“The best welfare program is a job.”
That statement is a core Republican tenet — you would even get Susan Collins and Donald Trump to agree on it. And when Democrats want to be uncharitable, they claim that catchy line is a mere smokescreen for the GOP’s opposition to…well, whatever group they want to accuse Republicans of standing against. Those accusations are often followed by “women and children are hardest hit.”
Yet then, a Republican makes headlines, like last week’s viral story about the mayor of Albuquerque. The New Mexican city had a problem with homeless panhandlers. The mayor’s solution? Hire the homeless to clean public areas at $9 per hour and give them lunch. That led not only to a decrease in panhandling, but also 100 permanent jobs, a beautified city, and rebuilt self-esteem for the individuals who formerly spent their days begging.
Or look at the staunchly red state of Utah. They had some challenges with homelessness. The solution was to provide homes. Instead of building new social service edifices — complete with overhead, administration, and 4,000 pages of regulations — they built buildings. A place to live provided the homeless with enough stability to take advantage of the myriad existing programs and pull themselves up. And, as the approach was meant to be a hand up, the newly housed individuals had to pay rent, even if it was merely a nominal amount.
This same philosophy has taken root here in Maine. Gov. Paul LePage decided to abandon “waivers” from federal law and to tighten up our own state laws and enforce work requirements for certain assistance programs. Now, to receive food stamps for more than three months, an adult without kids must either hold a job, volunteer in their community or enroll in a job training program. With TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — there’s less wiggle room in the law nowadays to allow an applicant to sidestep work requirements.
Three different policies with one common trait: they each require some act by the individual in order to receive assistance. They contribute something to receive a benefit — an economic transaction.
This is the essence of “welfare reform” as Republicans talk about it. It gets couched in different language — “workfare,” “hand up, not handout” — but it all goes back to individual responsibility. “Welfare reform” begins when those who need help — help almost always provided with tax dollars — take an affirmative step toward their own betterment.
But the nuance of the statement “the best welfare program is a job” often gets lost at that point. In a perfect world, you should always be financially better off with a job than you would be receiving a government check. Everyone agrees with that, which is why you can see bipartisan agreement in the Maine Legislature on ending the “welfare cliff.” And when you contribute more taxes than you consume in public services, you become a “puller” on the wagon of society.
However, there is more to it than dollars and cents. Like Pope Francis, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle believe having a job — working — offers dignity to the individual. And when people are caught in the “welfare trap,” whether by broken well-intended programs or generational inertia, it saps their spirit.
In several Maine cities, there are challenges like those faced in New Mexico and Utah. It shouldn’t take a Republican to find solutions to them, whether it is making panhandlers work or housing the homeless. But it will take putting silly accusations aside and people focused on a shared goal. So as we get closer to November and your local candidates are knocking on your door, ask them how they intend to help people help themselves.
After all, for our society and for the individuals themselves, the best welfare program really is a job.