Last week state house lawmakers gathered to gain a better understanding of the challenges people face when moving from the welfare system to work. Chief among those challenges is a benefit system that encourages the able-bodied to stay dependent on benefits instead of increasing their income through work.
Small business owners who interact with food stamp and WIC beneficiaries every day know the system isn't helping people the way it's supposed to. Tom Baseski, who co-owns four supermarkets in Luzerne County, put it this way “talk to the people in the trenches” who have to deal with the issue on a daily basis.
The hearing is a prelude to a package of welfare reform legislation designed to reward work and limit abuse. Rep. Aaron Kaufer, a primary organizer of the reform effort, noted:
The goal is to move the people from welfare to work. This is about people’s tax dollars. If you could get people back to work, these people are no longer using tax dollars, they are producing tax dollars.
Producing tax dollars is another way of saying individuals are engaged in fulfilling, family-supporting jobs. In other words, they are living higher quality lives. That should be the goal of every assistance program, but too often our welfare programs including TANF, food stamps and Medicaid end up trapping people in poverty.
This point was furthered by another local business owner, Chris Hackett. He shared the story of an employee that took an entry-level job making $10 an hour, but used that experience to gain a job making close to $20 an hour with full benefits. Work empowers.
Some programs, like TANF and food stamps have work requirements, but a host of exemptions and exceptions make them meaningless for the vast majority of recipients. In addition, too many families can't afford reduction in their take-home pay once their wages surpass the cut-off for programs like Medicaid.
Not only are our programs failing to help people increase their incomes, too many resources are going to those who don't need it. Last fall, the Auditor General found the Department of Human Services paid benefits to over 2,000 deceased recipients.
Fraud is wrong, but so is a system that relegates people to survival when they have the potential to thrive. Welfare recipients are not dumb or lazy or corrupt, they are simply responding to the mess of rules and regulations that often punish people for working.