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty last year reported a 60 percent increase since 2011 in city-wide bans on public camping and a 43 percent increase in prohibitions on sitting or lying down in public places.

“Even then, poor people can still stay on the right side of this new round of punitive laws, as long as they don’t sleep, keep moving at all times — and lay off the steak and fish.”

If Mr. Milbank were forced to come up with a counter proposal to get more people off government assistance –if he were in a debate with a non-partisan moderator, as opposed to the comfy confines of his column– he likely wouldn’t have one.  If he were entirely transparent, Mr. Millbank would confess that his goal is not to find ways to get people off assistance, but to get more people the help they need.  If he were even more honest, he would admit that more people on government assistance equals a greater Democrat constituency, based on the idea that it means Democrats care more.  We can guess that Mr. Millbank would not be so forthcoming, however, and his answer would center around the fact that he just doesn’t agree with the specific Republican proposals he mentioned in his column.  If he were still forced to provide an answer, we can probably guess that he would latch onto the “jobs training” center solution that leads everyone to think he cares but is not geared toward serious results.

In a December 18, 2013 column for the New York Times, Kim Severson provides an extensive list of waste, fraud, and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (food stamps) program that amounts to 4.07% of the program, or $3 billion a year.  Her list is a compilation of those that have abused and defrauded the program, coupled with compassionate justifications for why they decided to abuse.

With a Mr. Elbert Eugene Shinholster, Ms. Severson characterizes the activity Mr. Shinholster engaged in while swiping SNAP cards for cash, and taking 30% off the top for himself, as a criminal enterprise, and she does include the fact that the federal government declared him a “conspicuous example of illegal food stamp trafficking”, and she does mention the fact that $4.6 million in food stamp fraud occurred in Mr. Shinholster’s tiny store off a country road in Georgia, but she quotes Mr. Shinholster as saying:

I know what I was doing was against the law, but I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

She then quotes Mr. Shinholster’s children as saying that their N.A.A.C.P. leader, veteran, and church going father was someone that was “simply a soft touch who tried to help people keep their lights on and their children fed.”

She does neglect to mention that Mr. Shinholster was eventually sentenced to 40 months in prison, that he was ordered to pay a whopping $4,680,557.20 in restitution, and that sixteen other defendants were prosecuted for participating in Mr. Shinholster’s food stamp fraud and money laundering scheme.

Her column states that qualifying for the SNAP program is based on a “complex mix of age, income, and other factors.”  Yet, elsewhere in the column she quotes a Reginald Davis stating: “Most of the people I know use food stamps, but 90% of them need them.

The biggest issue,” Mr. Reginald Davis continues, “is why these people (on food stamps) are targeted at all.  They make a bigger deal of people trying to sell $200.00 worth of food stamps than they do over a banker that steals $10 million.  You come out here and look around and then tell me you’re going to sweat someone for that.  People here got nothing.”

The fact that Ms. Severson feels the need to include Mr. Reginald Davis’ equivocation suggests that either she believes it has some merit by scale, or she’s trying to build a narrative that suggests that the utter poverty in this county naturally leads people to a level of criminality that gives Mr. Davis’ equivocation some merit.  An idea that we’ve all believed was self-evident for generations, but some studies state is not as direct as once perceived.

Also, as our grandmothers, and grade school teachers, have taught us for time immemorial, the decision that we make to steal is why people “sweat” us.  It doesn’t matter how much one decides to steal, it’s the decision that should be held accountable.  Everything else is moot.

We can be quite sure that Milbank, Severson, Paul Krugman, and all liberal columnists and politicians, have a very specific definition of the poor in mind when they speak out against setting limits on the amount of products and services that the poor can purchase with taxpayer benefits.  We can be sure that it is their intention to provide a humiliation-free life to those that are temporarily down on their luck, “as the country deals with the high-poverty hangover of the Great Recession”.

When we hear these words, we can all relate.  We’ve all been down on our luck, and we cannot imagine the desperate plight of good, honest men and women that have nowhere else to turn.  We’ve also all met an example of the truly indigent in out lives, and we’ve all witnessed a variety of reasons for why these people are never going to be competent enough to be productive people in society.  Our hearts go out to these people, and many of us will say that’s why these programs were created in the first place.  There are others, however, those rotten apples that spoil the entire cart, and take advantage of the cart driver’s generosity to the point that each apple must be inspected and scrutinized.

Mr. Millbank would probably lead you to believe that rotten apple contingent is infinitesimal compared to the figures Republicans would suggest, and he would probably cite those reports that state that the actual fraud and abuse that occurs in the various government programs is, contrary to Republican arguments, actually very low.  To this finding, Republicans and other concerned citizens, should ask what constitutes fraud and abuse?  Was this finding concerned with outright criminality and abuse, or did it account for a level of abuse that could be characterized as such when a healthy, twenty-something male, with no children, receives welfare and food stamps?

The numbers for how many people actually receive government assistance, and what should be included in this number, are debated here and here, but no matter how this number is calculated the dismal conclusion for those concerned is that the 2011 report from the Department of Health and Human Services contains a note that we now have the highest percentage of Americans receiving welfare since the report began in 1993.

Some Democrats may regard this high point, as opposed to a low point, in that it suggests that those in need are finally getting the help they need.  The question that Republicans would ask of these same findings is how many of them are truly in need, how many have experienced temporary devastation for which this safety net was constructed, and how many of these people are wasting their lives as a result of their decision to live solely, and almost solely, on government assistance?  This, I believe, is the crucial asterisk in the argument for forcing people out of the water, if we are ever going to introduce them to, as former Congressman Kemp said, “ … the number of rungs on the ladder of opportunity” before they’ve wasted their lives.

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